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Every year in December the world’s leading lexicographers choose a “word of the year.” Their choice is based on criteria like how many times the word was referenced in the media, or how many times someone searched for its definition.
Sometimes the word of the year is a benign word that we’ve all picked up and started using, like “selfie,” which was the word of the year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries in 2013. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2013 was “science.”
This year Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” and Merriam-Webster chose “surreal.” Fitting choices for the year we will leave behind this week.
Surreal, which means “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” was chosen because of a dramatic spike in the number of searches for the word throughout the course of the year. A lot of things felt intensely irrational and yet real this year, from an unprecedented in-oh-so-many-ways presidential campaign, to the unexpected deaths of beloved icons, to shocking attacks on civilians at home and abroad.
If we had to name a “question of the year” for 2016 I think I’d go with “Are you kidding me?”
Post-truth is a newer word. At first glance it looks like it means “after-truth,” but it has come to be defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Dictionaries)
In my mind it’s the equivalent of a jury choosing to pronounce a sentence based not on evidence, but on perception—how the defendant looks or dresses, or talks, or how the case makes the juror feel.
Maybe it’s always been this way, but the recent proclivity to adopt what we want to be true as reality instead of finding legitimate evidence and making a decision based on facts has increased exponentially. Perhaps that’s because it’s so easy now to share our opinions with the world without any kind of requirement to cite our sources.
Years ago I wrote an article that refuted local folklore that said the White River freezes from the bottom up. In the article I shared scientific evidence and data that explained the phenomenon that made it appear as if the river was freezing from the bottom (frazil ice). It wasn’t meant to be a sensationalistic piece, just an informative one.
Imagine my surprise when we received angry letters to the editor and people coming into the office demanding a retraction. Not of an opinion article, but of cold (literally), scientific facts.
As someone has said, “you can lead a man to knowledge, but you cannot make him think.”
Those upset readers wanted to believe what they’d always been told instead of what the facts said. In fact, they may still believe the river freezes from the bottom up, and that’s their prerogative. But that’s a fairly harmless example.
When we allow personal beliefs and emotions to override facts and then allow those unsubstantiated “post-truths” to create public policy, that has the potential to create a dangerous problem. Remember the Salem witch trials? How about the Holocaust? How about ISIS, for a current-day example?
What does that all mean for us in 2017? I believe more than ever we need to ask questions, seek information and do real research about the issues that affect our lives.
We need to ask ourselves why we believe what we believe, who told us to believe it and what’s in it for them if we buy their version of the truth? Who paid for that medical study? Who paid the guy to write that article? Who is backing that politician’s campaign and why?
Those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking in this post-truth era.
All that said, New Year’s is my favorite holiday. I love the idea that we can turn the page on the calendar and start fresh. There’s an impetus for change and promise that comes with that shiny new calendar that makes me feel hopeful and encouraged.
I hope each and every one of you have your new calendar ready!
Happy New Year.