Track, Trace, Testify: Truth in an Age of Gaslighting

Rather than talk about a ‘post-truth’ age, I would talk about an age of gaslighting. Unchecked power is being used to promote an obviously false narrative of the present and of the recent past, to force others to act in accordance with that narrative, and to silence, dismiss or obfuscate attempts to correct or question it. Sometimes, we are presented with a false account of what has been said in the past – I never claimed that, says the minister, when confronted with his broken promises – or a straightforward refusal to acknowledge facts that do not fit the current narrative – I do not recognise those figures, says the minister, when a government report is quoted to him. Most often, however, the tactic is obfuscation; we are subject to a bafflingly quick succession of different implausible stories, without enough time to amass the evidence or the arguments against any of them. Asked to stick to one story, or confronted with the contradictions, the minister simply responds with the latest new story; he acknowledges no possible obligation to be coherent, let alone to make claims that correspond with reality.

All of this happens in a media age in which claim and counter-claim can easily be presented as two equal sides of the same story, even if the former is a manifest untruth with hardly an attempt at justification and the latter is extensively backed up by evidence. Moreover, any attempt to present a truthful account is fraught with anxieties; unlike the liar or the gaslighter, the truth-teller cannot risk one minor inaccuracy or possible misrepresentation, especially in an environment where she is being pressed from all sides to change her story. She will feel the need to hedge her words with conditionals and ‘might be’s, and that will provide enough space for the gaslighter and those who are willing to believe him; you see, you can’t be sure, but we are always completely confident in our story.

In this situation, what does it mean to tell the truth?

In her discussion of the ethics of memory and testimony after the Shoah (Holocaust), Edith Wyschogrod reflects on the difficulties posed for the historian – who cannot be confident that every detail in the history she is telling corresponds to ‘what really happened’, but feels an overwhelming moral obligation to stand up against those who want to deny or forget the history. She argues for a negative testimony that confidently contradicts the lie while recognising that the truth has yet to emerge fully:

‘It might have been X or Y – but I am sure it could not have been Z’. (Wyschogrod, Ethics of Remembering, 166)

As a first step towards telling the truth in an age of gaslighting, I propose to maintain practices and habits of negative testimony – calling out the lies – even when we are not quite sure of the whole truth. This is a useful beginning.

I am not sure how many people have been unable to obtain coronavirus tests, but I am sure it is not true that everyone can get a test.

The Prime Minister might have been telling the truth yesterday or three months ago or on neither occasion, but I am sure he cannot have been telling the truth on both occasions.

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