ALISON O'CONNOR: ‘Post-truth’ is word of the year and that’s a fact that should worry us

US president-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Wisconsin State Fair Exposition Center.

With everything else that has gone on, it is easy to forget we actually had a general election this year, writes Alison O’Connor.

This has been the year that Oxford dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year. It’s hard to argue with the logic of that decision. But, equally, this was the year when we had so much hard truth to swallow. After what feels like 12 months of wall-to- wall negativity, 2017 can’t arrive a moment too soon.

Sometimes the different arms of the dictionary publishers in the UK and the US opt for different choices but this year there was no doubt on either side what they felt would “reflect the passing year in language”. It was a million miles away from last year’s choice of the “face with tears of joy” emoji. Well, this year that emoji face has had its little cutie mouth well and truly upended. In fact, the inherent cuteness of those darn emojis mean that not one of the myriad available could ever adequately reflect the seeming malevolence of what has gone on in the past 12 months, plus the sort of repercussions those events will have for years to come.

Apart from the obvious — Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president — this was also the year that brought us the deaths of cultural icons David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Muhammad Ali. It brought the truck attack in Nice, the Zika virus, and those horrible scenes from the Calais ‘jungle’ camp, especially those involving unaccompanied children. The suffering that has been endured by the children in Syria becomes even more intractable and simply defies belief.

A child in Syria
A child in Syria

It also seems to have been a particularly humourless year. That made me enjoy all the more the attempt by the hugely popular but much maligned UK singer James Blunt at much-needed humour earlier this week on Twitter. “If you thought 2016 was bad — I’m releasing an album in 2017,” he tweeted.

Oh the nostalgia of looking back at the words chosen by the Oxford dictionaries in previous years, such as ‘unfriend’ or ‘carbon neutral’. What innocent times they were! Those words are beautifully benevolent when we look at what this year has thrown up. Looking back, it feels like we were the passengers on the Titanic blithely sailing on towards the iceberg, not realising what lay ahead. So, in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, we have ‘post-truth’ as our go-to word; defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

As it happens, the use of the term ‘post-truth’ increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. No surprise, either, that another contender for the title was ‘alt-right’, an abbreviation of ‘alternative right’ and defined as “an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content”.

It was a year which was dominated by highly charged and horrible political and social discourse. It was a particularly depressing year to be a journalist. We’ve already taken nearly a decade of a battering, newspapers in particular. For the pro-Brexit crowd and the Trump supporters, the mainstream media was seen as part of the Establishment and in on the “conspiracy”. Yet journalists are now being blamed for not getting the “real” facts out when, as the Oxford Dictionary’s choice shows facts were frequently seen as irrelevant, unless, of course, they are facts that appeared on your Facebook feed. Then they are sacred.

Unsurprisingly, ‘Brexiteer’ was also in the running for the Oxford crown, along with non-political terms including ‘coulrophobia’, the fear of clowns, which also somewhat incredibly became a legitimate thing in 2016, with “creepy” clowns and “killer” clowns popping up everywhere. Thrown in amongst all this fear and horribleness was ‘hygge’, the Danish concept of cosiness. Hygge is a lovely idea, and it’s nice to see a word in there without any negative connotations but, in truth, after the year we’ve had, we’re looking at more than open fires and cosy reindeer rugs to cure us. It’s likely that prescription drugs are more on target. Doctors have surely taken to offering the advice “stay away from current affairs and stay off social media” to anxious patients feeling overwhelmed by international events. For patients with blood pressure problems, The medics should add to that advice: Unfollow Donald Trump on Twitter.

It’s still easy to recall the acute shock of waking to the news in June that Britain had voted to leave the EU. In retrospect, though, the depth of feeling at that event seems like a minor emotional upset in comparison to Donald Trump’s election win, which brought on an almost fully fledged panic attack on a night of frantic channel-swapping on the television, and panicked refreshing of social media pages in an effort to find someone with authority who was going to utter the reassurance that what was happening before our eyes was really not. But if ever there was a case of daylight reinforcing a horrible reality, this was it.

The contrasting emotion was the immense relief felt upon hearing that Angela Merkel was going to run for a fourth term in Germany next year. Clearly one of the object lessons of 2016 was that no election result is a foregone conclusion, but my instinctive reaction was the comfort of believing that Merkel will indeed be elected and there will then be at least one responsible adult on the global stage.

‘Post-truth’ is word of the year and that’s a fact that should worry us

Now, with Brexit on one side of us and Trump on the other, the fragility of our position could not be more cruelly exposed. The UK government, thus far, has inspired zero confidence that it has the remotest clue how best to proceed with its Brexit. What has become abundantly clear, though, is that we are no priority of theirs and, to quote a colourfully spoken Mayo friend of mine, we will get “plenty of the hind tit” when it comes to the negotiations with the EU. Nor will Trump be likely to give us much sympathy when it comes to US companies based here and the issue of corporate tax.

With everything else that has gone on, it is easy to almost forget that we actually had a general election this year and one that delivered a result which was historic in its own way. When compared with the lunacy outside our borders, the seemingly endless delay in forming our own Government seems vaguely endearing and, most importantly, on the right side of sane. Those who we traditionally look to politically have effectively lost their marbles. In contrast, the Irish voter seems well in line for a certificate of sanity when compared with neighbouring citizens in the UK and the US.

For their part our politicians have soldiered on. We may sneer at the fragility of the arrangement and some of the antics we have witnessed in the Dail but simply “holding it together”, and managing to pass a budget, in the year that was, is something that is worth admiring. Given all that is going on around us, 2017 is not necessarily going to be an easy year, but surely it has to be an improvement on what has just gone before.

With everything else that has gone on, it is easy to forget we actually had a general election this year


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