I listened to a political podcast on Saturday morning where the panelists discussed whether or not we had fully entered a post-truth era. The concept isn’t new. “Post-truth” was Oxford Dictionary’s international word of the year for 2016, meaning it was the word that most reflected “the passing year in language.” I’m not sure things have changed significantly since then. We’ve still got the President of the United States tweeting about “fake news” while his Counselor Kellyanne Conway offers up “alternate facts” with a shockingly straight face. So as much as I hate to say it, perhaps post-truth is here to stay for a while.
Post-truth is defined by Oxford Dictionary as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Ralph Keyes, author of The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life writes that in a post-truth era, “borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit.”
With the voices of those Saturday morning political pundits still ringing in my ears, I headed off to attend our 111th May Court Festival, our annual celebration of spring. Talking with alumnae and families, seeing the joyful smiles on the faces of our youngest girls as they wrapped ribbons round the May Pole, and watching the beautiful artistry expressed through music, dance and painting – it was all a tonic for my post-truth weary soul. In particular, it was the thoughtfulness of the words spoken by our May Queen and her court that did the most to fill me with hope for the future.
Every year at May Court, the May Queen and her two counsellors share the task of speaking about our school motto: Veritas, virtus, venustas. Truth, virtue, loveliness. I am always impressed by the care each girl takes in crafting her message, just as I’m impressed by the fact that they can, year after year, find a unique and personal way to touch on these same three words. I would have thought there was only so much one could say about truth, virtue and loveliness. And to be honest, and I know I wrote about this in my blog after last year’s May Court, I used to feel that the words virtue and loveliness, in particular, sounded out of place in an era of female empowerment. But then 2018 happened.
I don’t want to review everything tawdry and disturbing that’s happened this year in the news, but I think we can agree there’s been a lot of it. From the pain of #MeToo to the horror of the Parkland shooting to the deceit of Cambridge Analytica, the list of atrocities feels endless.
I think what struck me the most this year is the fact that even the sexual assault of women, the murder of students and teachers, and the misuse of our most personal data has failed to unite us in moral outrage. For every person who speaks up, there are those who shout them down. There’s a growing “I’m right, you’re wrong” game perpetuated through the media that detracts from what I think are the more important conversations about shared values and common decency.
So back to May Court. Never did the words truth, virtue and loveliness sound more meaningful and relevant as they did this year. In a world with a 24-hour news cycle that tells of deceit, dishonour, and truly ugly behaviour, I welcomed our school’s homage to those things that speak to strength of character, integrity and beauty. I felt proud to be part of a community that refuses to let go of what it means to be a decent human being and to live a life of integrity. So if our school motto, those words that reflect our commitment to character, comes across as anachronistic, then so be it. In this instance, we’ll wear the label “old-fashioned” proudly as we teach our girls what it means to live a life of truth, virtue and loveliness.
Oh, and coincidentally, the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year for 2017 was “youthquake”, defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” So look out “post-truth”. Our Trafalgar girls are coming, so I’m pretty sure your days are numbered.