In Germany, last year’s word of the year was postfaktisch – post factual (or post-truth). It’s a buzz word that along with the term “fake news” has come to signify much of what happened in the world in 2016 and 2017. The word was popularized during Mr. Trump’s campaign and subsequent election. We think of it as something new, something recent that has emerged with events like Brexit and Trump like a spontaneous manifestation of a virus that has suddenly befallen humanity. In reality (or post-reality, as it were), however, how we view the world, the facts and ideas we have come to believe, the road that led us here to a moment in time where reality is not a fixed but an ever-evolving variable, has been paved a long time ago.
In his 2016 3 hour documentary HyperNormalisation, legendary documentary film maker Adam Curtis explores the reasons how and why certain events have been shaped in our collective minds and memories, how and why the political landscape has shifted from empowering the electorate and democracies to benefiting banks and the wealthy. Most importantly, he outlines how and why, in his opinion, we are complicit in this.
A major factor he identifies is the withdrawal from active participation in the mid 1970s, i.e. a turn from social activism in the 1960s to 1980s consumerism that was facilitated by the reliance on banking and finance to keep the political system alive and running. Once financial players became political players, democracy, according to Curtis, became part of the fickle global finance system, culminating of course in politicians believing that their imperative should be to save the banking system instead of the common people whom they had been sworn to protect and serve. Truth, in a way, has become connected to money rather than science or evidence-based research.
Curtis also identifies a second factor, i.e. that of the performance of a truth collectively understood to be fake. During the Cold War, the economic success of the Soviet Union was a production on a major scale aimed at creating an idea of a political and economic system that could rival that of the West. This production relied on the forced complicity of its people as much as on an acceptance of the projection of the West’s ideas of the Soviet Union as a threatening force. Because the production was as fake as the supposed facts it was based on, the facts and variables could be adjusted to whatever needed to be produced.
Similarly, Curtis lays out how United States foreign policies first destabilized the Middle East, how Middle Eastern countries appropriated these destabilization tactics, and how this, in effect, finally led first to the acknowledgment of being willingly killed in combat, i.e. suicide missions, as martyrdom rather than a sin against the Koran, which in turn led to the legitimization of suicide bombing (which, based on the word of Qur’an, would be considered haram). A particularly noteworthy part of the documentary is Western politics’ and media’s potrayal of former Lybian dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, i.e. how Gaddafi shifted and accommodated according to whatever image of him was imposed by the West.
A large part of the documentary focuses on the impact of the digital revolution on the reimagining of truths, how online media serves to enforce beliefs that are already maintained, and how with online media, we are now much less likely to engage individuals who don’t already share our convictions and biases.
A lot of the background information uncovered in the documentary was new to me. Its length might seem daunting, but it really needs to be as long as it is to delve into the many factors that have contributed to our current state of derealised reality, which culminate in the tag line of the film: They know we know they lie. Curtis suggests that it is our refusal to call out lies and liars for what they are, or our insistance on calling them out in safe spaces, echo chambers of our own thoughts and opinions, that leads to their continued perpetuation. In a way, this article itself is a good example of this practice, aimed at a certain academic readership within a particular political framework. Instead of focusing on advocacy in our echo chambers, my and all of our next steps need to be to engage in more effective activism. I have mentioned this in past articles, with regard to #metoo and the refugee “crisis”, as have other contributors to this site, but it needs to be repeated as often as possible: Words are empty unless they are followed by meaningful action, whether it be engaging in difficult discussions with those who do not share your views, actively calling out (political) lies outside of safe spaces, or supporting causes you believe in by whatever means are available to you.
One point of criticism I do have regarding HyperNormalisation is that in his division into Western and Eastern politics Curtis creates the same binary Said does in Orientalism, i.e. the idea of a Western world on one hand and an Eastern (or in this case Arab) world on the other. While I understand the motivation behind this, I believe establishing the West as a more powerful agent than the imagined East can have detrimental effects, reinforcing a narrative of dependence on the imagined West.
Nevertheless, I think HyperNormalisation is an important film to watch in order to gain a better understanding of the current state of the world, and it is a good starting point to think about how we can find ways of returning to a world based on agreed upon truths and realities founded in collective understanding and scholarship rather than imposed from an untrustworthy governing force. In the end, the emperor has no clothes, and we can’t keep pretending he does.
Simone is sorry that the piece she decided to publish right before the holidays is such a downer. She has added this link of a baby sloth to make up for this (and hopes this does not further strengthen HyperNormalisation’s point).