Post-Truth: The Apocalypse of Evidence

Photo courtesy of: Animesh Bulusu
by Ross Hunter

Last month saw The Fawcett Society – Britain’s leading charity promoting gender equality – state that the 10th of November marked the day where women effectively stopped earning money relative to men. On the 9th of November Sam Smethers, the chief executive of The Fawcett Society, had an article published in The Guardian claiming that ‘from Thursday 10th of November women in full-time jobs will in effect work for free until 31st December’. However, if one takes a closer look at the statistics the Fawcett Society uses to calculate their figures, this statement begins to look not only disingenuous, but inflammatory.

The gender pay gap is a nuanced and complex issue, one that cannot safely be reduced to an easily misconstrued quote about women ‘effectively working for free’ until the end of the year. Organisations are acutely aware that the information they espouse will be concentrated into Facebook statuses and Tweets, therefore, they should be careful about the way in which they phrase their findings. Claiming that women are working for free until the end of the year is purposefully misleading, just as misleading as it would be for a man to claim that the wage gap does not exist because of something they read on Breitbart. Men and women are legally entitled to the same pay for the same job and information exposing whether this is actually happening is unavailable – only individual companies know whether they pay their workers equally. What the wage gap is really about is employment.

The Fawcett Society’s data comes from studies that calculate the full-time mean pay gap:

‘The mean average is calculated by adding up the hourly pay of all men or women and dividing it by the number of men or women included in the data’

Photo:Simon Harriyott
Photo:Simon Harriyott

This means that the data the Fawcett society uses is skewed by the fact that more women are employed in sectors that are not as well paid, such as care work or administration. Undeniably this is discrimination in itself: why are more women working in lower-paid care roles and more men working in higher paid managerial ones? Cultural expectations? Employer discrimination? Outdated family roles? Answers to these questions are harder to pin down and certainly don’t lend themselves to the concentrated format of a Tweet. As a result, the real issues of the wage gap are ignored in favour of provocative simplifications. To reiterate, it is not that women are paid proportionally less than men for doing the same work; it’s that men, at present, dominate the industries with higher pay.

We cannot quantify how many women work in the care industry because they want to versus those who do so because they feel societal pressures forcing them. Neither can we know why the government deems it acceptable that care workers are paid less than managers, regardless of gender. However, what we can do is highlight these issues, as opposed to highlighting a dubious claim with a distinctly blurred relation to the evidence. The purposeful misrepresentation of data to further one’s cause is intellectually dishonest and should not be tolerated by either the right or the left. And yet both sides are consistently guilty of this practice. We have, in short, entered the age of post-truth.

As defined by the Oxford Dictionary a post-truth is ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. The most obvious examples of this come from the right, such as Nigel Farage’s ‘migrant’ poster during the EU referendum. The poster clearly appeals to the darker angels of our nature – our fears of difference, of cultural intrusion into our communities – yet has little to no basis in fact. The immigrant contribution to British society is immeasurably important, yet this poster dismisses all intellectual discussion in favour of appealing to our base fears. It is, in short, an obvious post-truth: a political statement unhinged from objective reality.

Yet, as The Fawcett Society proves, this isn’t just a tool utilised by those on the right of the political spectrum. Sam Smethers claim about women ‘working for free’ until the end of 2016 has about as much bearing on factual reality as Nigel Farage’s poster. Yes, women are discriminated against – through enforced gender roles, through occupational segregation – but that doesn’t mean anyone is working ‘for free’. Her claim is purposefully spurious because it makes a good sound bite – but it isn’t wholly accurate. What’s worse, both Smethers claim and Farage’s ranting about the dangers of EU membership are spread on social media as indisputable fact and unquestioningly believed by thousands. Of course gender equality is a far more noble cause than xenophobia, but the ends do not justify the means. If anything, the use of post-truth damages the credibility of any movement that uses it.

All political, social and cultural movements should have the information they use, and the ways in which they use it, questioned. Otherwise we end up with a media narrative so clogged by misinformation that we no longer know what’s true and what isn’t.

In a world of increasing political instability and intolerance, those who believe in truly worthwhile causes – gender equality, climate justice, racial equality – need to make sure that the information they spread is grounded in academia and not emotion. They need to double-check whether what they’re tweeting is a truth or a post-truth. They need to stop believing everything they read on Facebook, regardless of whether it correlates with their opinions or not. In essence, we all need to become more stringent about the facts we spread. If we don’t, then we’re just as bad as the people degrading our democracy with lies, slander and xenophobic posters.

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