'Post-truth’ is a word of our times, at least according to Oxford Dictionaries, who declared it their word of 2016. Their definition said that ‘post-truth’ refers to ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.I don't think I have ever heard of Chaucer's The House of Fame. I found it online. A magnificent description of a core epistemological question or, more parochially, a description of the children's game of Chinese Whispers/Telephone. Here is one part of the poem.
The appearance of a new word tends to encourage the idea that the phenomenon itself is new: that it did not exist before there was a neologism to describe it. That is not the case here, even if ‘post-truth’ is the current buzz-word; as historians know well, there has never been a time when public opinion was not shaped more powerfully by emotion and personal belief than by facts. What is different now, perhaps, is how rapidly false stories and fake news can circulate: social media allows the public as well as giant news organisations to be involved in spreading untrue or distorted tales. That is a formidable challenge for those who care about truth.
But even concern about the ease with which false stories can spread is far from new. At the end of the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote incisively on this subject in his poem The House of Fame. This poem describes a dream-vision in which Chaucer (carried by a comically talkative eagle) is borne up into the sky, taken to a castle standing midway between Heaven and Earth. This is the House of Fame, to which all words uttered in the world, spoken or written, find their way.
Chaucer’s noisy, dizzying house of rumours will sound familiar to any user of Twitter. What Chaucer understands and brings sharply to life in this poem is that truth is rarely the most important factor in determining whether a story will spread. We are all capricious readers, who respond to and share stories that in some way accord with our own understanding of the world. This idea was a long-standing interest for Chaucer and lies behind The Canterbury Tales, too: as the pilgrims in that poem tell stories to each other, they demonstrate how complex the process of hearing and sharing tales can be. Whether they react to each other’s stories with praise or violent disapproval, the pilgrims are motivated more by their own interests and preoccupations than by the intrinsic value of the story. Once a tale is told, the teller cannot control how its hearers will receive it.
But such a congregation I found
Of folk that seemed to roam about,
Some within, and some without,
As never was seen, nor shall be yet;
That surely in this world is not
So great a number formed by Nature,
Nor have died so many a creature;
So that scarcely in that place
Had I a foot’s breadth of space;
And everyone that I saw there
Whispered in each other’s ear
A new tiding privately
Or else spoke out openly
Right thus and said: ‘Do you know
What happened just lately, lo?’
‘No’ quoth the other, ‘tell me what;
And then he told him this and that,
And swore thereto that it was true:
‘Thus did he say’ and ‘Thus did do,’
‘Thus shall it be,’ ‘Thus I heard said,’
‘This you’ll find,’ ‘That I dare allege’ –
So that all the folk now alive
Have not the skill to describe
The things that I heard there,
Aloud and whispered in my ear.
But the great wonder was this:
When one had heard a thing, his
First act was to go find another
And swiftly tell to his brother
The same that to him was told
Before it was two minutes old,
And added something to each,
To each tiding, in his speech,
Making more of it than before.
And no sooner had the other
Parted from him than he met
With a third; and ere he yet
Had paused a moment, told him all;
Whether the news was true or false,
Yet he would tell it nonetheless,
And evermore with more excess
Than at the first. Thus north and south
Went every speck from mouth to mouth,
And that increasing ever so
As fire is wont to catch and flow
From a spark blown amiss
Till all the city ruined is.
And when it had fully sprung,
And waxed more on every tongue
Than ever it was, it went anon
Up to a window and was gone;
Or, if it might not out there slip,
It would creep out at some crevice,
And fly forth fast and at once.
And sometimes I saw anon
A falsehood, and a truth all sober
That by chance arrived together
Out at a window for to race,
When they met there at that place,
They were checked both the two,
And neither of them could get through
For the other, so in a crowd
Each of them began to cry aloud,
‘Let me go first!’ – ‘Nay, let me!
And here I will promise thee,
On condition you’ll do so,
That I will never from you go,
But be your own sworn brother!
We will meld us each with other,
That no man be he ever so wrath,
Shall handle one of us, but both
At once, whatever he believe,
Come we at morrow, or at eve,
Be we cried, or whispered around.’
Thus saw I false and true compound
Together, and fly abroad as one.