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Are we living in a post-truth age?

Holocaust denial: a disturbing force in a post-truth landscape. Source: Dnalor_01 (via Wikimedia Commons)

By Alys Hewitt

A recent poll commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has revealed that one in twenty British respondents do not believe the Holocaust happened, with 8% claiming that the scale of its devastation has been exaggerated. This reflects the findings of a similar survey by CNN published late last year, in which a third of Europeans polled stated they knew little to nothing about the Holocaust.

The figures are a stark reminder of our need to continue reiterating the horrors of history. It is an age-old assertion that remembering the trauma of the past helps prevent it from happening again, but one which nonetheless carries a lot of weight; education remains a powerful antidote to ignorance and denial, and it is vital that we continue to disseminate the truths and experiences of victims of the Holocaust and other examples of brutality. Whilst the respondents of both polls might not be actively and vehemently denying the events of the Holocaust or spreading hateful rhetoric, their lack of knowledge suggests the normalisation of and easy manipulation towards more concerning retellings of the past. They indicate a growing sentiment not only of ignorance but of an outright rejection of the truth.

Terms such as ‘post-truth’ have cast an unshakeable shadow over conversations regarding politics, the media and citizenship in recent years, ever-relevant in the context of an era where social media dominates, politicians are elected on the foundation of less-than-truths and voters are increasingly rejecting the views of ‘experts’ (see: Brexit). Being constantly and relentlessly immersed in information, much of the time it is easier to cling on to our own view of the world rather than adopting an informed stance which considers all points of view. And in an over-saturated media landscape, it is also increasingly difficult to separate plain fact from plain fiction.

Yet what is most disturbing about the revelations of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is that information about the Holocaust is hardly inaccessible, and it is hardly an obscure event confined to the dusty cabinets of history. We are taught extensively of its impact, in spheres from education to popular culture, and it is widely regarded as one of history’s most devastating genocides. Its impact is ingrained into our collective consciousness, shrouded in shame and loss. It has been immortalised in photographs, monuments, museums and written accounts, yet people continue to deny and contest it, re-writing history to legitimise their own views and denying the pain of others to fuel renewed prejudice and division. In a digital age, social media is yet another tool which allows a lingering culture of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and other examples of hateful rhetoric to surface and gain traction, even if only in limited circles. We must not let these views win.

There is a danger to the denial of fact, even if it only takes place on the fringes of popular thought: as Yale professor Timothy Snyder has asserted, “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom”. From the Holocaust to climate change, denying facts discards responsibility, accountability and understanding of the complexity of our world. We must engage, with both the past and the present, to see the truth. How else are we to move forward otherwise?

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