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Jim Saker: On dieselgate, Nietzsche and the post-truth society

Jim Saker

Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century  German philosopher, was ahead of his time when it came to untruths and their effects.

In his 1886 book, Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote: “Not that you lied but that I no longer believe you – that is what distressed me.” In essence: “I’m not upset that you lied, I’m upset that, from now on, I can’t trust you.”

Democracy works and makes sense when people understand the arguments and the facts they are based on. However, it has been argued that we live in a ‘post-truth’ society, in which politicians can make statements that are untrue and cannot be substantiated but are nonetheless thrown into the melting pot of public opinion.

Ricky Gervais, speaking at the Oxford Union last year, argued that social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, bear some of the responsibility, having emphasised popularity over truth.

He said where people used to say ‘my opinion is worth as much as your opinion’, they are now saying things like ‘my opinion is worth as much as your facts’.

An opinion based on false assumptions is problematic. Until now, the problems of ‘post-truth’ have remained primarily in the broad political arena, but they are starting to affect our sector.

For example, why has the Government demonised diesel? As a power source, diesel has many positive attributes and often makes sense environmentally as well as economically.

From a position where it was being advocated by Government, it is now almost regarded as anti-social if you drive a diesel car.

Why has this come about? The problem does not lie with the facts, it lies with the perception that has been created – due to ‘Dieselgate’, we fall into the Nietzsche scenario.

The public and the Government believe they have been lied to through the deliberate corruption of the emissions-testing regime, which should have produced data that could be relied on to make decisions. Whatever the weakness of the testing protocols, a manufacturer was seen to have lied. As a result, we now have the situation whereby people question whether the industry can be believed.

This came to mind recently when I sat with other customers near the aftersales desk in a dealership. An employee answered the phone, put it on mute and shouted to a manager saying Mr X wanted to speak to him.  

Without hesitation, the reply came: ‘Tell him I’m not here.’

I wondered what impression the customers got from that brief conversation. And what impression did it have on the staff? Inadvertently, the manager had told his team it was OK to lie, both to him and to customers.

No wonder nobody believes us.

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