The Post-Truth World

post-truth

adjective

  • Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief:

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

The above is from the web version of the Oxford dictionary.

I was not very sure of what this meant until I had an argument with a young man in my office.  This guy, intelligent and balanced in all other respects, shocked me by turning out to be an ardent Trump fan.  On further discourse, however, I found that he hated Hillary with an unbelievable passion, which he claimed was due to her dishonesty: but I suspect that it arises from a strong misogynistic streak in him, something which is buried in the shadow side of his personality (to borrow from Jung).

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with civil rights leaders at the National Urban League in the Manhattan borough of New York

He kept on barraging me with the “evidence” of Hillary’s crookedness; but when I pointed out that most of these were of doubtful veracity, and a lot of similar allegations existed against Trump, he was at pains to point out to me that while most allegations against Hillary were “true”, those against Trump were “false”!  In short, he was doing exactly what the first example quoted in the above definition of ‘post-truth’ was trying to illustrate: cherry-picking data to come to one’s desired conclusion.

This brought up another unwelcome thought in my mind: aren’t I, a left-wing liberal, also guilty of the same thing?  We only have to look at Facebook to see that all and sundry keep on justifying their political stands on extremely shaky data.  It seems that if we look closely enough, we can always find something to “prove” just about anything.  So logic and reason have absolutely no say in human discourse any more – sadly, neither does truth.

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This had me ruminating on the concept of “truth” itself.  I remember having this discussion on the Joseph Campbell fora (now sadly all but defunct): what, exactly, is “truth”?  Well, there are the indisputables: it is the truth that New Delhi is the capital of India, and that The Da Vinci Code was written by Dan Brown.  Only the severely delusional individual will dispute these, as we have concrete evidence to prove the same.  But what about, say, evolution?  The scientifically minded individual would say that it is the logical conclusion to draw from the evidence we have at hand, but it could hardly be called “the truth” as all said and done, it is a conclusion drawn by the mind.  So in our discussions, we decided to call the indisputable truths “facts”, and the proof for the same, “evidence”.  Truth was confined to the twilight zone where it was largely dependent on individual interpretation of evidence.

Things really became interesting in that particular conversation thread when someone said that the heliocentric universe was “only a theory”!  On the face of it, this claim was silly: but as the discussion went on, we found that this particular scientific “truth” was not as robust as those facts which I stated above.  I mean, we have ample evidence to show that the earth and other planets orbit the sun, but have any of us verified it first hand?  It could be that the whole scientific establishment is playing a massive fraud on us – in fact, this is what the Flat Earth Societies believe.

We have to accept that there are various shades to scientific truths also: while the heliocentric universe is on a relatively safe wicket, the theory of evolution is on more unsure ground.  And when we come to something economically and politically loaded like global warming – Al Gore aptly called it “An Inconvenient Truth”! – it seems that truth has become what we want to believe.  With science also influenced by politics nowadays, the fabled scientific method has become a tool for arriving at our desired conclusion.

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Which brings us to politics, and how it permeates every thread in the fabric of human discourse in the current globally connected era.

Before TV became so popular, one had to take an effort to know the news – it was possible only through reading.  And it required some effort.  Reading the newspaper was almost and educational activity during my childhood; both our parents and teachers encouraged us to do it. I remember that in those days, news was more heavy on content and less on sensationalism – there were no colour pictures, no controversial statements which were highlighted in the headlines and much less of opinion pieces (if at all there were, they were clearly tagged as opinion).

The advent of television changed all that.  Now we had a movie screen in the house to watch the news as it happened, and it was much more exciting (also, it required much less cerebration).  I think none of us noticed how much it took away from the advantages of reading the newspaper.  Because as we read, our mind continually analyses the information and forms conclusions – when we watch it on the screen, the thinking mind is largely dormant and we react emotionally to the visuals.  We were getting dumbed down despite ourselves.  And when cable TV debuted, we had a multiple set of viewpoints barraging our audio and visual sensitivities.  News suddenly became big-time entertainment.th

But the most decisive factor in ushering in the post-truth era is, I feel, the internet.  Now information was available literally at the touch of a finger.  To “google” something became an accepted verb.  Students doing school projects, instead of poring over heavy tomes in the reference section of their libraries, just opened Wikipedia, downloaded the pictures, copied the text, and aced their grades.  Everyone became an expert on various subjects due to their web browsing skills alone.

facebook-logoWhile this interconnectivity had its positives, it has its negatives too: the most obvious one being the loss of veracity.  Anyone with a good vocabulary and a smattering of knowledge can put up articles which would have a sufficient veneer of truth to hoodwink the gullible.  And with social media now ruling the roost, truth has gone for a toss.  The same syndrome is affecting the so-called “debates” on TV, which are nothing but shouting matches, each participants brandishing “facts” to support his or her viewpoint.

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Is man essentially rational or emotional?

I remember discussing the “Rational Man Hypothesis” with my brother-in-law, a psychiatrist, some years ago.  This postulates that man essentially acts rationally, weighing all information objectively before reaching a conclusion and takes action accordingly.  However, enticing as this view is, it is utter poppycock: other than the half-Vulcan Spock nobody behaves in this way.  Man is essentially an emotional and instinctive animal even after centuries of evolution.  Reason is slowly mounting an attack on emotion, and gaining ground inch by painful inch, but it is still an uphill battle.

What social media and reality TV has done in the recent past is to reinforce this emotional quotient to an unprecedented degree.  With a world which is teetering on a precipice both politically and environmentally, it seems that mankind has retreated into its pre-enlightenment mentality, at least partially.  In a dog-eat-dog scenario, it’s every man for himself – I think the rise of the radical right can also be partially linked to this turbulent emotional environment where fear is the predominant emotion.

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Is there a way out?

I cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel in the immediate future.  However, recognising our basic irrationality might be a beginning.  Reading up on different viewpoints on the same issue, keeping one’s emotional reactions in check, is also a method of rationally approaching an issue.

The fact that “truth” is not one size fits all.  The concept of objective truth, borrowed from Western science, is essentially a chimera.  Truth may be different for different people – each of us has his or her own path.  According to the Isavasya Upanishad:

“hiranmayena pātrena satyasyāpihitam mukham

tat tvam pūsan āpāvrnu satyadharmāya drsṭaye”

(The face of truth is concealed with a golden vessel.  O sun, please open it so that I, who am truthful, may see)

The sun here, I feel, is the one that burns within the spirit.  One has to let it blaze forth so that the golden vessel of our prejudices may melt away… and we may see the truth finally in its entirety.

1

Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Expression

“I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

France is seen as the seat of European culture, the temple of free speech: so when the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked by armed gunmen on the seventh of January and four famous cartoonists murdered in cold blood, international outrage was instantaneous. People took to the streets with placards bearing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) as a mark of solidarity: international leaders condemned the atrocity: and a massive rally was taken out in Paris on eleventh January where the leaders from forty nations participated. The attack was seen, rightly, as an assault against freedom of expression.

Charlie Hebdo rally

(Image courtesy: The Guardian)

The attackers were Islamic terrorists, and the reason for the attack was Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons purportedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The responsibility was claimed by Al Qaeda immediately. And predictably, the “Islam versus the West” debate started.

Most of the Islamic nations condemned the attack: some leaders even participated in the rally. However, the West’s tired old saw of “Muslims not doing enough to condemn and combat terrorism” started coming out in print, visual and social media. Muslims as a people were immediately placed in the dock and Islam as a religion was once again accused of fomenting terrorist ideas in its basic tenets.

Then, some interesting viewpoints started coming to light – interestingly enough from the liberal West, questioning the very sincerity of the protests. The first of this kind of article I read was about the “pencil cartoons”, a host of which appeared after the carnage. Many of them showed pencils regenerating after getting cut: pens and pencils in combat against guns and swords: and coming up trumps while weighed against guns and bombs. While these were not very offensive (though repetitive), there were others showing Islamic terrorists being bombarded with pencils, pens and brushes. The political theme of the second set was clear: “enlightened Western intellectual power” against the violent firepower of the “uneducated” Middle East. And in many of the cartoons, the terrorist was shown as a hawk-nosed, turbaned, scowling Arab – a familiar caricature in the West since the colonial times.

pencils

(Image courtesy: http://www.redflag.org.au)

Soon, another set of criticisms came up, about the participants in the Paris rally. Many of the nations expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo had notorious track records on free speech: Israel had jailed journalists in Gaza, Saudi Arabia had jailed and lashed a blogger for alleged blasphemy, and Egypt, Bahrain, Russia etc. also had less than pristine records on the right to free speech. Even USA had tried to bomb the offices of Al Jazeera and the case of Julian Assange is still alive as a huge embarrassment for America and Britain.

The third set of criticisms was about the magnitude of the outrage. The murder of twelve people in France created such a huge outcry, while the killing of around 2000 people in Nigeria by the Boko Haram was largely ignored. Inevitably, the Third World claimed that the skin colour of the victims was in direct proportion to the furore – that the killing of black and brown people did not matter.

The final set of criticisms was against the cartoons themselves. Charlie’s cartoons were meant to shock and disgust; they were grossly insulting religious figures and the religions themselves. Many people think that there is a limit to free speech, and that Charlie Hebdo crossed it long back.

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I personally was also shocked to hear about the attack, and condemned it immediately in my own small way by posting a review on the Goodreads website.

I am usually not in favour of anything which purposefully harms religious sentiments. In India, we have so many religions so sometimes we have to walk on eggshells: and respect for all religions is taught from a very tender age. So when the purportedly anti-Islam cartoons were first published, I never paid much attention, except remarking privately it was in bad taste.

But now things are different. When the guns of intolerance are trained on artists, it is time for all of us who are interested in art and literature to take up arms – and by that I do not mean guns. The written word packs more power than a thousand guns – and when it is combined with laughter, the power increases hundredfold.

So let’s join in solidarity with the slain cartoonists, and ridicule these extremists and their dictatorial version of religion to death.

I have since then had the chance to view many of the cartoons. Most are in extremely poor taste; many are overtly sexual; and almost all of them are insulting to some degree to some group. But I have to say one thing – they are impartial. Charlie Hebdo has no sacred cows. They were not a Western institution insulting the East – they were irresponsible and arrogant mavericks making irreverent fun of anything and everything – including the French government.

I do not consider that Islam or Muslims in general are responsible for the terrorist attacks, any more than Jews in general are responsible for Israel’s war on Gaza or Christians for George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” in Iraq.  I also do not agree that it is a question of “the intellectual West” against the “extremist Arab” – this is a simplified viewpoint which ignores the complex ground realities in the Middle East.

I do not endorse the French claim that their country is the centre of the freedom of expression – according to me, the French law prohibiting Islamic women to wear the veil is as restrictive as the one forcing all women to wear the abaya in Saudi Arabia. Racism and intolerance are not the sole province of the so-called theocracies and dictatorships; they are present in democracies also. However, the main difference is that in democracies, one has the freedom to criticise everything, including the powers that be – this is all the more true in Europe, and France is in the forefront of this freedom. And Charlie Hebdo is the shining example of that.

As a member of a democracy which leaves a lot to be desired in the department of the freedom of expression, I salute Charlie Hebdo.

As a member of a multi-religious nation, brought up on the sanctity of all religions and the importance of not insulting any religion, I condemn the cartoons insulting religious figures.

I do not agree to what Charlie Hebdo is saying, many a time: but I will defend to death, their right to say it.