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“Post Truth”, Fake News And “Alternative Facts”

“Post Truth”, Fake News And “Alternative Facts”

“Where the mind is at sea,” said the German poet, Goethe, “A new word becomes a raft.” Modern times are confusing in many ways, and we use buzz words and jargon to make sense of our lives.  Three words (or phrases) have captured our attention in recent times: “post-truth”, “fake news” and “alternative facts”.  All of them substitute objective reality with subjective feeling, and insist that “what is seen to have happened” takes precedence over “what actually took place”.

Or as the quip has it, “You may have the facts – but we have alternative facts!”

Post-truth rises from a political culture in which debate and argument is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by repeated assertions in which  facts are ignored and subjective opinions take the stage.  In other words post-truth or fake news is a consequence of power-play.

When you are in power, image (“ what you are seen to be”) becomes more important than realit y (“who you are”).

There are two ways in which those in power – governments, corporates, and other big shots control their image. The first is by denial, censorship and suppression of anything which hurts their image.  Often governments will hit out at those who dig out the truth or who investigate too deeply.  Reporters and editors of newspapers are particularly susceptible to threats, imprisonment and even assassination:  162 journalists have been killed in India in the last 25 years. Consider Gauri Lankesh, K.J. Singh and so many others.

Then, governments manipulate their own images, slogans and symbols, and give “fake meanings” to the decisions they take. Classic examples of these are “weapons of mass destruction”, the bogey invented by Bush and Blair to start a war in West Asia. In our own country, “ acche din” (happy days); “ gau raksha” (cow protection) and “beef ban”; “demonetization” to end black money – or to create a cashless, digital economy.

While such manipulation has long been part of political life, the internet has brought about many significant changes.  For one thing, today we are overwhelmed with information, and from multiple points of view. This makes it hard to discern and decide. Then, this information is instantaneous and easily accessible, whether on a tablet or a smart-phone ( duniya mutthi mein, “the world in your grasp”). Finally, a subjectivity is created in which one view is not better than another.  Twitter overpowers one with sheer quantity:  someone with legions of followers is ‘better’ or ‘more likeable’ or ‘preferable’ to someone else with fewer.

Quietly, surreptitiously, the whole idea of ‘normative’ has been questioned, and rejected. ‘Normative’ derives from ‘norm’, a measure, a standard.  Earlier, we acknowledged the existence of norms, whether for things as trivial as etiquette or as weighty as ethics. A norm was also presumed to be objective, as against subjective likes or dislikes. As the old line had it, “We all jumped over our fences when we were young, but we always acknowledged that there were fences.”

Today the very idea of ‘fences’, ‘norms’, ‘standard ways of procedure’ has been dumped because it seems to emanate from some sort of authority, and today all authority is suspect. (Largely, I’d say, because all authority is seen to be corrupt, specially religious authority.) One important area in which ‘normal’ is being contested today is that of marriage:  is marriage the public union of two persons, irrespective of their sexual orientation?  or is it  – as the universal tradition has always had it – the union between two persons, each one of a different sex ?  Many secularized nations are under pressure to change their norms for the validity of marriage. What is now the ‘new normal’?

Does this control of image and manipulation exist in the Church as well?

Alas, it does exist – wherever the Church acts as an institution, for institutions cling to power and are terrified of losing their image. As institution, the Church has institutional priorities and defences. And the seduction of power leads to crooked and deceitful behaviour in church government, esp. the Vatican.

Two brief instances will suffice:

Arguably, nothing has so hurt the image of the Church in the West in recent years as the paedophile scandals. But more than the sexual predations of the clergy, what has angered so many was the cover-up, the denials, the transfer of guilty personnel, and the refusal to meet the victims or to listen to them.

The next example is of manipulation:  the use of local languages in the liturgy.

In its decree, Liturgiam Authenticam (2001), the Vatican withdrew the “principle of dynamic equivalence” previously used for translations of the liturgy, and insisted instead that texts “ be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.” In one fell stroke, it rubbished the work of various bishops’ conferences over the decades.

The results – for the English translations around the world, at least – were soon clear to all:  clumsy translations, more literal and ‘latinish’ than colloquial, and a source of confusion to the faithful everywhere. 

Happily in recent months, Pope Francis curtailed the supervision of Rome and gave back the authority for liturgical translations to local bishops’ conferences.

With all this, how can one ever protect oneself in a “post truth” world?

Two things are within our grasp:  First, develop a critical, suspicious attitude.  Be cautious in accepting anything from any authority, whether secular or religious. Develop discussion groups in each neighbourhood.  Critique.  Investigate. Seek alternatives.

Second, have access to your own channels of information.  Start focus groups on the internet.  Share information and opinions. This is the equivalent of the “cyclostyled news-sheet” secretly printed in totalitarian states during another age... Facebook, Whatsapp, Google-groups makes this possible.

Mahatma Gandhi had an abiding love for truth and its endurance. We cannot end better than by quoting him. “ Every government, every power in this world, no matter how invincible it seems at the time, if not founded on truth, ultimately gives way and collapses.”  His words inspire the motto of our nation , satyameva jayate “truth shall prevail” – for prevail it will, against all sorts of ‘post truth’ and ‘alternative facts’.

(Published on 13th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 46)