By Shubham Sharma, New Delhi in the Statesman, March 26, 2017
(Note: Two plus two ought to make four, not three or five. That is what we ordinary humans understand by objective or factual truth. This ought not change according to time, place, people or geographical location – East, West, North, South.
According to Google search, “Post-truth” has been named Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 international word of the year, meaning “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”; the phrase surged most sharply in June after the Brexit vote and Trump’s triumph in US; its first usage was in a 1992 essay in The Nation magazine. It means to say objective truth is irrelevant, what counts is what pleases most, what appeals to one’s emotions, what makes one feel good.
So “alt-right,” came to be used as a soft synonym, or euphemism to sell the harsh, unpleasant, extreme idea of ‘white supremacy.’ In short: Post-truth = Alt-right = lying = fake news = propaganda = Orwellian euphemism for radical, conservative extreme. ‘If dreams were horses who will not ride them?’ The majority did it in ‘Brexit’ and ‘Triumph of Trump’.
With the present craze for pursuit for Alt-truth discarding objective truth in political life and gaining public majority approval for it, how soon is it going to infect and spread to other areas of human and family relationships like, between husband and wife, parents and children, leaders and followers in a community, state, nation and in various religious bodies? It is said, in today’s US throw-away culture, one goes for the latest fashionable damsel just as one trades in the latest model car for one’s one or two years old vehicle! Is this the civilizational progress we are heading for? Are we heading for the fanciful at the cost of the factual, for the irrational at the cost of the rational, for blind beliefs and actions instead of enlightened and inspirational conduct? James kottoor, editor)
A fair amount of ink has been spilled as reams have been written about the novel notion of post-truth. The term has gained widespread acceptance, not only in universities and centers of learning, but in the Western world at large.
I use Western because we are yet to discover an Oriental match for the term or more so because it is the Western world that has of late been witness to socio-political upheavals. Following the cartographic rendition of the world in terms of east and west, it was the latter which hitherto claimed monopoly over truth and facts as it looked down upon any logical inference coming out of the former. It appears that the West must now take a call on the matter even though it remains a civilizational pursuit rather than a manifest entity. At best, man remains a pursuer of truth rather than a beholder of the same.
“Post-truth” became part of the official lexicon after the Oxford dictionary incorporated the term. It is now imperative to examine the meaning of the term “truth”, an exercise in which we are seldom engaged in. Truth has been defined as ‘the quality or state of being based on facts’. Thus, the presence of empirically observed objective facts is the precondition for the existence of truth. So does it mean that the Western world was in denial of objective facts? Indeed it was! The governments of the Western world in pursuit of the capitalist liberal agenda were blind to the facts of income inequalities, centralization of capital following the boom phase which resulted in a massive roll-back of the achievements of the metropolitan working class and the people of the third world and the subversion of progressive political parties in the Western world, for instance the New Labour phenomenon in the UK.
The golden period of capitalism was sustained through demand aggregation by the State. As for instance, the US budget deficits which were incurred inter alia to finance the massive military expenditure, ensuring investment, growth and high rates of employment. Until then, truth for the West remained as the end of history, the ultimate triumph of the liberal capitalism and trickle-down economics. Any alternative vision of the world was not only deemed unfit for practice and propagation, but was regarded as ‘false utopia’. Such an exclusivist version of truth crashed with the election of Donald Trump in America, Brexit and the rise of far-right political outfits in Europe. It appeared as if the concept of truth underwent a self-negation of sorts and that too in its own philosophical backyard.
Conceptually, the notion of post-truth also fails to serve the purpose of research in social sciences. The idea of post-truth has been abstracted from the concrete which is methodologically incorrect. It is necessary for a concept to be concretized from the abstract so that it does not run the risk of reaping thinner observations. For instance, Marx developed his idea of the ‘base’, which is an abstraction, from commodity exchange to circulation of money and other concrete realities of the world which one could empirically observe and cognitively discern. This process of concretizing from the abstract helped Marx’s theory in gaining acceptability across time and space. In other words, the theory would always have to say something until commodities are exchanged for a cost or price in terms of money.
But the concept of post-truth fails to carve out such an elegant methodological niche for itself. Furthermore, post-truth has a class character, which does not mean that a particular class exercises a monopoly over the usage of the term. Rather it is reflective of the gloom of a class which reaped the benefit of a liberalized economy in the metropolis. The reaction of the sufferers, mostly the traditional working class, has unfortunately metamorphosed into an ethno-national backlash, which has come to be seen beyond the realm of the mundane, hence post-truth.
Philosophically speaking, truth is both a cognitive and an objective category. As a cognitive category, truth can have many variants. For a theist, god is the ultimate truth whereas for the atheist it might be reason and rationality. For a shaman, truth is the practise of his rituals, whereas for a man of science truth lies in experimentation and verification. Such cognitive truths, as Foucault has observed, serves to exercise power in society which is not possible except ‘through the production of truth’ in terms of knowledge and power. As an objective category, truth has to be supported and sustained by facts. The cognitive bias, which might be the result of cultural or religious affiliation, would not serve as the yardstick to measure the veracity of claims regarding truth.
The idea that there exists an ‘other world’ would gain credence in the minds of theists but to be established as an objective fact it has to be observed, proven and if possible, verified in a systematic manner. Thus for the idea of post-truth to gain currency, it has to first exhaust the categories mentioned. This seems to be a far-fetched dream as man has lived with religious beliefs on the one hand and grown potatoes in Martian conditions on the other, has reached the pinnacle of medical science, whereas a novice Aussie has impersonated as a professional doctor for ten years.
Until mankind finds it difficult to find truth one can contend by substituting Rabindranath’s invocation of god in Dhulamandir ~ “Truth is where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones.”
(The writer is Research Scholar, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi.)