The official newspaper of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union was called Pravda (translated to ‘truth’) because it engaged in disseminating anything but the truth. But what is more interesting is how there are already pre-existing different types of truths in the Russian language itself – Pravda being man’s truth, Istina being God’s truth and Nepravda being untruth. This indicates two things: firstly that just like a language must be spoken within the strictures of the alphabet, similarly the world must also be interpreted according to the language spoken (and by the usage of the words therein), and secondly, and more relevantly, that there can indeed be more truths than one.
Two important events mark the advent of what is called the ‘post-truth’ world – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of United States. This world was further concretised once the people in power tried legitimising such a world of existence, when Kellyanne Conway, the Counsellor to President Trump came out with the administration’s philosophy of alternative facts’. What the media and political pundits forget to recall is that this was not the first time that the ‘world’s greatest democracy’ had laid bare its propaganda agenda out to the public – Donald Rumsfeld, the brooding philosopher and Secretary of Defence during the George W. Bush administration gave his similar but much detailed philosophy of the hierarchy of ‘knowing’ while justifying the Iraq invasion – “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” But where the philosophy ends, the politics starts and the surreptitious omission of the fourth and the most revelatory stage has since been brought to light by philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek and a war documentary by the same name – the ‘unknown knowns’ – things we don’t know that we know, and as Zizek elaborates, “all the unconscious beliefs and prejudices that determine how we perceive reality and intervene in it” – mainly all the prejudices that were tapped into by the propaganda system of America to convince the people of a much wasteful war in Iraq.
But to depart from the truth and enter into ‘post-truth’, we must have first arrived at the truth. Have we ever? What is truth? What does it mean to be in a ‘post-truth’ world? Such an arrogant declaration certainly means one thing – that certain people were, or at least considered themselves to be in control of the ‘truth’. We have always been in a ‘post-truth’ world, subject to every form of propaganda, even in liberal democracies.
In fact before getting ‘red-pilled’ had become a thing, getting ‘blue-pilled’(an insightful and fatal attraction towards the radical left) was the real fad in America – finding a collection of Noam Chomsky and understanding how the liberal democracies around the world ‘manufacture consent’. Who would’ve thought that someday Chomsky’s very well researched and radical theories would be legitimised in the ugliest ways by someone like Donald Trump and his war on ‘fake news’ and the ‘liberal leftist media’.
Arguing against the positivist claim that there are only facts, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote prophetically that, “facts is precisely what there isn’t, only interpretations” – sometimes called as perspectivism. Not only does Nietzsche hold that no interpretation, no perspective, is privileged over any other, but he also holds that there is no truth in any perspective. Nietzsche’s denial of truth is an absolute denial of the ‘correspondence theory’ of truth in philosophy where the idea is that a proposition is true if it corresponds to something independent of itself – something which David Armstrong in Truth & Truthmakers called ‘truth-makers’. That Donald Trump is the President of the United States is a fact and can’t be denied only because it is an exclusive claim, meaning that if he is not then someone else must be which is untrue. We see here an application of Cartesian objectivity to tread on the really volatile lines of subjectivity – just like we can’t reason that there’s no reason, similarly there are certain truths such as me claiming that I’m writing this in the English language which are self-evident. From Plato, through the Scholastics, to Descartes and beyond, thought has come to presuppose existence and the ‘truth-maker’ theory is an extension of this. Nietzsche’s conception is nihilistic because he declares the very existence to be false, that “there are no absolute nature of things” and therefore even such ‘truth- makers’ will falter to the subjectivity and the falsity ascribed to his world. Such a chaotic world has found resort and acceptance in Orwellian states such as Russia, North Korea etc. (presently). Nietzsche is not alone in his never ending subjectivity of the truth. The spirit philosopher of Vladimir Putin – an obscure and uncelebrated fascist 19th Century Russian philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, propagated a world similar to that of Nietzsche’s. Brought to limelight by Putin himself in Russia and international study by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, Ilyin firmly believed that “the factual world doesn’t count. It’s not real” and such a world of facts horrified him because they had “no value whatsoever”. He believed that “God created the world but that was a mistake. The world was a kind of aborted process,” because it lacks coherence and unity. He also propagated lawlessness as a virtue “to be made so pure as to be invisible” and the idea of “democracy as a ritual”, frightening and dangerous worldviews heavily and religiously espoused by Putin throughout his tenure. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.
What 2016 changed for the world was not a sudden departure from the world of truth but a legitimisation of the world of lies. If we’ve understood anything about the abuse of power, it is that power can legitimise anything – be it lies, hatred or violence. So it is not that we are actually in a state of civil war in India as if often portrayed by the Indian liberal media – in fact 2008 still remains the year of the highest communal violence in the 21st Century for India (during the tenure of the left leaning centrist party Congress led UPA coalition) – but that when a leader like Narendra Modi (a person with far right ideologies) comes to power, the hatred that has always been pre-existing in a society finds legitimisation, finds new power. In America, similar legitimisation is taking place – but mainly the legitimisation of lying – everything can be denied and you can get away with lying. If the President can, everybody can. But this still doesn’t convince me of a ‘post-truth’ era, because in Trump, we have a terrible liar and not a good liar. As Nixon said sinisterly in his cold and icy interview with David Frost post- Watergate, “when the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Good propaganda is subtle propaganda, propaganda that doesn’t feel like propaganda and the same applies to lies– this Trumpian sense of reality is of course dangerous because it has wide ranging ramifications for world politics, America’s domestic politics and more importantly for the entire world given America’s hegemony. Politicians have always lied, people have always lied. But that a President can outrightly go out in the public and deny things he has said (of which there are documentary evidence) is scary.
Let us try introspecting how much of our daily lives are actually covered with truth, what about the person you don’t talk to because you ‘heard’ that he’s weird, what about the person you have stopped talking to because you ‘heard’ that he/she committed a crime 9 years back. You don’t know for sure but your decision to stop talking and not talking will surely be based on your unfounded reality. Nobody goes to the pains of finding out the ‘truth’. The only existing truth and the existing history hitherto had been the truth and history as written by power. But power writes history, it does now minimally. Social media for example has democratised the way information is disseminated and history recorded. Now, you can get to know about the X event by any random Y without having to singularly rely on the media reporting about the X event. Even better, the random Y may record something historic which might not have been recorded by the mainstream media at all. For example, let us take Kapil Dev’s record 175 runs against Zimbabwe in the group stages of the 1983 Cricket World Cup. There is no video footage of the same till date because the BBC was on the strike that day, and unsurprisingly it is a very less talked about innings of his although it’s clearly his highest score in an ODI match. But such a seeming misfortune would never take place in today’s age of social media where almost everything is recorded.
But such unhindered democratisation also led to events which have made us question the very purpose of democracy – again, the Brexit and Trump’s election. What the fake news crisis of social media and mainly Facebook has shown us is that such unhindered and unaccountable dissemination of information is bound to lead to chaos and abusive interventions (read Russian cyber interference). A staggering 68% of the population in the US and 66% of the population in the UK rely on social media for news, as was found in the wake of the two events. But funnily enough, more than half of the people didn’t trust the news they read on social media but despite that kept going back on to these sites for news. This indicates, firstly that the world is in fact moving onto digital news and will stick to it and secondly that, the centralisation of information towards monopolistic corporations such as Google and Facebook is extremely dangerous. Moreover, this is redefining the way we understand ‘news’ and ‘truth’ because the very birth of media was based on the purpose of relaying things through the grapevine but, and this distinction is important here, from the horse’s mouth and not from any little bird. There can be two possibilities in the post-social media world, one being that there is a complete merge of the real and the virtual and the power dynamics of the real are shifted into the virtual or secondly, which is presently the case, the very existence of media and journalism as we understand it is destroyed because of the extreme decentralisation of information, down to the last man standing.
John Searle, arguing by the use of the principle of ‘disquotation’ has said that such a world of ‘post-truth’ is simply impossible because of the “indispensability of the notion of truth”. Furthering Wittgenstein’s theory of causality between language and reality, he gives the example of how human beings will always be in distinction to other animals because of their need of a second order meta-vocabulary to make sense of their reality, and how language even if used varyingly will always be interested in finding some truth – in distinction to Nietzsche’s absolute perspectivism. He cautions however, against the abuse of this principle even if it may make discussing truth redundant because a statement would be true by just saying the statement. That would imply what Trump believes in – only in his truth and whatever he says to be true. But that is not right because the fact that two expressions have the same truth conditions doesn’t imply that they’re in the same meaning or that one is redundant. For example, let us look at Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville incident where a Unite The Right rally turned violent and two people were literally crushed to death by a car by a neo- Nazi. Here I have stated the facts of the matter as was reported by the media and as it happened. And Trump condemned these attacks based on these truth conditions but also slyly seeped in his valuation of the event calling out “both sides which were violent”. Searle argues that such events should convince us why we’ll never be in a post-truth world essentially because the “representation of an independently existing reality is absolutely essential to the functioning of language as we construe it” because many other functions are dependent on this primary function of language – and that this distinction does require the notion of truth.
The problem is not so much as with the denial of truth, but the deliberate war against it and against any attempt to try finding the truth, something which can break democracies, and something akin to the birth of totalitarian states. Even with all the democratisation and decentralisation of information by social media, the world of Orwell and Arendt are still relevant to understand misinformation and untruth and propaganda – and that power still writes history, Trump’s very war against the “liberal media” and “fake news” or the BJP’s attempt in India, at historic revisionism and attacks against the “liberal media” are testimonies to the same – that lies, hatred, misinformation, violence and lawlessness, if used by power will be legitimised.
Elon Musk recently stated, in his interview with Joe Rogan that human beings are already at the first stage of becoming cyborgs, because of our unbreakable attachment to our smart devices and the transmutation of our physical memory and linguistic and social interactions onto the digital landscape, and if we indeed do completely shift into the digital world, the first thing that will transferred will the power dynamics of how media works, i.e. whoever controls information in the reality today will inevitably control information in the virtual reality, although the Murdochs might become the Zuckerbergs, power as is tasted will be no different. In such a future, and if Facebook’s tackling of fake news by way of AIs fail, then we might have to consider a strict licensing system of who and what disseminates information, before this breaks democracies around the world.
Swagat Baruah is writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.