We are not living in the times of ‘post-truth’. We are living in an era where the media can no longer pass off unverified claims as the truth. That should be celebrated, not mourned.
There is a joke in the humanities circles about the predictable trajectory of conventional intellectual debates in university spaces and elsewhere. The proper way to understand the world, so goes the joke, is to engage with terms like orientalism, colonialism, nationalism, modernism etc. and then start the process all over again by prefixing ‘post’ before each term in the same breath. The ingenuity of the joke is striking as it reveals the inability of scholars to capture contemporary reality as anything other than post-ness of earlier realities. Even then, these scholars may be forgiven, or even sympathised, for the simple reason that, at least theoretically, these post-everything claim to contest the truth claims and universality of those post-less terms. Thus post-modern is not necessarily the aftermath of modern, but a more critical and nuanced attitude towards modernity, or as one of the advocates of postmodernism proposed, it is ‘an incredulity to meta-narratives’.
For academics and scholars, truth claim is associated with power, and by that logic, the emergence of this chimera called post-truth should bring hope rather than despair. Interestingly though, the world of journalism which gave life to post-truth as a contemporary truth-slaying monster has not been able to match the theoretical sophistication of academics and philosophers. We may say that the post-truth order is a manifestation of our lack of imagination to understand our times and our place in it. And we are told that this new order is something, which has descended upon us and has made itself manifest in Brexit and Trump’s presidency and is facilitated by something called fake news.
Some Indian columnists and intellectuals see elements of post-truth in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power and everything he says and does. But if truth-claim is an intellectual vice, where do we place the term ‘post-truth’, which mourns the loss of reason in contemporary times? In 2016, post-truth became the word of the year though it was coined earlier in 1992 by an American dramatist. The term is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
If post-ness means an attitude of incredulity/suspicion, we should be celebrating the ‘absence’ of truth, the way we celebrated post-modern and post-colonial. The fact that we are mourning over it not only betrays the inability of thought leaders to decode people’s behaviour, but in an insidious way, deny people the privilege of accessing truth. Though post-truth is linked with degradation of news media and the latter’s descent into the world of lies, what is conveniently ignored is that the very idea of media is predicated on the act of mediation or re-presentation; that is to say, media at best can only attempt to capture reality, but cannot really capture it. Untruth or lies are not extrinsic to media; they are in the heart of the latter.
Regardless of our conviction that the journalist is a truth-agent and is interested in unravelling truth, the fact of the matter is that truth is not antecedent to his/her social and moral universe. In reality, post-truth does not reveal the incapacity and irrationality of people; it reveals the growing realisation by elite subalternists that their time of entitlement over truth is over and that people are willing to explore and even produce their own truths outside mainstream (mostly left-liberal) media. For elite subalternists, subalterns are good fellows as long as they trust their elite emancipators.
Mainstream Media And Their Fake News
Post-truth order and its tools in the form of fake news reveal mainstream media’s fear that people no longer believe in their claims of transparency and see them as ideologically driven. Here are some illustrations, which will establish the collusion of left-liberal news media in the production of half-truths and lies. Recently, there was a news item in the form of a confession from Karan Thapar, a leading TV anchor whose intellectual credentials in journalistic circles is beyond doubt. He retracted from his earlier accusation of the Modi government for not having done enough to retain Raghuram Rajan as the Governor of RBI.
Thapar was not alone; all mainstream English media houses asserted the same and did not forget to add that Rajan was shunted out for being a critic of Modi’s politics. This is in spite of the fact that Rajan himself had cleared the air that he will not be able to extend his leave from his university. After spreading this ‘truth’, Thapar owned up the mistake, but while doing so, did not forget to establish himself as a responsible journalist and seeker of truth. First he produced truth in imagining Modi’s aversion to Rajan and then claimed that it was a mistake, thus making way for another truth. Truth indeed can reward one twice.
A couple of months back, a news channel came up with a provocative headline in the wake of a gang-molestation case in Uttar Pradesh. This was immediately after Yogi Adityanath was sworn in as Chief Minister. The headline read, “In Adityanath’s UP, 14 men molest two women”, but within minutes the headline was changed to “In UP, 14 men molest two women” after it emerged that the men who groped and video-graphed the women were Muslims and that the event happened in Rampur, a place under the control of Samajwadi Party’s (SP) Azam Khan. For the news channel, identifying the molesters as Muslims will compromise its secularism, the reason why truth must be repackaged. This is how ideology changes news value as well as news headlines.
One of the most repeated refrains in the run up to the 2017 UP election was Modi’s samsan, kabristan remark, which was selectively shown by news channels so as to prove that the Prime Minister’s anti-Muslim sentiment is beyond doubt. News anchors of most news channels went to the market condemning the blatant communal tone of Modi’s speech, which created an impression that the incumbent SP government pandered to Muslim demands and also pitted Hindu interest against Muslim interest. The only problem was that the full speech of Modi made a persuasive case for equal treatment of Hindus and Muslims. But mainstream media’s truth usually caters to those who prefer consuming truth from a secular plate.
Similarly Modi’s refusal to accept the skullcap in a sadbhavna rally in 2011 is that story which established him as the archetypal anti-Muslim demon. This was an integral part of the demonology around Modi, and was perhaps liberal English media’s greatest ever discovery that ‘established’ his axiomatic anti-Muslim politics. Madhu Kishwar has painstakingly shown in her research how in the same event the Prime Minister received a shawl with kalmia printed over it, something that was conveniently ignored by truth-loving media. Showing the whole clip or representing it as it was would have created ambivalence around the Modi narrative, and that was not a good thing for truth-seeking news channels.
At a local level, I have shown in these pages how the recent beef festival at IIT Madras was reported to create a dystopic picture of Hindutva when the fact of the matter was that it was a conspiracy by the Left cadre. The events cited above do not end here; there are way too many such incidents where the so-called progressive media have twisted events to such an extent that truth today has become the negation of news. At a broad philosophical level, media representation often elides truth, and the latter remains confined to words on the page. The news anchor or reporter is not a transcendent subject, but is situated like anybody else and just like anybody else he/she carries traces of cultural, economic, ideological background and can never escape from it. Though it comes easy to take pity on gullible people for falling prey to fake news, what is conveniently ignored is the ideological investment of mainstream media and their loud and muscular ways of certifying themselves as messengers of truth.
Post-truth Is Elitist And Exclusivist
Truth, or truth of the left-liberal media, is an expensive commodity, reserved for the intellectually endowed, who can guide the subaltern. Post-truth, on the other hand, is for the laity and the lowly. Didn’t these truth producers, till the other day, prided themselves as champions of people’s cause and spoke of people’s ability to interpret the world in their own ways? Didn’t they use all their critical vocabulary in demonising all universalising attempts to produce uniform truths that are oblivious of diversity? And didn’t they celebrate the multiple possibilities of texts and the virtues of interpretation? Yet at the same time didn’t they take upon themselves the responsibility of writing editorials to make sure that they expect readers to understand truth in prescribed ways?
Post-truth not only deprives the common people of their right over meaning, but also, in an insidious way, legitimates the right of the elite media managers to control the assigned and received social meanings. For post-truth believers, the frustrating realisation today is the sinking feeling that media truth is ideological and that people, who until recently were passive consumers of these high value truths, have come to believe in their ability to process or even produce truth. Now this is something that renders the truth-producers irrelevant and they know it. It is this realisation of irrelevance, not an epistemic shift in people’s response to reality, which made them invent post-truth.
For liberal media, rationality did not mean a disinterested engagement with facts, but a wilful subjugation to their authority. The reality is that the time we are living in is not post-truth, but people’s truth, a non-hierarchical way of knowledge processing and sharing. Such democratisation of truth (as in social media) is resistant to authoritative media. This is not to say that social media is beyond question; what is intended is that social media offers some freshness and creates opportunities for going beyond repetitive and hackneyed phrases of Left-liberal mainstream media.
Till the other day, journalists and other opinion makers prided themselves in speaking truth to power and imagined themselves as the last men standing to educate common people to see reality and truth. Now it seems, the whole business of speaking truth to power was a self-serving exercise to advance certain types of ideologies. Now that the vernacular India or provincial America has spoken decisively by voting for Modi and Donald Trump (autonomous of mainstream news stories and analyses) intellectuals of a certain political slant have created a new terminology, which interestingly exposes their failure to understand their situation. The logic goes like this: since common people cannot be entrusted with truth or agency in their actions, and since they have been lured/coerced by fundamentalist/capitalist forces to behave in untrue ways, we must be living in a post-truth era. But post-truth is not a genuine realisation of the vulnerability of truth claims, but an attempt to ring-fence themselves as carriers of truth; they still remain true to their role as truth producers.
It Is Great Awakening; Let Us Celebrate It
It will be in our interest to acknowledge that post-truth behaviour, if there is any such thing, is agentic and rational; it is just that our conditioning and vocabulary cannot appreciate such transgressions. Post-truth reveals the loss of authority by ideologically invested truth speakers rather than the non-rational ways of the people. The present time has established that liberal media no longer carry truth; in fact, post-truth betrays the limits of media truth rather than a post-truth condition. In India (or in the US) people have spoken and will continue to speak as they enter a possible future of aspiration and equality; election after election they are asserting their independence by voting for a positive change. This phase of people’s truth gives us unique opportunities; it is that moment in India’s history when the submissive recipients of truth are coming to find themselves in ways that mark the beginning of swaraj. Or should we call it the great awakening?
(Views expressed are personal)