Debate: We Are Living in a Post-Truth World

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Anne Waldman, Ashutosh Varshney, David McWilliams, Luke Harding, Shashi Tharoor, Prasoon Joshi, Suhel Seth, and Swapan Dasgupta moderated by Barkha Dutt

Prachi Bhagwat, Rushati Mukherjee, and Harish Alagappa, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Bloggers

 

The tenth edition of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival ended not with a whimper but with a bang, as nine vociferous and passionate speakers engaged in a spirited debate on truth, post-truth, and everything in between.

Journalist and broadcaster Barkha Dutt was tasked with keeping a panel of people with diametrically opposite views and boisterous rhetoric on track, with some assistance from percussionist and band leader of Rajasthan Josh, Nathu Lal Solanki. Dutt began the debate by referencing a study by Stanford University, which stated that fake news stories were shared over 30 million times in the leadup to the 2016 US Presidential election. ‘Lies and propaganda have always been the bedrock of politics’, she stated, before opening the floor to the panellists.

Writer and lyricist Prasoon Joshi believed that the phrase Post-Truth is anything more than a recently constructed buzzword. ‘I’ve asked a lot of people about it, and I’ve met a lot of people who haven’t even heard the word Post-Truth’, adding that he disagreed with the idea that emotions and beliefs overpowering facts is a recent phenomenon. ‘This has been the case since time immemorial,’ Joshi said. ‘Ideas are all based on emotions. Without emotions and beliefs, we wouldn’t have a society.’

Journalist and author Luke Harding was relatively sombre, as he described how the emergence of authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Rodrigo Duterte is symptomatic of the world heading into a post-truth era. ‘Truth is irrelevant, what matters is that narratives can be shouted at you on social media,’ he said, describing the modus operandi of such leaders: ‘they flood our ears and deafen us with noise and do what they want in the meantime.’ In a scathing attack on supporters of such rhetoric, Harding declared, ‘When you support the idea of Post-Truth, you are supporting Putin and Trump.’

When a panel includes Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta, and writer and entrepreneur Suhel Seth, fireworks are guaranteed. The central thrust of Dasgupta’s argument involved railing against established media and the narratives they help to create. He repeatedly asserted that Dutt was trying to ‘manipulate’ the panel by quoting misleading statistics from elitist institutions such as Stanford University. ‘People from the media have created this nonsense about truth and post-truth,’ he proclaimed, ‘it’s like intolerance and ghar wapsi’. Dasgupta elaborated that it was the people who thought they had a monopoly over truth and wisdom  – ‘the losers of the world’ – and found that the masses did not agree, who had created the idea of post-truth.

Suhel Seth’s argument followed a similar line. ‘In our world’, Seth said, ‘we know how to distinguish facts from lies, even if lies get perpetuated. Thus we do not live in a post-truth world. The term post-truth was a coinage of the media,’ he declared, adding ‘the idea that we only live in a world of truisms and not lies, or only lies and not truisms in itself is facetious.’  He concluded by stating that while we live in a post-truth world, the facilities for separating truth from not-truth are available to all. ‘The facts obliterate untruth,’ he pointed out, attacking the idea of post-truth from multiple angles. Multiple truths may contradict each other, but as ‘responsible global citizens’, we should be able to locate the ‘difference between facts and lies’.

We often see ‘a rope as a snake’, said Anne Waldman, which may constitute truth for the one perceiving. Hence, Waldman believed, ‘a truth that is not a truth’ cannot be denied, for it is true in someone’s experience. But, she was quick to add, it is a truth that is still perverted, citing climate change as a truth that is seen as fundamentally untrue by large sections of the American public and establishment, even in the face of the indisputable facts existing to the contrary. For those who choose to believe in truth beyond their experience, she encouraged them not to let their voices be erased.

Former Union Minister, and Member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor, argued that we have never lived in a world devoid of lies. He agreed that social media has made it easier to propagate lies but also pointed out that it has also facilitated tools to assert the truth. While it is true that there exists a multiplicity of truths that are constantly pitted against one another, there is also a wealth of information that one can use to check the accuracy of statements.

Ashutosh Varshney offered a reasoned argument in favour of the motion, but emphasised, like Tharoor, that the post-truth phenomenon is not a recent one. Quoting Gramsci, Foucault and Nietzsche, professor Varshney showed how scholars in the past have shown how the ruling elite are often in possession of power to influence social consciousness. He warned, however, that social media is a double-edged sword.

Journalist, economist and broadcaster David McWilliams described the current situation as ‘an assault on convention.’ He argued that the term ‘post-truth’ is merely a response of the ‘conventional man’ and woman to resist forces that make it impossible for him or her to hold onto conventional opinions.

In an intense debate, the speakers’ rambunctiousness often meant that they blurred the lines between speaking for and against the motion, which served as an apt metaphor for the post-truth world: lots of buzz, but not much clarity.

 

Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill

 

 

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