Why can’t we agree on what’s true anymore?
It is fashionable to believe these days that Trump, Putin, Modi, Xi, Erdogan, etc have ushered in a new era of right-wing politics wherein all of us being relentlessly subject to propaganda and our liberties are being curtailed. This piece in The Guardian questions this notion and says “It’s not about foreign trolls, filter bubbles or fake news. Technology encourages us to believe we can all have first-hand access to the ‘real’ facts…the single biggest change in our public sphere is that we now have an unimaginable excess of news and content, where once we had scarcity. Suddenly, the analogue channels and professions we depended on for our knowledge of the world have come to seem partial, slow and dispensable.”
Basically, we are now fed so much information that we believe – that in our infinite wisdom – we have the definitive perspective and the last word on every damn thing under the sun. In the process, we have lost sense of perspective: “How exactly do we distinguish this critical mentality from that of the conspiracy theorist, who is convinced that they alone have seen through the official version of events? Or to turn the question around, how might it be possible to recognise the most flagrant cases of bias in the behaviour of reporters and experts, but nevertheless to accept that what they say is often a reasonable depiction of the world?”
Our loss of perspective on what is real and what isn’t, what is relevant and what isn’t is especially devastating for us if “contrary to initial hype surrounding big data, the explosion of information available to us is making it harder, not easier, to achieve consensus on truth. As the quantity of information increases, the need to pick out bite-size pieces of content rises accordingly. In this radically sceptical age, questions of where to look, what to focus on and who to trust are ones that we increasingly seek to answer for ourselves, without the help of intermediaries. This is a liberation of sorts, but it is also at the heart of our deteriorating confidence in public institutions.”
This loss of faith in public institutions can have powerful implications. Rather than Trump or Modi attacking democracy, our own – self-inflicted – loss of faith in public institutions can undermine democracy. In fact, at Marcellus we would argue this has already happened with many members of Indian urban elite having switched off from the political discourse due to the notion that nothing can be done about Indian politics and Indian politicians. The Guardian article warns us about the dangers of burying our heads in the sand: “Over-reliant on analogies to 20th century totalitarianism, it paints the present moment as a moral conflict between truth and lies, with an unthinking public passively consuming the results. But our relationship to information and news is now entirely different: it has become an active and critical one, that is deeply suspicious of the official line. Nowadays, everyone is engaged in spotting and rebutting propaganda of one kind or another, curating our news feeds, attacking the framing of the other side and consciously resisting manipulation. In some ways, we have become too concerned with truth, to the point where we can no longer agree on it…political problems arise once we turn against all representations and framings of reality, on the basis that these are compromised and biased – as if some purer, unmediated access to the truth might be possible instead. This is a seductive, but misleading ideal.”