Confronting a disregard for the truth
‘POST-TRUTH” was selected as the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of 2016. Trump-inspired and aided by Facebook algorithms, it clicks. What happens isn’t as important as what you think happens, and if you think something is true then it simply is true. But truth be told, post-truth still suggests the involvement of truth; truth exists, it is there, and yet it is blithely bypassed by emotion and prejudice, and thus there’s a more dangerous term that better describes some recent events: “pre-truth”.
Ante-fact, contra vero, pre verite – you conjugate it – the state in which truth is hidden and perhaps forever unknown. Let’s nominate it for the Oxford kudos next year.
The Trump phenomenon has rendered facts useless, while in Thailand there’s plenty of pre-truth incidents. The massacre of October 6, 1976, for instance, with its 40th anniversary last month all about remembering and not much about enlightening. What happened happened, period. Last year, the deaths of certain men while in police custody remain an insoluble mystery rivaling the JFK assassination. In the deep South with over 6000 deaths, how many of them can be explained, because every death, like every life, deserves an explanation? Or something more recent: how much did the Ratchapakdi Park actually cost? When such a simple fact isn’t made public we sing a dirge to accountability. The same with most other construction projects of every government in which the transparency of the account isn’t available online for all to see, as it should have been.
Saddest of all are those lese majeste cases, where the truth about what really happened is always hidden in the deepest recesses, including the latest charge against Bandit Aneeya, the 75-year-old “mad-genius writer” who has published over 40 books and who was thrown in jail earlier this week for something he allegedly said last year. This is the fourth arrest of the old man on the same charge. He was bailed out on November 17. Post-truth is scary. Pre-truth even more so. The unlucky experience both.
In a world split by ego and carved to pieces by bias, shattered by ideology and divided by fear, the quest to make truth relevant is the responsibility of the media and the audience. For the media, the post-truth age is frustrating because the principle of our practice is rendered moot. Many in the US continue to believe that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump even though it was a fib. But it is especially tough when journalists are stuck in the age of pre-truths – when many topics are forbidden from the sphere of discussion, and everyone has to pretend nothing has happened when much has happened. At best, you resort to innuendo and gossip whispered in cupped hands, at worst you buy into conspiracy theories or superstition.
We snicker at the political aftershock in the US, but the pre-truth condition is more laughable still. All the post-truth social media manoeuvring prior to the US presidential election has yielded a blooper, and yet it’s understandable: The election was a competition, and you employ all the tricks you have, disrespectable or otherwise, to come out on top. Here, what’s the use of truth or post-truth tactics when you don’t even have a competition, when the public is told to move in the same, pre-prescribed direction, and when public offices are occupied by a parade of un-whetted officers? For these people who have no accountability to the electorate, truth isn’t just irrelevant. It is non-existent.
For consumers of news, the demand to sift through junk to arrive at truth is so great that we end up taking the side of junk. It is just easier that way.
Fake news, phony pages, distorted reports, groundless accusations, the algorithmically curated feed tailored to your liking, which is often substantiates prejudices, are all having their heyday. Social media is supposed to expand horizons, to open up a world once hidden. But instead its proving to function as a narrowing agent and what has been hidden keeps being hidden, such as opposing viewpoints. (Facebook has acknowledged this, to an extent.) Again, the result of the US presidential election has been cited as an example. And again, it feels more worrying here. I’m reminded of the mad poet Bandit and his recent arrest because it hardly made news, zero on television of course, and was hardly a talking point, which means such a case has been normalised in our perception: “Oh, it’s just another case that we’ll never know what happened, where the truth is unattainable. Let’s forget it, scroll down.”
Yes, there’s no one truth – there are truths, versions of truths, disputable truths. But at least it’s something. The pre-truth condition only means a pre-modern mentality. It is a vacuum, a place with no gravity, and only bad forces thrive there. –
It is especially tough when journalists are stuck in the age of pre-truths – when many topics are forbidden from the sphere of discussion, and everyone has to pretend nothing has happened when much has happened.
Kong Rithdee is Life editor at the