Con­fronting a dis­re­gard for the truth

The Myanmar Times - - News - KONG RITHDEE news­room@mm­times.com

‘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

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