People lie all the time. For an intuitive reflex, a survival strategy, aided by something called unethical amnesia, it is irreparably damaging when the people around us indulge in disingenuousness. The truth; now that is a whole other quantity. A paradigm, a learned habit touching the boundaries of ideology, it helped secure civilisation against the delusions of tribalism. And we had it pedastaled, venerated as dear and sacred. Today as with all things sacred, the very idea of truth is under siege. So what is truth, and why is it so important? In the dawning age of post-truth, we feel the need now more than ever to try and outline the importance of being earnest.
When as children we were told repeatedly to speak the truth, what did we think it was? At that age all we could comprehend was that truth had an aura of righteousness and it was attached to that other abstract thing goodness. We didn’t examine anything too closely. For instance, were we telling the truth when we described an event as we experienced it? The problem is that everyone has a different impression of the same experience. Everyone has a different version. Truth will be nebulous if the actual mechanics of it escapes us even in adulthood.
I once watched video footage of a road accident on a news channel. An accelerating two-wheeler shot out of a lane without slowing down to check for other vehicles before trying to merge into the main road. The bike was struck by a car which too was moving along at some speed unmindful of traffic from adjoining lanes. Both vehicles were moving way too fast, but in this case the two-wheeler seemed more at fault. The news channels, on the other hand, had taken umbrage on behalf of the smaller vehicle, as if it was a battle between David and Goliath. Sensible traffic rules everywhere clearly state that a turning vehicle trying to merge into a faster road must take utmost care by indicating and waiting for a gap in traffic before trying to merge. Taking sides does not equal truth.
Truth is, no one really cares about the truth, as people only care about versions, which in turn are based on inherent delusions. This makes people want to take sides. How do we come to be so deluded that the truth eludes us?
A little parcel of grudges tucked into the darkest recesses in our souls. A little parcel of resentful gremlins whispering to us from the inside.
Truth is always subservient to the duplicitous multiplicity of grudgingness. If these grudges ever saw the light of day they would be deemed silly, petty, and so are hidden away in the dark mind, growing in import and significance, finally conquering the truths that ought to be self-evident. The truth is out there, but we cannot get to it till we put some super human effort into overcoming the mean voices inside our own heads. And don’t be deceived by post-truth, or that everyone’s version needs a hearing. The founders of democratic nation states knew this, that there’s a truth that is above versions.
A war is on and we don’t know it yet. The obvious signs would be blood, violence, naked aggression, right. But what if the war is being waged on the nature of truth itself. What if the war is subliminal and incremental? How do you know then? Everywhere words that make sense are under attack. Facts harboured inside their fortresses made from bricks of the constitution are under siege. Minds are trophies to be conquered, hacked down and put on display as disembodied wall ornaments.
Debate has decayed and in its place there is pandering and little else. No criticism is permitted. Only flattery tolerated. Beat-down liberals, trophies on the walls of aggressive victors, now appease by asserting there’s a need to respect all opinion not just the ones you hear “inside your bubble”.
As I heard the bubble theory being trumpeted from the pulpits of news channels in different parts of the world and watched as representatives of extreme organisations began to get spaces to sound out their malevolence, which they also called “truths”, I felt something elemental had shifted in our generation. “Inside your bubble”, remember those facts in their constitutional fortresses under siege. Let’s not call facts truths any more. Truth is now a gormless word, an unword if you please, reduced to a negative of itself. Relentless propaganda unravelled and worked away at the very substance of the idea of truth.
And what are these opinions from beyond the bubble that need to be heard and respected? Capricious grudges grown up and walking about in the light of day like vampires lately immune to sunlight, monsters like racism, casteism, misogyny, religious fundamentalism of one kind or another depending on who’s in power.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that we live inside bubbles deaf to everything but our own group’s opinions and biases. Emotions, grudges act like buffers between us and our path to truth. But these bubbles that we live inside have been in existence throughout history and civilisation. A person belonging to a family or professing any one religion or ideology exists inside a bubble. Bubbles then are made up of many things including national, cultural and emotional ephemera. When people talk of bubbles this is what they mean. Life inside a bubble is not unique to any one time or any one group. Every group is insulated from other groups. People living in one tribe or country are cut off by boundaries from people in other nations or tribes. The people of Springfield regard the people of Shelbyville as strange and alien. And so on. Restrained inside these, individuals have to work hard to hear voices from beyond their bubbles.
But what does the truth, which remember ought to be self-evident, have anything do with bubble biases? Because of the self-evident nature of truth we should be able to define and delineate it easily. Or so we thought. Now the most basic truths are accused of being in a bubble, truth is charged with being elitist and cut off from reality. This happens only when we lose our capacity to distinguish between truth and opinion, or a grudge and a truth.
Truth like space is neither up nor down, elitist nor populist, and most importantly because of its universal nature, it is not possible to enclose it inside bubbles. Perhaps it was a mistake to protect it within sacred fortresses. Because it just is, it needs to be let out. Meant for everyone, anyone ready to listen.
Since bubbles are ever present and have always been around, is bubble-living then to be blamed for the state of the world? Something else has been at work these past few years. It is not so much that we are living inside our own bubbles, but rather that we are looking at the world through a lens. Specifically, the lens of social media, which has focused or rarefied our prejudices and accelerated disingenuousness. A few easy digital steps down this road, deception in the guise of fiction became the new normal.
Through the lens there is magnification and distortion. When we chose to look at the world through the lens of social media, what we see through it is bent. Like the harmless little selfie, at first that distorted fictional image we placed at the world’s doorstep was just to feel better about our selves. But soon narcissistic little fictions and distortions were everywhere. Through the lens, we lost our capacity to distinguish between personal megalomania and genuine democratic consensus.
Fiction is a more colourful and acceptable form of deception. In fiction, there is no moral judgement over the absence of truth. It is more interesting this way. Telling truths is old fashioned and this is mirrored in the currently vogue phrase “don’t judge me”. The noun ‘judgement’ has been semantically bent and is appearing online and in conversation as the adjectivised ‘judgemental’. People feel confident about exposing their flawed selves, grudges and all, online believing that if they are judged, that judgement can only be based on a grudge or a grievance harboured by the person judging. Their minds have transformed the person ‘judging’ into their ‘judgemental’ bete noire, which sometimes is the case, but not always. From judgement to judgemental, one word has travelled in meaning from reason to unreason, from unwavering logic to unstable caprice.
We see this in real time on twitter or whatsapp, as a comedy of errors, a war between grudges and grievances. This war has eroded the space for truthful observations.
Over a generation then there has been a shift in popular culture and the fiction it espouses from easily delineated good and bad to an increasingly literary pop fiction, full of complicated, compelling baddies and often monotonous goodies. This shift, however, is only a reflection of the world we live in. In this model of the world, a person can only be human if they are flawed. And the truth, when it exists in fiction or anywhere else becomes an absolutist, compassionless quantity lacking in tone and hue. But the truth as colourless as it is, also does not pander to our grudges or delusions. Since it is disarming but also discomfiting, it makes us unwilling to pay heed.
The simplest description I have come across of the nature of truth was on Star Trek,the original series. The centrism of the Vulcan logic of Spock was also a story about how a whole culture sought to make truthfulness an institution. The Vulcans found a way to get around emotional obstacles by using logic or truthfulness, which they found to be credible and potent as a political tool. Of course, Spock was also deemed colourless, robotic and monotonous.
Since truth telling, or fact shaming in some quarters, is a blasphemous anomaly in our complex confabulating political, religious and cultural milieu, fictional Spock began to stand out more and more as an interesting character in the Star Trek universe almost by defying the unwritten rules of characterisation in fiction. Science fiction often does that. Bare naked truth stripped of all manipulation could be bracing, even exhilarating. Dare I say, the truth, contrary to all expectation, was riveting, beguiling even in monochrome. Black and white revealed something about the world that was missing in colour. As Lord Byron then Mark Twain observed, Truth as it turns out was stranger than Fiction, perhaps more interesting.