The Trials and Tribulations of Truth
The name Daniel Ellsberg, may or may not ring a bell, some may vaguely recognize him while others may be totally ignorant.
Nevertheless, his act of defiance some four decades ago, was a momentous marker not only in retrospective context but also in the perils of the present. He demonstrated the potent power of rational belief in altering perception peddled by the highest authority and exposed the vulnerability of established lies in face of the courage and the conviction of truth.
Truth, however, like everything else in the universe is relative. Its relativity is what makes it measurable… This is true in relation to that or the opposite, the truth becomes untruth when the relative factors change. Its dependence on varied factors lends truth, its core strength but at the same time makes it venerable and flux. The constantly altering definition finds expression in the popular narrative of the time.
It is a dialectical process which can be trusted, historically to throw up a truth relevant to the time in hand. But…history bears testimony through events and episodes, about multiple attempts made to reinterpret and alter the factuality of the facts, leading to a forceful sifting of perception and hence a changed truth. It leads to chaos, touching upon the realms of both tangible and intangible. And out of such a vortex, emerges a new reality… like the preset discourse of Post Truth.
Post Truth was declared the “The word of the year” in 2016, by Oxford English Dictionary. On its website the dictionary notes that the transformation of “Post Truth from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary and connects the spike in frequency” of its use…directly with the Brexit referendum in the UK and election of Donald Trump in the United States.
Paired with the noun politics, post truth is defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion and personal belief”
The word was first used by playwright, novelist and screenwriter Steve Tesich in his essay The Nations.
He writes “ We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters can only drool in their dream. All the dictators up till now had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We by our actions are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude, the truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post truth world”
Tesich’s truth includes both facts, as “in what happens” and “moral absolutes” that are self evident. Together the truth entails an obligation both to act and react. He was alarmed and concerned that people were neither prepared to act on the truth nor react to the truth. A situation of inactivity which he categorized as Post truth. In contrast Post Truth as defined by oxford, pitches “objective facts” against “emotional personal belief”.
Such that the latter seem to have overtaken the former in shaping public opinion and thereby democratic politics. On the surface both opinions may not appear identical, but deep down it is the same manipulative tweaking that is at work.
This tweaking is, in part, possible because of the conventional nature of language. The association of names and things are result of “ human use and habit” rather than “nature or divine dispensation”. It means language is incapable of providing its users any independent criteria for judgment. Language thus is open to manipulation by its users to serve power.
The tendency nowadays is to use social media and internet platforms as incubators for the cyber war of words that fuels real-world politics. This, in a way, degenerates languages into a mere medium “expressing subjective opinion and feeling” rather than “objective facts and accurate information”. Philosophically, this becomes the very basis for manipulating the conditions and the circumstances that leads to the emergence of “Truth”.
What then, one may ask, is the antidote to such a state of affairs? The answer can be found at the very core of the word Post Truth itself. Post means after, as in Post independence, meaning after independence. Using post truth as an adjective to the term politics suggests that there was a time when politics alighted with truth.
If we start with Plato’s Republic,(The foundation of western philosophy) we find that the ideal polis is where truth and politics converge and justice is achieved. With Athens still coping from the defeat in the Peloponnesian war, Plato advocated the rule by the Philosopher King. The Philosopher is defined as someone who is guided by the truth and is “ always in every way” in pursuit of the truth.
For Plato “truth” converges with virtue and hence letting a philosopher king take charge of politics is to let the wisest and virtuous lead the less wise and the less virtuous. Plato claimed that we all are earth born brothers with a random mix of gold, silver, bronze and iron. But only the gold can rule. He was the first to introduce the distinction between those who know but do not act and those who act but do not know.
Through this argument, Plato provides the normative ground for those who know the truth to tell those who do not know what to do. Herein lies the antidote, the antithesis of Post Truth. It is the sheer strength of truth that can counter the untruth. But the onus is on those, who know the truth for a fact, to fight and clear the mist of doubt. In today’s world where misinformation reigns supreme and manipulation is rampant, it requires plain and simple courage to speak the truth.
“Courage is contagious,” said Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked seven thousand pages of top secret history of Vietnam war and exposed more than two decades of United States government’s deceit and shameless lies. He was a whistleblower on a patriotic mission. The Pentagon papers as they came to be called, pressured US leaders to seek a negotiated end to the Vietnam war.
Ellsberg when he went to Vietnam, for the State Department, believed that the war was a necessary evil to counter communism. But he was disillusioned when he realized that it was actually a counterrevolution that denied Vietnamese people the right of self determination, disguised as a battle for democracy.
His life is a blazing example of how individual acts of courage, have the ability to ignite a wildfire that would consume the impurities and make the gold shine brighter.
He passed away a fortnight ago, on June 16, 2023, but left behind a legacy of dedication, courage, and determination. An inspiration for the new age Julian Assuage, Snowden and likes, who have put their entire lives at stake to resist attempts at dislodging and discrediting virtue and truth as the highest ideal of humanity.
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