Living in a post-truth world

I have been racking my brain for a positive New Year message. But the US election outcome, the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Aleppo, the brutalities against the Rohingyas in Myanmar have plunged me into despair. So if you were expecting "Happy New Year" wishes, this column will disappoint you. For, it's about my disillusionment in a world turned upside down…

It is small wonder that the Oxford Dictionary selected "post-truth" as 2016's international word of the year. The term is defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." The use of the new adjective has reportedly escalated after Donald Trump's election campaign where he and his surrogates deceived supporters and the media by crafting a new reality through fake news and fallacious propaganda.

People like us, who are still tuned to old beliefs, are finding it difficult to adapt to the new culture and ethos of carefully constructed lies marketed as the truth. To survive we need to recalibrate our brain and adapt to a set of new rules that seem to be guiding the leaders of today's post-truth era! Here are some of these newly minted rules:

New Rule 1: If foul play is suspected in an election held in a developing country, observers demand a re-election with stricter checks and monitoring. But, when a leading intelligence agency reveals that the US election was influenced by a foreign power through email leaks of one particular candidate, the phenomenon is termed as a "cyber attack". In fact, the winner counters these claims, discrediting the intelligence apparatus. Example: The CIA concluded that the Russians hacked and leaked Clinton campaign emails to compromise her position in the elections. Donald Trump dismissed the CIA's assertions as "ridiculous" and politically motivated.

New Rule 2: If the elected president of the United States uses his official status to help his foreign businesses, there are no legal consequences. However, if a leader from a developing country expands his business employing political influence, it is termed as corruption. Example: President-elect Trump 's corporate interests in multiple countries have raised concerns about his future foreign policy decisions. Trump, however, tweeted that the US president cannot have any "conflict of interest", implying that the presidency holds absolute power.

New Rule 3: It's perfectly acceptable to be an opportunist -- a politician can alter his public position to seize an opportunity. Principles are of no consequence. Example: Mitt Romney and Donald Trump threw barbs at each other during the campaign. Once Trump won, Romney praised Trump effusively and solicited a job in his administration.

New Rule 4: Spinning lies and hyperbole is the most effective strategy for winning an election. Before the public can refute a lie, replace it with a more lethal one so that people are utterly confused. If the media exposes a compromising truth accuse them of being dishonest and biased. Divert attention by pointing fingers at someone else. Example: When Trump was caught on tape admitting that he had made sexual advances on women taking advantage of his status and power, he and his surrogates trivialised the allegations and crucified the victims as "disgruntled partisans". The Trump machinery then resurrected cases of President Clinton's philandering and insinuated that Hillary was somehow responsible for her husband's infidelities!

New Rule 5: If a politician perceives a popular backlash against immigrants, he can unsparingly feed on this negativity to achieve electoral success. Brexit paved the way and later, Donald Trump trashed Mexicans, Muslims and other immigrants. Truth does not matter as long as the rhetoric appeals to the voter pool. Example: Trump accused all US Muslims of being terrorists or having terror links and labelled Mexicans as criminals and rapists. In summary, immigrants were made scapegoats for the economic and social problems facing "white America".

New Rule 6: A leader may live in opulence, be surrounded by the elite, evade taxes, but he can use false promises and clever lies to convince his voters that he is the champion of the middle class. Once elected these promises can be trashed and replaced by programmes that benefit the rich and leave the lower income groups worse off. Example: Given his billionaire and business CEO cabinet picks, the gap between Donald Trump's implied promises and delivered reality to the working-class is already looking ominous.

Truth seems to be the most serious casualty of 2016. Some may argue that life is not black and white -- it functions within shades of grey. And, we must accept "new realities" if we are to evolve. I agree that sometimes it is difficult to determine where virtue ends and vice begins. However, moral relativism can be dangerous since it blurs our vision from distinguishing between right and wrong.

It appears that we have reached a difficult juncture in human civilisation. Hence, as we welcome 2017, it may be worthwhile to take a short pause and reflect on Alexander Pope's warning in the Essay of Man:

"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace."


The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.