Truth in All its Forms

Reflections on post-truth, Gandhian truth and other notions of it.

In the early part of 2016, the JNU controversy rocked the country. It was also one of the first events of the year to highlight – personally for me at least – the strong post-truth tendencies in the political arena.
I was at JNU in the midst of the uproar and had a good sense for what actually happened on the ground. Yet, when I returned to Bangalore, I found that people in this city were quick to dismiss even undeniable facts or incidents linked to the controversy. It was difficult to get people to moderate their views or to accept that there could have been background events to which they were not privy. They were not trying to distort reality. They were just completely convinced about their own version of it.

Donald Trump, of course, took this to an extreme in the 2016 election campaign by lying openly and cynically about a variety of issues. He knew his statements were false – as did most other people – but it not did matter in the final analysis. We saw a similar situation in Bangalore with the controversy over the proposed steel flyover in Bangalore. Even as opposition to the project grew, we could still spread the newspaper open every morning to read about an official claim that was blatantly untrue. In each instance, the minister or government spokesperson in question knew the statement being released was false and probably expected to be challenged on it. But that was less important than putting it out in the public domain.

Politicians play to the gallery in this manner all the time – through opinions or statements delivered to have an effect on us, as viewers and listeners. It doesn’t matter then if the NHAI actually approved the flyover construction or not, or if Hilary Clinton did indeed break the law or not. The negotiation on these issues is entirely with the audience and success depends on breaking through to it.

In Trump’s case, what is even more surprising is that his routine lying did nothing to erode his image as an essentially trustworthy candidate – at least within his core constituency. The paradox of the 2016 elections lies in the fact that for his supporters, Trump was a truthful man who had to lie to make his point. They were convinced it was Hilary who could not be trusted regardless of how closely her words corresponded with the facts. It is true that in the polarized aftermath of the elections, there are many in the opposite camp who dread the four years that lie ahead but that is a topic for another discussion.

Trump and others like him might defend their tactics by saying that if what they say feels true for their audience, it must be so. Politics, at any level and in any country, operates on a different kind of truth. Politicians know this very well and that explains the blasé and almost cheery indifference with which they voice their ‘truths’.

It is clearly a cynical approach but one that is entrenched in the political environment of today. But if we were to go back in history, we have an example in Gandhi for whom the notion of truth in politics was so strong as to be almost non-negotiable. This personal conviction set the tone for the Indian freedom movement and the early stages of our democracy.

Gandhi had a way of engaging with his adversaries without losing his keen-eyed focus on the truth. It would be hard and, perhaps impossible, to identify a single instance when he lied for political expediency or convenience.

His conscience drove him to speak and act in a way that did not always help his public standing. In the wake of violence triggered by the Partition, he made an unpopular appeal to Muslim and Hindu families to adopt and rescue orphaned children of the opposite faith. One might say that it was an ill-timed suggestion given the prevailing environment. But Gandhi was preoccupied with the truth and less worried about the consequences of voicing it. It was an integral part of his politics. It was clearly not easy being Gandhi but his is an example we cannot afford to ignore or forget.

For now, we have to acknowledge that verifiable statements of fact may be important in scientific and other investigations but not in politics. Different domains define their notions of the truth. Questions regarding the existence of atoms or molecules in our universe are tackled very differently in physics from the way those involving morality and ethics are handled in philosophy. It can get even more nuanced and complex when you attempt to address questions surrounding ideas of truth in art. The nature of activity in each of these areas dictates a specific view of the truth, and politics – with so many dimensions spanning electoral politics, governance and more – is no exception. What is true for one type of transaction in this field may not be true for another.

In business, as in politics, the truth can be subjective and often elusive. We see a similar skepticism here – a suspicion that the other person may be lying to us. Bargaining, for instance, is an example of one party calling the other party’s perceived bluff on pricing. With a certain amount of introspection, however, we can come up with a clearer notion of truth in business and clear the air of ambiguity – much as Gandhi did.

Dr Sundar Sarukkai is a professor in Philosophy at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore.