Wednesday June 12, 2024

The thing about truth

By Hussain H Zaidi
February 01, 2023

In ‘tell-all’ interviews and explosive statements, former prime minister Imran Khan, who has the knack of staying in the news, is heaping all sorts of allegations on all sorts of people – from politicians to institutions.

Is the popular leader calling a spade a spade now or was he doing so in the past? If he is speaking the truth now, his is – at best – a half truth. If, as he has been alleging since his ouster from power, political engineering is a reality, how will popular politicians like him react when it is done to their benefit? Don’t they seek to maximize the pay-offs as long as the sun shines and luck smiles on them? Complete truth will entail admission of their own questionable role in the alleged political manipulations together with the benefits they drew. This they’re shy of making.

This doesn’t mean that speaking half-truths is exclusive to politicians or Pakistani society. It is a common human trait, which cuts across classes, occupations, and societies, whether it’s the age of the pulpit, or the press or of 24/7 electronic media.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is one example of a person who was a resounding success both as a man of the intellect and a man of the world. He was a lawyer, parliamentarian, statesman, philosopher, and a pioneer of scientific thought, who rose to hold the highest judicial office of England. At the same time, he was a treacherous character, who had the knack of throwing his friends and benefactors under the bus. His dubious character in the end brought about his fall.

Bacon’s reputation as an author rests in the main on his short, pithy essays, which represent a unique blend of philosophical depth, worldly wisdom and literary brilliance. One of the finest of these essays is ‘Of Truth’. Men, says Bacon, have a natural love of the lie and are inclined to lying for the sake of it. By and large, they have little regard for the truth. The reasons for short-shrifting the truth are many.

To begin with, it requires a lot of toil to ascertain the truth, whereas lies can be manufactured at the blink of an eye. The truth binds people to a certain position and thus boxes-in their freedom of action. The truth can show only what is really out there, whereas falsehood knows no such limitations. It can conveniently create what doesn’t exist. A lie covers up people’s true personality, which they had better not reveal, allowing sinners to appear as saints and cons to pose as persons of integrity. The truth is often dull and colourless and thus fails to impress a considerable section of society. On the other hand, a mixture of truths and lies – half-truths as we may call it – makes one’s pitch or narrative interesting and thus easier to sell to a wider audience.

The contemporary post-truth era embodies a definitive vindication of Bacon’s thesis. The distinction between facts and values, knowledge and belief, and truth and opinion has largely been obliterated. Fake news has taken social media by storm and made verified information, which requires considerable toil to collect, look a sheer waste of time and energy.

According to French historian Ran Halevi, the factors which have contributed to the rise of the post-truth era include the discrediting of experts and political parties, mistrust of traditional media, which puts a high premium on credible information, rise of partisan media and social networks, and rising communitarianism. However, if Francis Bacon were alive, he would instantly point out that people seldom care for the truth in its own right, and that the post truth era has only been midwifed – not given birth to – by the strides in information and communication technology.

Coming back to Pakistan, in making use of social and electronic media, to construct narratives on the basis of at best half-truths, the PTI stands above its rivals head and shoulder. It all started with the party’s anti-corruption narrative, whose pitch was that all, and only, politicians are corrupt every inch. At the same time anyone from that corrupt breed was welcomed to the party’s folds with open arms and would become Mr or Ms Clean overnight.

Corruption, no doubt, has run endemic in Pakistan, but the claim that only politicians are mired in corruption, or that every politician is corrupt, is at best half true, as graft cuts across classes and occupations.

Understandably, most people subscribe to the graft narrative, but almost no one would admit that they themselves are in any way drawn towards corruption. The businesses believe that the public sector is corrupt to the bone; civil servants see politicians as the villain of the piece; politicians set down their failure to the machinations of powerful institutions, and the latter look down upon all others as incompetent to the core.

Not only that, the scale of corruption was grossly exaggerated on the basis of an off-the-cough remark of the then head of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which put the graft figure in the country at Rs7 billion a day. An organic kernel of the anti-graft narrative was the view that white-collar crooks stashed away huge foreign exchange, to the tune of $200 billion, in banks overseas.

When corruption is seen as the root cause of all problems afflicting the polity, other crucial factors that bear upon governance and economic growth are disregarded. That actually happened during the PTI’s term in office when infatuation with rooting out graft struck at both governance and the economy. Nor was the party able to honour its commitment to bring back the $200 billion from foreign banks – which were simply non-existent – and break the begging bowl.

At the other end of the scale, the alleged relationship between democracy and development is dubious as well. Democracy may be the most legitimate and humanistic form of government but there’s no causal link between the two variables in question. Democracy may, as in the West, usher in development and economic prosperity. On the other hand, authoritarianism, as in the former USSR and at present in China and Singapore, may create an economic miracle as well.

Pakistan must continue to be a multi-party democracy. At the same time, the claim that democracy is either necessary or sufficient for putting the country on the road to sustained economic growth embodies at best a half-truth. But those who stand to benefit by this claim will present it as wholly true, much like the exponents of the anti-graft narrative.

As defamation laws in Pakistan lack adequate implementation, any powerful person or organization can level any allegation – including being a traitor and a murderer – on others and get away with that. The followers blindly subscribe to the charges and readily and religiously disseminate the venom. Few, if any, care to go through the rigmarole of ascertaining the truth. Counter information, along with its source, is discredited immediately as fake news.

That’s how overnight an accused is made into a convict, allegations are seen as facts, and a narrative gets the status of a truth, pure and simple. In such a world, the distinction between the outstanding and the outlandish, the serious and the absurd, the sacred and the profane, the realistic and the quixotic, the credible and the dubious, and facts and opinions is obliterated. In a word, in such a world fair is foul and foul is fair.

The poet Alexander Pope in his characteristic witty fashion described Francis Bacon as the “wisest, the brightest, and the meanest of mankind.” Do we have anyone around who comes anywhere near to the fallen English savant in the first two of the three attributes?

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: