As a student in the Indian city of Calcutta, I participated in animated debates over how to know the truth, or whether it can be possible to know the truth and what should count as true.
This is an academic debate about the philosophy of science, how we get to know what we think is the truth, but it is also about truth in the popular imagination and public discourse.
It had been more than 10 years since my Calcutta days when someone sitting next to me in a debate spoke about the current era being a ‘post-truth’ world. It was Onapito Ekomoloit on NTV’s Fourth Estate talk show sometime in 2016.
I did not challenge Onapito on his sensationalist assertion of a ‘post-truth’ because I was unsure he actually fully understood the underlying assumptions and the origins of that concept.
If I may digress just a little bit and say Onapito had exhibited a knack for unveiled micro-aggressions and snide barbs against me on and off-air.
In one instructive incident, tapping me on the shoulder with the paternalism of a master chiding their servant or a father to a son, he asked, ‘what do you do in America?’ I teach at a university, I said. ‘But you,’ he continued with sheer condescension, ‘what can you teach Americans?’ I did not answer back.
Later, I realised the basis of that sardonic questioning is his belief in White supremacy such that a Black man in me is inherently incapable of teaching White people. That is the thinking of a former presidential spokesman, now a director in a leading international beer brand.
For the record, I never brought up these issues with the show host (Charles Mwanguhya) or the producer (Emma Mutaizibwa), two of our very best in journalism, but Mr Onapito’s unwarranted rudeness and hostility drove me to gradually withdraw from appearing on the talk show.
His animus against me was obviously borne of my blunt and critical views on the Museveni regime and especially the ruler-in-chief himself, who Onapito considers the best thing to have happened to Uganda and who should be succeeded by his son.
That aside and to the idea that we live in a ‘post-truth’ world, this is perhaps one of the most dangerous ideologies, if I may call it so, of our times. It undermines the pursuit of knowledge and devalues constructive public discourse because, after all, there is no truth, so what is the point.
Truth has always been a contested value and an elusive ideal. But since the dawn of the scientific revolution, the believe in the scientific method that subjects assertions and claims to rigorous investigation and verification, that we assemble facts and back up our claims with evidence, the predominant trend has always been to stick to the search for knowledge from which conclusions at least nearing the truth can be made.
This is by no means to suggest that truth is absolute or finite. In fact, quite on the contrary, a critical component of the scientific tradition is to treat truth statements as tentative and open to falsification from which new knowledge is created. This still remains the consensus in mainstream academia.
However, matters are complicated in the public sphere and in the popular imagination. The Internet revolution, arguably the most important innovation in human history, flung the doors wide open. What the Internet has done to change the world, from the way we live and communicate to interconnectedness and accessibility, is simply phenomenal and unparalleled.
Yet, as I have argued here before, the power of the Internet is a double-edged sword. It is both a source of information and disinformation, it eases communication but also facilitates inflammatory messaging, provides news in real time and falsehoods in quick order, it has armed individuals to have voice while at the same time enabling the flouring of ill-informed and misleading commentary. The flow of news and opinions has been ‘democratised’ but also debased.
This is where the glorification of a ‘post-truth’ world becomes a dangerous fantasy, creating the impression that somehow, we cannot separate fact from fiction or informed opinion from baseless utterances.
No one has the last word on anything, but that is not to say we should abandon the value of truth telling.
If anything, it is precisely because of the nature of the internet age that has innumerable sources and enormous material, an era where everybody can claim expertise on anything, and given fast-moving events and rapidly shifting developments that we should value more the pursuit of truth.
Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).