Lies, damned lies and us

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on October 06, 2019 Published on October 06, 2019

Title: Truth: A Brief History of Total Bullsh*t Author: Tom Phillips Publisher: Wildfire Price: ₹599

From Machiavelli to Donald Trump, the purveyors of falsehood have flourished

Tom Phillips is known for books with (thought) provocative titles. His previous work is called Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up — a book in which the fact-checker from the UK looked at the timeline of human failures, driving in lessons that could help us enhance our lives for the better. So scandalous seemed the book’s title and content that Phillips felt “dedicating this book to my family could be badly misinterpreted” and hence he dedicated it to anybody who has f****d up badly in life. If you haven’t read the book, go grab it now. It is a hilarious read.

The book, Humans, came out in 2018, a year in which the world did really sit up and take note of the ascendance of a phenomenon that could dwarf most of the catastrophic inventions of humanity — Post-Truth politics. In fact, in 2016 itself, “post-truth” was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ ‘Word of the Year’, thanks to misinformation-dominated campaigns such as Brexit and the US presidential elections that anointed Donald Trump in the White House.

History of lying

Being the editor of Full Fact, an independent fact-checking organisation based in the UK, Phillips could not have waited for a more opportune time to hold yet another mirror to the society and trigger some provocative discussions that could suitably embarrass us while, thankfully, forcing us to go for a much needed introspection on how we have failed ‘Truth’ by falling like nine-pins before misinformation campaigns on social media and beyond.

Truth: A Brief History of Total Bullsh*t is a book you can judge by the blurb, if you are that kind of a reader. “The Internet has turned our everyday lives into a misinformation battleground. People don’t trust experts anymore,” says the back cover. “But was there ever really a golden age of truth-telling?” Well, history shows we humans are su**ers for falsehood and have always been enamoured by misinformation. “You are full of sh**,” reads the very first line of the book. “You’re a liar… and you are almost certainly wrong in hundreds of ways, large and small, about the world you live in.”

Understanding this fact is the first step towards negotiating falsehood. Thinking that the post-truth era is something new and presupposing that there used to be an age of truth can do us a lot of damage. Humanity has always tried, ingeniously, to avoid the truth. Not all are happy with the truth, especially if it is an unpleasant one. Mining companies won’t like the truth about environmental degradation. Right-wing supremacists will turn a blind eye to contributions of migration and migrants. Take Trump. Many critics say he excels at skirting the truth. According to Washington Post’s fact-check team (which Phillips quotes in the book), Trump had made 10,796 false or misleading claims in the 869 days since he took office. That’s more than 10 untruths every single day, explains Phillips.

But do not get tempted to think Trump is the first politician who has lied through his teeth. He is not new. His ilk has always been there, assumes Phillips, and understanding what they have done and how is perhaps the best way to form our defence against the ongoing charade of falsehood. Truth works as a great handbook here.

In 10 neat chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion, Phillips captures a bevy of hoaxes, fake news and lies that have left a stark imprint on human history.

He also tracks people — writers, politicians, commoners and such — who have become victims, advocates and regulators of misinformation.

And that’s an army of interesting men and women, from political theorist and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli — who wrote in 1521 that for a long time he had not said what he believed in and if indeed he did happen to tell the truth he would “hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find” — to Jonathan Swift, who in 1710 wrote that “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”, a quote which today is considered the best reflection of the post-truth phenomenon and which interestingly, ironically and wrongly is attributed to the likes of Mark Twain or Winston Churchill or to Thomas Jefferson.

Championing truth

The book is full of such funny, juicy and insightful anecdotes and historical nuggets which tell us how truth was misreported, misinterpreted and miscarried over the ages. In witty, sharp and incisive prose with a chatty narrative, Phillips shows how we have cheated merrily and passed the blame to the medium(s). The culprit was the printing press once. Now the trouble-maker is social media. What we must understand is that the problem lies with our inherent attitude to lie and embrace information that we love.

That’s why, even in India, misinformation spreads like wildfire. When WhatsApp ‘forwards’ paint the country’s first Prime Minister and intellectual extraordinaire Jawaharlal Nehru in shoddy colours by calling him a man of deviant ways, a section of the populace fall for it because that’s what they want to hear and they have lost the ability to think through the clutter and make sense of the information they receive. They are the happy prisoners of this eco-chamber and in all likelihood they would not realise that they represent a systemic and historic problem which is not so easy to cure since it involves the ability to clinically analyse the world.

Now that leaves us — those who have not lost the ability to think clear and straight — with just one option: “We need to study more deeply the vast and bountiful fields of wrongness, to know better what it is we’re doing wrong before we try to do it right. Basically, we need to become scholars of bullsh*t,” sums up Phillips. Clearly, Truth is one of the best handbooks one can use as one embarks on that arduous, painful but entertaining journey. Trust me, this is not a post-truth statement.

Published on October 06, 2019

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