Facts are overrated – who has them anyway? World Bank reports, IMF figures, Human Rights Watch narratives, national GDP figures, CIA fact files, entries in the Lancet, government stats, etcetera are not facts in any benevolent sense. As means of control and manipulation, they are instead the most supported (and perhaps most persuasive) opinion of the day.
One of the many charges that were leveled against US President-elect Donald Trump was his penchant for lies. Fact-checkers during the 2016 US election concluded that he lied 85 percent of times. Some said he lied all the time. Indeed, with his victory, terms such as “post-truths,” “post-factual,” and “fake news” have become sound analytical references. Many op-eds continue to suggest a fact-based world and fact-based democracies before Trump. Surely, this is not true either. The best response to all this nonsense is to quote Ebenezer Scrooge and yell, ‘bah, humbug.’
It has always been a post-truth world right from the Enlightenment, through colonialism to the present forms of capitalism. In fact, deception does not shock us anymore; it is the packaging of the lie that shocks. Open deception, which is actually telling it like it is—which is actually a form of truth telling—frightens the Enlightened world.
Facts are overrated, as if anyone has them. It is self-affirmation of ignorance to claim to possess facts on anything. Especially after the Enlightenment, and the rise of capitalism in the 1600 English countryside, there are no truths nor facts in human interaction. The idea of the rent for labor, and the fetishism of the market is actually a form of deception packaged pleasantly—with a narrative and institution (many times, and violence) to make it hold. World Bank reports, IMF figures, Human Rights Watch narratives, national GDP figures, CIA fact files, entries in the Lancet, government stats, etcetera are no facts in any benevolent sense. As means of control and manipulation, they are instead the most supported (and perhaps, most persuasive) opinion of the day. They are world systems of power and control—with merchants and governments behind them. Yes, the rest of us are merely conscripts, and our imagination can only stretch as the pre-set boundaries can allow.
As a graduate student, I have argued that even a PhD dissertation, a claimed work of empirical research, is simply a long opinion—stressed over hundreds of pages. Facts neither represent nor explain themselves. Representing and explaining them is a subjective and deeply political exercise: Money, power, politics, interests, emotion, intuition, and biases are standard ingredients in our so-called facts or truths.
Once chocolate was chastised for fattening, but soon became known to be good for weight loss. The West went into Iraq convinced of the presence of weapons of mass destruction; it soon became false intelligence. African countries receive foreign aid under the illusion of western benevolence, yet the rich are often and only after their interests. The list of these examples is long, from social sciences, politics to natural science. So Michel Foucault would memorably pronounce that ‘power produces knowledge… that power and knowledge directly imply one another…’ (1975: 64). This has been our world before Trump, yet we have been all okay with it. It boggles the mind that now we are blaming it all on Trump. Nonsense.
Perhaps I have painted a rather negative view of facts, hinged on a premise of deliberate distortion. There is actually a benign side, a sort of innocent deception, produced by benign ignorance, if you like. For humans, representing facts or truths be it in writing or speech is heavily handicapped—by our very humanity. A soldier in a shooting can only tell his side of the hedge. A detailed narrative of a fracas bears all the trappings of our knowledge and use of language. A witness to an accident can tell only as much as his vantage point could allow. Indeed, appreciating their handicap—that actual facts (comprehensive, wholesome, objective) are difficult to establish, however good intentioned and hardworking—lawyers, the businessmen of evidence, craft an entire industry around words, eloquence, and poesy—not facts in a pristine sense, which would be an elusive endeavor. Indeed, judges do not seek to establish with precision what happened, they conclude from the most eloquently argued perspective (which explains why the market’s gold standard is on the most eloquent, not most investigative lawyer). Many would love to excuse this rather ‘innocent deception.’ My contention is that its consequences are not any different from deliberate deception—especially if the ignorant are endowed with power to act. Exactly, it does not matter whether Bush and Blair lied deliberately or innocently; the Middle East is a mess after their blighted interventions.
With the Enlightenment pitched as liberation of the individual, a breakage from tradition (especially religiously imposed truth and moral standards), facts ceased to matter. They were facts only if they made sense to the individual assessed through logic and reason. Individuals were deemed to have an inherent power—logic and reason—to assess and judge things succinctly before endorsing or rejecting. This falsely assumed that reason and logic were givens—something like, humans were born with fully developed independent capacities. Interestingly, even when the egregious capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made it clear that a consciousness or a common sense (the fabric upon which reason and logic claims to thrive) is manufactured, we continued to delude ourselves as living in a truth-full world before Trump.
We have always lived in a world of lies— the Enlightenment, mass production and mass deception—and are happy to continue that way. We love our lies as long as they are properly scripted, logically argued and humorously rendered. The ads in New York’s Time Square, Nairobi, Kampala city roads, radio and television tell a rather familiar story. The victory of the Trump campaign only transforms us from diplomatic to open deception; smart to crude deception; and above all, to honesty. Merchants and those “decent diplomats” who continue to thrive on deceit surely do not like it. Victims do.
* Yusuf Serunkuma Kajura is a PhD Fellow, Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Makerere University.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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