“It is hundred percent communal, they were targeted because they were Hindu monks!”, thundered a rabble-rousing TV anchor and poster boy of the right wing zealots. He was talking about the lynching of two Hindu monks and their driver in Maharastra by a murderous mob, who, allegedly, suspected them of being thieves and child-lifters. And naming a leader of a political party, he even went on to insinuate her of “getting” these Shadhus killed to send “report to Italy”!
Some may accuse him of lying, and also demand whether he has facts to back up his emphatic assertions. On the face of it, such response seems normal, and the question being raised on “facts” is also something that can be legitimately pursued. However, accusing him of lying or asking such question as to whether he has facts to support his claims and allegations also misses a crucial aspect: it fails to understand what he is actually doing, that is, bullshitting! The truth is, a bullshitter doesn’t care about facts; he is interested in provoking and propagating certain views by stirring emotions, especially by exploiting prejudices and anxieties.
Bullshit and Post-Truth World
In his seminal essay “On Bullshit” (1986), which later came out as a book with the same title in 2005, Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher from Princeton University, points out that liars acknowledge truth while bullshitters don’t. Delineating the difference between a liar and a bullshitter, Frankfurt notes that it “is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth”. In this sense, a person “who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it.” Just as when “an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true”, for “the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false”.
However, for producing “bullshit requires no such conviction”. For the one who bullshits, Frankfurt says, “the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him”. In fact, “[h]is eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man”. For, he “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly”. All that happens is, he “just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” And here, the purpose is to create an impression of something as real, to manufacture an opinion, by stirring emotions and exploiting societal and personal anxieties and prejudices.
In this sense, this loud motormouth, perhaps an unprecedented character in the history of Indian television, is seeking to propagate some specific views rather than reporting and dissecting news. As long as that purpose is served, he is understandably indifferent to facts. But the issue at hand is not merely about one floppy-haired hate monger who masquerades melodramatic harangue as debate on television. It is about an ethos which is rampant in society today: the pervasive and normalized reality of bullshitting in our contemporary world. Indeed, this situation is, as Frankfurt puts it, “[o]ne of the most salient features of our culture”.
The question is, therefore, why and how has it become so pervasive? To answer this, there are two aspects that can be noted here: First, we are in a world which has been described as a “post-truth” order. Second, with the right wing turn in politics in many parts of the world, a discursive practice that smacks of a “concept of the political” as the “distinction between friend and enemy”, an idea of propounded by a well-known German thinker/jurist Carl Schmitt, has come to take the centre stage of our increasingly polarized public life. These two aspects have nurtured, sustained and normalized bullshitting. In a way, therefore, to quote Frankfurt again, “the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern.”
However, insofar as we still look for a life with dignity and well-being, we ought to take a critical look at this phenomenon which has come to shape our public life. We may begin the exercise by asking, what is “post-truth” order, and how does it intersect with bullshitting?
According to Oxford Dictionary, which had named this expression as the “Word of the Year” in 2016, “post-truth” refers to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. It is a situation wherein emotions – fear, hatred, suspicions, anxiety, insecurity, rage etc – rather than hard facts are used to effectively propagate and sustain opinions.
These “circumstances” have arguably been shaped by certain developments during the last century. One crucial area is the shift in the realm of knowledge that has transformed the nature of its claims to “truth”. Developments in physics, especially during the first two decades of the 20th century, have led to many physicists taking a position of “model-dependent realism” (that is, all that they know of reality is contingent upon the theoretical models they deploy) to the “linguistic turn” and “post-structuralism” in social sciences and humanities (which position “language” as a central idea through which we sense “reality”, even questioning whether there is “reality” outside of the language we use to sense the world within and without) – all have unsettled our traditional understanding of “reality” and “truth”.
If the idea of “truth” has been problematized by the above shift in knowledge, there is the other force of the market driven ethos of capitalism. This tenet of market has converted much of the things and ideas that define our life in terms of their “marketing” values. Be that idea, value, product and people, everything has to be sellable and marketed. Those that which cannot be marketed face the prospect of being pushed into oblivion and disuse. This development has placed propaganda and PR (public relation) as crucial instruments to substantiate the very existence and worth of not only commodities, ideas, values and practices but also human beings.
This is accentuated further by the development of mass media. Whatever we know of our real world are being increasingly mediated by the pervasive media. Consequently, reality has truly become “mediated reality”. In fact, it almost seems as if something or somebody is not spoken or written about in the “media”, it or s/he ceases to exist.
With the burst of “new media” onto the scene, there has been a deepening of the hold of media over our life. Driven by the rapid innovation and proliferation of technology and media platforms, the nature of the “mediated realities” have become all the more fluid. Thus, just as news and views get conflated, news also loses its capacity to hold on to its authenticity as “fake news” swamped the new media. All these above developments and their dehumanizing effects have set up our present new normal, the world of “post-truth”. And bullshitting which “is disconnected from a concern with the truth” also becomes possible in such world.
Propaganda and Trolls
With the market as a key player under the neoliberal political economy and the unleashing of a politics of “us vs. them” (we shall shortly see this politics in the next segment below), “propaganda” has come to significantly contaminate communication in society. Incidentally, the effectiveness of propaganda seems to be enhanced partly by certain psycho-social dispositions brought about by globalization and rapidity with which technology has induced changes in society.
Globalization, especially with its electronic integration that has converted large parts of human population as fellow denizens of a “global village”, has led to a proliferation of multiple beliefs and values to guide one’s judgments, choices and conducts. This has unsettled the traditional framework that one uses to view the world within and without and conduct accordingly. Consequently, it has induced some sort of “existential anxiety” as one navigates amongst these multiple frames of beliefs and values. The dislocations prompted by the technological innovations, rapid urbanization and neo-liberal political economy have also further accentuated these anxieties. Over and above these churnings, with the right wing turn in politics in various parts of the world, societies have also become increasingly polarized and conflictual.
In other words, we live in a world marked by these dislocations and fluxes with their corresponding psycho-social dispositions amongst people – that of insecurity and anxieties, of being in a paradoxical milieu of having integrated at the same time isolated as individuals in a complex environment of globalized-urbanized-virtual-real world. And this condition seems to have become a fertile ground for propaganda to work as an effective mode of communication.
Indeed, being in a state of flux and dislocations with multiple beliefs and values, the gray areas thereof, and the anxiety of making choices etc, will also have corresponding needs to have a sense of stability or certainty and hope as well as the capability to exercise choices, to be in control of things. Propaganda works on these psycho-social needs by manipulating how people think and feel.
Most of the well-known techniques of propaganda are rooted in manipulation of human emotions. Take for instance, the technique called “name calling”. As a technique, it seeks to generate pejorative feelings by linking a person/idea/organization/community to familiar and negative symbols/meanings so that the audience will reject that person/idea/organization/community on the basis of those negative symbols, instead of looking at the facts or evidence. For instance, distracting people from their focus on what actually are the facts (what is being said or done or what is) and generate negative feelings by branding some (individual/idea/organization/community) as “anti-national”, “tukde-tukde gang”, “bully”, “egoist”, “liar” etc. It is essentially an emotionally loaded strategy to distract, delegitimize and destroy the target of propaganda.
In a world with increasing individuation and alienation from real moorings in community life (bought about by rapid urbanization and/or “virtual world”), creating a sharply defined “other” as the binary opposite of oneself or one’s group, by vilifying and seeking to destroy that entity, seems to ensure (or restore) a sense of belonging to a stable (even as it may be “pseudo”) community marked by shared beliefs and values. Indeed, partaking in this process of belonging, it seems, enables one to substantiate one’s own existence and worthiness. Polarization of society also serves this function. Sharper the polarization, the more concrete the sense of group life in society becomes. And hence, just as the real world gets polarized, numerous “communities” and “groups” with shared beliefs and values have also come up in the virtual world during the last decade or so. The spectre of fake news and hate mongering alludes to moments wherein these “virtual communities” and polarized communities in the real world intersect.
Incidentally, with the advent of internet, traditional propaganda techniques have acquired a new lease of life through a phenomenon called the “trolls” or “trolling”. It refers to acts of posting inflammatory or off-topic or controversial messages online in order to get a rise out of other users. It is a form of engagement in social media which is essentially, again, an act of manipulating and exploiting emotions.
Trolls also use familiar forms of propaganda such as “name calling” and “deflection”. A well-known deflection technique seeks to divert from the issue at hand by asking “what about that” or “what about you”. For instance, if the discussion is something about X party or what it has done, the issue is diverted by asking “what about Y party” or by raising the question like “what have they done during so and so years”? This deflection can also be simultaneously combined with “name calling” (e.g., “what have you done, only talks, no works”). Another familiar deflection technique, something that is widely seen amongst trolls is to shift the focus from the matters being discussed (e.g., views or deeds) to the person (her character or intention). Thus, those who indulge in trolls might counter an opinion, not by pointing out the merits or demerits of that opinion but by imputing motive (e.g., “this shows lack of academic sincerity”, “you are bullying” or “you are a bully”, “you are being violent”). Not only trolls will not comment on the opinion or issues being discussed but also not substantiate or clarify its own statements of imputing motives (e.g., what does “lack of sincerity” or “bullying” means or what aspects of the opinions constitute or substantiate “lack of sincerity” or “bullying” etc). Trolls, like bullshitting, are not about facts. It is about emotions; trolls seek to get a rise out of the targeted person. Its purpose is not seeking dialogue or understanding but to humiliate and harm/hurt others.
Incidentally, psychologists say that people who engage in trolling have psychopathological issues. In a psychoanalytical sense, the anonymity or the “disinhibiting effect” of the internet, just like dream or psychoanalytical session, enables socially unacceptable prejudices, repressed desires and wishes to act out through the trolling. This “disinhibiting effect” is also induced by a crowd like ambience.
Thus, those who troll are excited and motivated by the number of “likes” they received for their outlandish messages. It’s a need for attention that drives them. This can be seen as the double of a familiar propaganda strategy called “bandwagon”, that is, an impression that “majority agrees and hence one must go with it”. This tendency that smacks of herd mentality has been experimentally articulated by psychologists (e.g., famous social conformity experiment by psychologist Solomon Asch on the propensity to act or think like members of a group). For those who troll, like those bullshitters, facts or truths or logical coherence of the online post/message do not matter. As long as it is outlandish (or personalized attack) that manages to humiliate (and get rise out of) the targeted person, it gives them the purpose and pleasure; and similar motive and herd mentality induced others to approve and join such trolls. In short, herd mentality is implicated in trolling and propaganda as well.
The nature of the herd mentality has been an area of concern for many well-known scholars and researchers even long before the advent of new media (e.g., Gustave Le Bon, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich). One work that resonates with the contemporary situation would be “Fear of Freedom” (also published as “Escape from Freedom” in the US) by Eric Fromm, a psychoanalyst associated with the Frankfurt School. Touching on herd mentality in the context of the rise of authoritarian regimes, he has shown how individuals surrender to (or submerge into) the collective (will/ideology of the Fascists/Nazis).
Insofar as those who indulge in bullshits and trolls have psychopatological issues, and fascists have a penchant for propaganda (with bullshits and trolls being its contemporary cognates), Ashis Nandy insightfully observes, “I never use the term ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category comprising not only one’s ideological posture but also the personality traits and motivational patterns contextualising the ideology.”
Incidentally, even as internet and its trolls were unheard of then, the Fascists and the Nazis deployed “propaganda” to the hilt. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda Minister, has often been cited as having said, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. If he were alive today, he might as well say, “damn the truth, and repeat the bullshit”. Incidentally, his saying has been quoted or rendered in different forms, but with the same massage or meaning, like the famous statement attributed to Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the socialists, I did not speak out since I wasn’t a socialist…” In an uncanny way, both seem to be relevant even today.
Polarized Society and Return of the Schmittian Political
In a critical sense, a normalized culture of bullshitting – and its cognate phenomena like propaganda and trolls – disrupts healthy communication, and hence society becomes estranged. For, there is a critical link between “communication” and society. Society is a network of communication. Disparate individuals are glued together into one whole through cooperative action undertaken by individuals based upon mutual deliberation to achieve common good. While talking about nationalism and communication, Karl Deutsch observes, “the essential aspect of the unity of a people is the complementarity or relative efficiency of communication among individuals”. In fact, he insists that “communication” holds each group from “within”, and each group is also separated by “communicative boundaries”.
In this sense, a fractured society alludes to the weakening or breakdown of communication that holds the society together. Simultaneously, it may also point to the emergence and/or consolidation of groups with their specific “communicative boundaries” within the larger society and estrangement of communication amongst them. This being the case, while addressing conflicts and divisions in society, we must also look at the nature of communication, especially those barriers that weaken communication in society. And bullshitting and trolls are certainly ones amongst those barriers.
Unfortunately, sharpening of polarization of society and polity in term of “us vs. them” and normalized bullshitting – and along with propaganda and trolls – seem to go hand in hand. This is all more visible with the return of a political culture that smacks of Schmittian notion of the political in the recent times.
Carl Schmitt, a well-known German thinker, who is considered to be one the best minds of 20th century, although denounced by many as an ideologue and/or jurist of the Nazis, describes the nature of the political as the distinction between “friend and enemy”. At a fundamental level, just as economics can be considered as matters of “profit and loss”, aesthetics as that of “beauty and ugly”, and ethics to the question of “right and wrong” and so on, if we are to look for the fundamental premise to define “the concept of the political”, Schmitt points out in his controversial monograph with the same title, it will be this distinction between “friend and enemy”. Seemingly, it is this idea of the political what the Nazis had followed.
As the politics takes a right wing turn, this idea of the political seems to have come back to haunt our present. There has been a palpable idea that treats anybody who holds a different opinion as the “enemy” of “the nation”. It increasingly seems that people with different ideologies or opinions are no longer looked upon as “fellow citizens” but as “anti-nationals”. They have been vilified by deploying propagandist “name calling” (e.g., “people who speak like Pakistani” or “those who should be sent to Pakistan”!). The idea that there could be difference of opinions in a democracy – in fact, democracy thieves precisely because citizens have difference of opinions – become increasingly untenable. For, bracketing of citizens in terms of “us vs. them” (with the tinge of “friends and enemies” schema) seems to be sustained by normalizing bullshitting and its cognate phenomena, namely propaganda and trolls.
Just as polarized society and incendiary communications of the “post-truth” order complement each other, bullshitting and monologues have also become not only visible but normal aspects of public sphere. Consequently, “deliberative democracy” or “democracy as rule by deliberation” has come to be increasingly mediated, if not jeopardized, by this new development. Not only that, society as an entity based on a network of communication has also come under serious impediment.
It’s worth remembering that democracy does not function by eliminating all forms of dissents. And that the homogenous ideas and practices are the hall marks of an authoritarian polity. History tells us that seeking “national unity” through elimination of all forms of dissents and imposing hegemonic uniformity of ideas can only sow the seeds of national disaster in the long run.
Estranged Self and Its Cracked Mirror
What is global is also sometimes local or vice versa. And yet, it may be said that there is always something unique that defines the localness. This write up shall remain incomplete if the above issues are not brought to bear on the world of Sanaleipak (a sobriquet of Manipur) to sense the global connection as well as its specific localness.
Manipur is a part of the global village. This fact has been poignantly revealed by the present coronavirus pandemic: the first Covid19 case of the state happened to be a daughter of the land who returned from abroad where she was studying. The “little paradise”, another sobriquet of the state which often reminds one of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, is a part of the global churning, be that new media or neo-liberal political economy or for that matter, the effects of the right wing turn in politics. In short, all the issues that we have seen in the preceding paragraphs are no strangers to the state as well.
Indeed, the denizens of the place are quite capable of bullshitting or engaging in trolls. Some of them might even give you the impression that those traits are in their blood. Many have proved themselves of those abilities much before the politics takes the recent right wing turn.
But the state has some specific elements that speak of its localness. It is a state which has been embroiled for decades in multilayered conflicts, many with violent underpinnings, and chaos marked by estranged inter-community relations, lawlessness, violence, lockdowns (called bandhs), erosions of institutions and public morality, including rampant and institutionalized corruptions, and intellectual bankruptcy. In fact, editorials and op-ed commentaries have spoken of it as a “failed state” with “intractable problems” and abandoned public sphere. Despite some breathers or improvements that the state has experienced in the last couple of years under a new dispensation, much of the issues still remain intact.
The threat to the very integrity of the state as a geo-political entity is alive as it has been for decades. In fact, the “ethnic” (for the want of a better expression) enclaves with their own “communicative boundaries” have more much more sharply marked today than before. Both in its discourses and practices, the state has now reified enclaves of “Meiteis”, “Nagas”, “Kukis” and recently the “Pangals”. Each seems to be primarily talking within their specific “communicative boundaries”. And there are enough indications to show that not only communications across these enclaves rarely take place but also marked by suspicions and contradictory claims (e.g., the manner in which “history” has been invoked as a part of identity politics).
Incidentally, the estranged communication can also been seen at another level: amongst the plethora of organizations in the state. For instance, “Meiteis” have multiple organizations, each claiming to represent not only the “community” but also the entire state. Each of these organizations has its own satellites or sister organizations and segments of the population who constitute its captive audience (often predictable and seen during their respective functions). Each of these organizations seems to be marked by its “communicative boundaries”. These boundaries are, however, not fixed. They seem to reconfigure these boundaries as “coordination committees” get constituted from time to time.
These are not the only issues in which communication gets implicated in the fractured polity and society in Sanaleipak. There is also a palpable intellectual bankruptcy. As editorials of a leading local newspaper note: “our intellectual classes whose profession is precisely to think and expand the horizon of thoughts in the society, [and] is being filled in at best by untrained thinkers…and at the worst by anybody who self-ordains himself or herself as an intellectual, worthy of commentary on any social issue under the sun.” This has created a scenario wherein, as the newspaper noted on more than one occasion with a palpable sense of exasperation by quoting W.B. Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
The intellectual bankruptcy is mediated and/or accentuated by two factors. First, intellectual legitimacy seems to be derived from the facticity of one’s belonging to a given community/group/organizations. This condition seems to have aggravated a familiar ethos Manipur’s dominant intellectual style which resembles what Johan Galtung calls “Nipponic Intellectual Style” (see, Intellectual Style and Public Sphere: Testimonies of Socio-Political Decadence in this column). The premise of Nipponic “who is the master” gets accentuated by a premise rooted in the fractured and estranged inter-community/organization, namely, “which community or group/organization s/he belongs to or come from”. As Galtung says, such style does not encourage healthy democratic debate and argumentations. While such an intellectual style may enable each community or group with its specific “communicative boundary” to “hold” itself from “within”, as Karl Deutsch suggests, it also reproduces the fragmentation of the larger society.
Second, there seems to be a lack of appreciation of the place and role of the intellectual class in society; or, a paucity of understanding in real terms on what, why and how of “public sphere”, including these spaces such as newspaper columns or public meetings. In fact, as if following a culture of “form without substance”, there are editorials, op-ed articles or public intellectual speaking up on issues of public importance on electronic media or public meetings, and yet these are often seem to be dismissed as “ngangbana yaroi”, “ebana kannaroi” (writing or speaking will not help). At best, such reaction can be a sign of frustration and cynicism of having lived under an oppressive condition and unresponsive authority. Hence, “tourak-khide” or “tabiroi” or “tabiroi” (had not responded/won’t be heard) becomes “yaroi”, “kannaroi” (it won’t work or will not helped). On the other hand, at worst, such dismissive reaction could also be a result of a deep sense of insecurity and/or incompetence which get(s) often compensated by questioning those who speak up or speak truth to power. Incidentally, anti-intellectual stance, especially against those who speak up or speak truth to power, has been a hallmark of authoritarian politics, be that right or left wing.
With such cultural and intellectual ethos, bullshitting and trolls also become part of fractured and marginalized society. It is in fact, the dark sides of the polarized society caught in multilayered and protracted conflicts. But as Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “In the dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing/About the dark times”, Sanaleipak also reminds itself of its dark times, as Eastern Dark, a popular band in the state sings,
A-shu A ningbani
C-shu C-bu ningjabani…
(A worships A
B worships B
C too worships C…)
It’s a moral communication, an affirmation of its fractured self, a reminder to itself, implicitly imploring to go beyond the present spectre and move towards a new life with dignity…
The author is a social and political psychologist who teaches social psychology and sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi