Understand That Your Wisdom May be Worthless…

In the age of free information flow, we do well in being hesitant about sharing.

In my philosophy class in varsity, we studied Plato, who wrote narratives about his teacher, Socrates. Like most students, I felt that the text was tedious and dry, boring almost. The generous Crito, Thrasymachus the sophist, Euthyphro the accuser of his own father, Timaeus the Pythagorean, Meno the young general and Phaedo, Plato’s fellow student: what have they got to do with us today?

One very poignant text was Apology of Socrates from which we get Plato’s famous “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

Clichéd as it may sound today – we’ve seen it in countless Facebook statuses and walls – I believe this is what we really need at this juncture.

 Alternative Facts

On January 22, 2017, the public relation aide to President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, in defending wrong information given by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, said that Spicer was merely giving "alternative facts".

One may think this is classic Propaganda 101.

But the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, on writing his 1962 classic book on propaganda, quoted Lenin who said, “In propaganda, truth pays off”.

Oddly enough, even the “Big Liar” himself, Joseph Goebbels, was committed to getting the facts right in his propaganda because “everybody must know what the actual situation is.”

Ellul thus proposed that the modern propaganda works on partisan interpretation of facts, not the tampering of the fact itself. Evidently, in the past, propaganda was concerned with facts even for the most vicious propagandists.

Today, this rule is being abandoned. And with that, the very foundation of democracy is threatened. During the Brexit campaign, one of the key arguments of the proponents was that each week, the UK had to send £350mil to the EU. It was repeated in speeches, posters and advertisements, although credible parties had disputed the figure and declared it false.

Similarly, Spicer claimed that the media was wrong to report a lower turnout at Trump’s inauguration in Washington DC. He even gave “facts and figures” to back his claims. It turned out that these were wrong.

But this does not just happen in the faraway “evil and infidel” US or UK. Malaysians are very familiar with the crowd size reports made by our mainstream media the day after major anti-government demonstrations such as Bersih.

The Anti-GST Rally in 2014. A deputy minister said that the introduction of a new Goods and Services Tax will result in cheaper prices in the market.

Or remember how a major English newspaper – owned by a BN component party – ran a poll asking if Bersih 2.0 should be allowed, and when the poll results within a day showed an overwhelming 99% of over 1.3 million people supporting the rally, they took down the poll.

Or top politicians lying to the public about huge amounts of money going into their personal bank account – one moment it did not happen, the next, it was donation from some Arab princes.

Or a deputy minister who can say in public forums that the introduction of a new Goods and Services Tax in Malaysia will result in cheaper prices in the market.

To quote what Prime Minister Najib Razak allegedly said in his recent meeting with BN “social media activists”: nothing is sacred anymore.

In other words, the gloves are off.

 The Internet and Social Media

The problem is that this is more than just the government or politicians playing the propaganda game. Today, we have never been freer, having so much access to the internet and the social media. Everyone is free to express themselves, to give opinions, to propagate their beliefs. Everything is just a click away.

Because everyone can say something – even if online – some of us feel that our opinions deserve more hearing than others. But it is precisely because everyone is free to share everything, that we become less free as a net result.

Let me explain why.

When all sorts of information are shared on a minute-by-minute basis – from personal opinion on football to politics; from gossip to stories about alien invasions; from the dangers of vaccination to advertisements ranging from regular products and services to outright “alternative facts” – we are too overwhelmed to be able to figure out truth from falsehood.

Because of this “freedom of information”, we spend more time sieving through it, not knowing what to trust anymore. Alas, we are captured by our own freedom!

In an odd twist of the plot, the internet, which is supposed to empower us, now becomes a weapon against us… which is why we need Socrates.

 We Need Socrates the Idiot

The truth is, even for Socrates, it was not easy. “But I, even I myself almost forgot who I was because of them, so persuasively did they speak. And yet they have said practically nothing true.”

Multiply this a million times and you are in the 21st century. Today those who do not think twice about lying to us have access to powerful tools and limitless resources. A few years ago, for example, it was revealed that Najib’s administration paid a whopping RM77mil to Apco Worldwide, an international public relations company, to work on its image.

I read somewhere that, after Plato, whose writings consisted of what Socrates taught, European philosophies are basically footnotes. Such was the importance of Plato and his teacher Socrates.

But as a student of philosophy I was utterly surprised by Socrates’ descriptions of his own wisdom:

“This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless.”

Basically, Socrates was wise in that he was aware that he knew nothing. In other words, he realised that he was an idiot.

Now, that is not how many of us see ourselves.

I want to argue that being like Socrates is how we can safeguard both our democracy and protect our freedom against the onslaught of “alternative facts”.

Counterintuitive as this may sound, we need to be less confident about being “experts” in all sorts of fields and being ready to dish out advice to others.

Mark Twain warned us, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In the agora of the internet, Socrates the Idiot would examine each claim carefully and critically before committing to them. He would not simply click the “Share” or “Post” buttons. The only thing he knew for sure was that he was not very smart; and thus needed more time to verify a belief or a claim.

What a vast contrast from us.

In a book I wrote a lifetime ago, I said, “ At a time when there are so many noises offering different options, the most pragmatic and ironically the most revolutionary thing to do is to be still and think, to critically analyse the situation before plunging into yet another reaction…”

It is OK to be late in replying or posting a comment on our social media accounts because we need time to verify its authenticity. By doing so, we are not only ending the cascade of alternative facts; in the sum of things, we are only making the internet freer.

In the words of Justice Learned Hand, an influential American judge and advocate of free speech: “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right … the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias”.

Steven Sim Chee Keong is MP for Bukit Mertajam. He is also on the board of directors of the Penang Institute.

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