The 21st century is witnessing the resurgence of the medieval into the global political vocabulary. Medievalist imageries and practices are freely crossing geographical and ideological boundaries. The ultra-nationalist, xenophobic and racially supre- macist leaders and groups are embracing and invoking neomedievalist ideas in their speeches and imaginations.
In his Nobel Lecture on 8 December 1990, eminent Mexican essayist, poet and critic Octavio Paz made a seminal statement. He said that when modernity and antiquity are mutually isolated, tradition stagnates and modernity vaporises.
“If we are modern when compared to medieval times, are we perhaps the Middle Ages of a future modernity,” he wondered. To him, modernity “is a word in search of its meaning.” He also described it as an idea, a mirage and a moment of history.
Italian philosopher Humberto Eco went as far to argue that the Middle Ages continue to haunt modernity.
The crux of his argument was that we have still not gone past the Middle Age. The modern age continues “to frame the Middle Ages as the other to modernity”, and that the Middle Ages and modernity are “different sides of the same coin”. According to him, the Middle Age is “modernity’s evil twin.”Eco further posits that ten little Middle Ages may have existed from the Renaissance to the present. In his classic essays, “Living in the New Middle Ages” and “Dreaming of the Middle Ages,” the Italian semiotician talks of a renewed interest in the Middle Ages in North American and European culture.
We are only into the third decade of the 21st century and we have become a burnout society. Today we perceive knowledge through info. In the post truth world, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Today, even fiction is in pursuit of its own kind of truth. Some consider the 21st century as an age of moral bankruptcy. Trump’s big lies are now more widely believed.
Today’s political discourse across the world has become divisive. Others argue we now live in a post-enlightenment age. Our age has become what Voltaire had predicted, “anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Public sphere and political discourse have both become toxic. In the age of acrimony and hyper partisanship, independent thinking is in short supply. Civilised discourse and free exchange of ideas are becoming rare. The academia is hardly exempt from the growing viciousness. With the growing infantilisation of higher education, critical thinking has taken a backseat.
With the rise of mediocrity, a bubble of mediocrity has been created and citizens have slowed down their aspirations. Mediocratic and demagogic leaders have patronized medi- ocrity and fraternalized sycophancy. Many believe it won’t be far before we begin living in “an epistemological tower of Babel.”
War on truth is not new nor is it confined to a particular type of regime. But in democratic societies, the free press, academics and think tankers challenged lies. Today more and more democratic leaders and political parties are resorting to wars on truth.
Nowhere does the war on truth come more on centre stage than in our media. The self appointed ministries of truth are, today, deciding what subjective ‘truth’ should be told and what objective truth should be censored.
Erosion of truth is also an epistemic crisis. It would be wrong to believe we are only now living in a post-truth era. It certainly didn’t begin with the advent of the internet. The 21st century is fast becoming a golden glow of myth. All golden ages tend to fade into more distant past as soon as they are subjected to scrutiny. We love a toxic romance of regression. We have outgrown truth. The world has embraced multiple diverse truths. As American author John Ganim argues, medievalism functions in very similar ways to orientalism, and often in tandem.
It reduces the Other to unknowability, if nothingness. British journalist Ed West argues that the polarisation of politics along quasi-religious lines, the decline of nationalism and the role of universities in enforcing orthodoxy were the norm in pre-modern societies
as well. Just as the medieval clergy and nobility had a common interest in the system against the labouring class, today we have what Amory Gethin, Clara Martinez Toledano and Thomas Picketty call the “Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right”, with different worldviews but a common interest in the liberal order.
This dichotomy is evident in nearly all Western democracies despite their major politi- cal, historical and institutional differences. Politics has returned to its pre-modern role of religion. Tribalism is a new norm. As sociologist Nikos Sotirakopoulos, explains, tribalism is “surrendering one’s independent thought for the sake of the group.”
It views the world and oth- ers “through the prism not of one’s mind, but through that of the tribe.”
Political tribalism makes every public issue a subject of debate, leaving no topic untou- ched. If your political rival takes a position, you must take the opposite view.
Polarisation is a fertile ground for disinformation. A majoritarian government erases the power of rebellion, resis- tance or opposition.
Patriotism becomes an epic caricature of conformity. When there are no citizens, only con- scripts, politics retreats into tribalism. What follows is authoritarianism. Moral absolutism is another outcome. We are living in the age of big lies. Governments, political leaders and big corporations are all resorting to big lies to evade responsibility, cast blame on the innocent, win elections and gain power and wealth.
Big lies are as old as civilisation. They corrupt public understanding and discourse, turn sci- ence upside down, and reinvent history. They prevent humanity from addressing critical challenges. Big tech has provided ever more effective ways of spreading lies. The Carter Center published a report ‘The big lie and big tech’ on the 2020 US elections that explained how politicians, hyper partisan media and ordinary citizens coalesced to advance “The big lie” and other harmful narratives.
Post-truth is different from political lies, exaggeration and spin. What is new is not the mendacity of politicians but the public’s response to it and the ability of new technologies and social media to manipulate, polarise and entrench opinion. When truth is replaced by silence, the silence itself becomes a lie.
(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)