The question of facts, of truth, of ‘reliable history’ has been central to the student activists’ struggle in JNU and beyond, at least since the arrest of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar on February 12, 2016.
Since then the debate on whose side true facts lie has gained further prominence with the airing of doctored videos. More recently, in his teach-in lecture at JNU, Makarand Paranjape impressed upon Kanhaiya to check his facts.
Everyone in this debate appears to fully understand what a fact is. Two strands of this understanding are clear to see.
First, a fact is believed to be a standalone entity that will remain true no matter how many trials it is subjected to and no matter how far it travels. Truth is somehow the essence of a fact.
Second, facts are claims, statements and judgments that are backed up by requisite evidence. Indeed, reliable history is factual because it has substantial archival evidence behind it.
But, what is evidence, who selects and interprets it and then presents to the world?
It is experts who tell the public what counts as evidence, and how it is undergirded by rigour (often, of ‘the scientific method’). They even set the frameworks for demarcating good evidence from bad fabrications. The public is expected to simply believe in expert knowledge and participate in the implementation of policies based on the experts’ facts.
It is perhaps on the basis of the second understanding of facts as buttressed by experts’ evidence that Paranjape is able to make a case for separating the factual from the ‘not factual’, with certainty.
By ‘exposing the non-factuality’ of some of Kanhaiya’s recent claims, one wonders if Paranjape’s aim is to disqualify Kanhaiya. And in that way, does he want to discredit the vibrant and much-needed movement that Kanhaiya has become an effective spokesperson for?
Even if this is the case, Paranjape’s call to ‘check your facts’ cannot simply be dismissed. He should not be disqualified, as no one perhaps should be, by the invocation of truer facts, at least not without due process.
As Bruno Latour has argued, this due process entails the making public of how evidence is collected, collated, processed and presented. Thus, what needs to be made public are not readymade facts, but rather the process through which they are made.
Facts are not simply revealed by the real world (as scientists would argue), through the application of a ‘rigorous method’, but also by moral values, political pressures, professional obligations, economic interests, technical equipment, persistent doubts and collective creativity. To treat facts as neutral is to ignore the substantial influence of the latter.
By presenting facts as value-free and objective, modern expert knowledge, and modernist ideologies such as orthodox Marxism, manage to frame the underlying logic of social and natural problems to be the same or similar everywhere. Taking this as given, universalist remedies, in the form of modern technologies or the application of strategies based on socialist principles, are stated to be adequate for addressing these problems.
Thus, rather than letting statements such as ‘check your facts before you speak’ to silence voices that are already weaker, we need to democratise fact-making expertise. Successes for wider social justice will remain seriously limited if we fail to bring experts and their facts into the fold of democracy.
A true democracy ensures that the most marginalized sections of a society are able to raise their voices. It also requires the more powerful sections, especially those in government and other centres of ‘expertise’, to register these voices. Registration means that the powerful transform how they engage with the marginalized.
Also, a democratic society continually carves and nurtures spaces in which the vulnerable and the marginal can work towards their empowerment, not through the imposition of expert-driven social engineering plans but by furthering their creative localizing appropriation of any plans and by nurturing their own diverse projects and practices.
For these goals to be materialized, democratization of fact-making expertise is not a luxury that must be put off until India has joined the league of so-called developed nations. It is a necessary ingredient of development that is genuinely inclusive and sustainable.
To further this democratization, I have argued that ‘how facts are made’ must be made public, in science and beyond, by all ‘experts’. This implies that each citizen is empowered to question what is made to count as reliable evidence by experts and how. And to demand the experts to reveal the uncertainty and ambiguity associated with their knowledge claims.
Thus, when a fact is presented to the wider public as true in a democracy, the raising of dissenting voices must be nurtured rather than snubbed.
Perhaps the bypassing of this dissent is one reason why experts present their descriptions in a language that few outside their own community can understand.
In order to democratize expertise, it is indeed important to make this language more accessible, to make public scrutiny and dissent possible. It also requires that lay people are treated as knowledgeable in their own right.
Justice, truth and power
Realising social justice through people’s movements thus might require us to bring facts into democracy. There is no blueprint for how to go about this. Those interested in justice must publicly deliberate how to democratize expertise, rather than themselves assume the role of experts in their struggle against concentrations of power.
The deployment of truth against power may be necessary, but genuine truth is one that makes the process of its making public, instead of hiding behind the garb of expertise.
This has crucial implications for re-thinking the role of all centres of expertise in society. These include the university. It must find a new way to engage with/in society, rather than sustaining its legitimacy on the basis of indisputable fact-making.
Finally, if democracy and freedom are inseparable, as Kanhaiya and many other student activists have repeatedly proclaimed, then we might also need to work towards freedom from the unhindered ‘rule of experts’, and from the associated tyrannies of modernist development.
Saurabh teaches and researches sustainable development and governance of science and technology at University of Sussex.