City City Bang Bang, Columns

Wasting the Truth

Last week a television channel carried out a sting on Indian Godmen, which established what some people had always suspected, that owning an alleged hotline to God comes along with certain material benefits on the side. The bearded visages were not only serene with self-realisation but also shining with canny worldliness as they spoke expertly of power projects, tax dodges and money laundering. A few week ago, the cricketing world was rocked when we finally saw evidence of what we had suspected all along- that fixing was an integral part of the sport. The sting as a method of uncovering truth has gained enormously in currency in the last few years and has served to convert into pictures what were doubts in our mind and in doing so, has provided a new way of bringing dishonesty to book.

Or has it? In a majority of cases, when we look back on some of the most sensational stings, we see little evidence that they had any significant long term impact. The political skulduggery by way of horse trading and fund collection has not changed even slightly in spite of more than the Tehelka sting that revealed politicians in their true colours. Corruption by public officials continues unabated and even Shakti Kapoor is back into making films (sort of). Even in the case of the Godmen, this is hardly the first sting of its kind, and it is unlikely that this will have too much long term impact.

Arguably, what these doses of shock-truth are doing is to gradually make us accustomed to the venality that lies under the appearance of normalcy. By seeing concrete evidence of the worst case scenarios we carried inside our heads as possibilities, we are converting our view of the world into a more cynical one, where our worst fears are increasingly likely to come true. Given that in most cases, there is little that we can do to set things right, knowledge of what is wrong becomes a source of entertainment rather than a trigger for meaningful action. The truth gets trivialised and is used for titillation, rather than as basis for meaningful change. Systemic dishonesty does not get dismantled just because we become aware of it- there are many highly visible acts of corruption in India that all of us see in our lives everyday ( just go the nearest RTO or District Court) that are not even slightly affected by our knowledge of their existence.

The movement towards transparency-as-consumer-product is part of a much larger trend than the device of stings alone. The democratisation of the cameras has spawned a million eyes that can record events wherever they might happen. Nothing is guaranteed to be safe from the prying eyes of this device and technology is making these gadgets more and more unobtrusive. In any case, in the surveillance society we are moving towards, we are under the watchful gaze of each other in some form and manner, all the time. The internet makes everyone an acquaintance of everybody else either deliberately or otherwise and with youtube, not only are our gaffes not ignored, they can be viewed again and again by millions and commented upon by all and sundry. The reality show too derives its popularity from its ability to extract the truth from its participants as they are made to give concrete form to what would otherwise have been thought bubbles in their head. In virtually every show of this knd, participants are made to reveal what they really feel about each other. Shows like Sach Ka Samna in particular work to confirm that we carry a jungle of socially inappropriate ideas in our head and often act accordingly.

So are we moving towards a more honest world by shedding our many hypocrisies? Isn’t it better to know the truth than to dread it? Or will such a sustained onslaught of truth make us immune to it? Does the awareness of our moral fallibility in some way serve to legitimise it? Already there are many actions that a few years ago would have been seen to be inappropriate that are now commonly accepted as part of our legitimate behaviour. Promoting oneself too visibly, for instance , would have been socially unacceptable behaviour that would attract widespread comment. Today, it is a full-fledged industry. The mixing of business and sport is another arena where sustained interaction has created a new legitimacy for the commercialisation of sport and the ‘owning’ of sportspersons by business tycoons.

Perhaps we need to retain some of our illusions about the better side of human beings. Society depends on the appearance of moral order rather than its actual practice. Honesty is useful in homeopathic doses for then we consume its intention rather than its reality.The more we become aware of the fact that no cow is holy and that all feet have a bit of clay in them, the easier it is to accept the dismantling of any standard of behaviour. When we start evaluating actions primarily on the basis of their effectiveness rather than their appropriateness, we create a culture of pragmatism that is assertive as well as bottomless. The opposite of dishonesty is in all probability, not honesty but brazenness. Hypocrisy bridges the gap between who we should be and what we are . The need for pretences is our saving grace for in doing that we acknowledge the moral standard to which we are all held. Of course, this is arbitrary, and even dishonest, in that it turns a blind

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