Democracy Needs The Power Of Truth To Survive, Says Justice Chandrachud
Speaking truth to power is a right every citizen must have in a democracy, but equally it's also the duty of every citizen, Justice DY Chandrachud said while delivering the Justice MC Chagla Memorial Lecture.
The relationship that truth shares with democracy is that of both a sword and a shield, he said. The scope for extensive deliberation, particularly in the age of social media, exposes multiple “truths” so much so that it seems like we live in an “age of lies”, and that shakes the very foundation of a democracy, Chandrachud added.
He emphasized that the citizens should arrive at a consensus on at least the basic facts that are backed by both science and society to form collective decisions.
Hence, if deliberations are censored by the State or if we either subconsciously or deliberately censor them, we would discern just one “truth” – one that is not challenged by us.Justice Chandrachud
In contrast, deliberation by multiple groups with differing viewpoints will pave way for correction of errors in this “truth”. Ideas will be aggregated, and the entire process will help in the emergence of a creative solution that no one person could have thought of individually.
What Does “Truth” Even Mean?
To exercise the right of speaking truth to power, it's important to ask this question, he said.
While the identification of truth may be singularly at issue in judicial proceedings, the very nature of “truth” can often be un-determinable in societies. Most commonly, truth is defined in terms of ‘facts’.
According to the ‘correspondence’ theory proposed by Plato and Aristotle, a proposition is true if it corresponds to a ‘fact . However, it is important to remember that even the most preliminary facts can be disputed, he said.
Facts and opinions cannot be confined to water-tight compartments when they overlap in various instances in their relationship with “truth”. The opinion of a person is conferred the status of a ‘fact’ and subsequently “truth” depending upon the power they yield in society.Justice Chandrachud
And so, while considering the role of citizens in determining the “truth”, we must keep in mind that this does not refer only to the elite, privileged class of intellectuals but includes everyone.
It is important to remember that every person – rich or poor; male or female or belonging to a third gender; Dalit or Brahmin or otherwise; Hindu, Muslim or Christian or belonging to any other religion – has the inherent capacity to identify the truth, and differentiate it from falsehood.
However, many of them are unable to participate in this process because of systemic oppression which either does not provide a platform for their voices or works to minimise their actual impact.Justice Chandrachud
Therefore, it is imperative upon us to create an environment where this becomes possible.
The Post-Truth World
Referring to John Stuart Mill's belief in the “market place of ideas”- where given enough time, the truth would always prevail over falsehood- Justice Chandrachud said it's important to test the veracity of this claim in present time.
He called it the post-truth world. It could have two meanings.
First, that it has become exceedingly difficult for citizens to find the “truth” in this time and age.
And second, which is the more disturbing possibility, is that having found the “truth”, they just do not care about it.
The Difficulty In Finding Truth
It is undeniable that the phenomenon of “fake news” is on the rise, Justice Chandrachud pointed out.
It is often noted that even on the internet, the largest portion of the blame is often laid at the door of large corporations like Facebook and Twitter. Part of the problem is that while these social media platforms allow users to create their own networks and communities, it also leads to a homogeneity within those networksJustice Chandrachud
Since humans have the tendency to associate themselves with fellow humans with shared lived experiences or similar beliefs, it leads to the creation of echo chambers, where people are only exposed to the viewpoint they agree with while never coming into contact with an opposing, he pointed out.
Another problem, he added, is due to what can only be described as our “attention economy” – which is to say that there is just so much information out there, and we can only consume so little of it. Leading First Amendment Scholar Tim Wu has noted that because of this, the traditional methods of limiting free speech are being changed.
With the advent of the internet, the platform is no longer an issue but rather it is about grabbing someone’s attention. As such, while someone’s speech may not be removed from the internet, it can be effectively drowned out by flooding the internet with massive amounts of information to the contraryJustice Chandrachud
Polarisation Of “Truth”
The second possible meaning of the “post-truth” world, he pointed out, is where “truth” does not matter to people anymore.
It is important to acknowledge that we live in a world that is increasingly become divided along social, political, economic, and religious lines. This also leads to increasing polarisation of “truth”, where sections of the population contest on “your truth” versus “our truth” even on subjects that are unrelated to the common affinity that the group shares.
We subconsciously filter the “truth” that does not align with our interest – we only read the newspapers that align with our beliefs, ignore books written by people who do not belong to our stream, and turn the TV on mute when someone furnishes an opinion contrary to us. In sum, we do not truly care about the “truth” as much as we do about being right.Justice Chandrachud
Laying the full blame at the doors of social media corporations ignores the deeper underlying issues in our communities. People often have such differing conceptions of the “truths” because their realities are very different to one another, he emphasised.
What Can Be Done?
One possible way suggested by many scholars is to regulate the social media corporations. 'However, being a sitting member of the judiciary, it is not fit for me to comment upon that.'
Indeed, then, what can we do as citizens of India?
The first thing to do is to strengthen our public institutions.
"We must strive to ensure that we have a press that is free from influence of any kind, political or economic, which will provide us information in an unbiased manner."
Similarly, schools and universities need to be supported to ensure that they create an atmosphere where students can learn to differentiate truth from falsehood, and develop a temperament for questioning those in power.
Secondly, we must not only acknowledge the plurality of opinions in a country as diverse as India, but celebrate it.
"This allows for more breathing space for all opinions, and leaves room open for actual deliberation."
Finally, as citizens of a democracy that is India, we need to commit ourselves to the search for “truth” as a key aspiration of our society.
"We can do this by questioning of the State, ‘experts’ and fellow citizens in order to determine the “truth”, and then speaking this truth to them, if they choose to ignore or deny it."
Read the full text of Justice Chandrachud's speech.