Are we living in an age of absurdities?

Many a conspiracy theory is fabricated on the basis of fake news, and is then exploited to push a given agenda or prejudice to the detriment of social peace and harmony

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

I have on a few occasions cited these words of Albert Jacquard, who was a famous French geneticist, ‘Les effets pervers de la science’. They were actually the title of an article that he wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique in which he cautioned humanity about the negative fallouts that could result from scientific discoveries and their applications developed by technology. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the nuclear bomb, but there are others that are more common and more manageable, such as the side effects of medications like antibiotics.

What this illustrates is that whatever the advance that is made by science, at the end of the day it is what use of it that we as human beings choose to make (nuclear bombs or electricity from nuclear power) that determines its impact(s) on our lives, on society. There are voluminous write-ups on the subject, but bottom line is: what choice of action we make, which automatically implies what guides our choice?

A current major concern globally is Artificial Intelligence: it can be a force for good (medical diagnostics, identifying Covid hotspots) or bad (intrusion into personal privacy, data).

Even more fundamentally, therefore, is that, ‘At the end of the day, it always boils down to human behaviour. We are the ones who create our own mess’. Or mess up others’ lives.

The overarching phenomenon of the past decade has been the explosion of social media that has resulted from developments overlayed on the internet, among others in IT, graphics, computational and battery power, miniaturization of components, and of course AI. The outcome is the unending posts that we receive on our addictive mobile phone – now that’s a perversion! — 24/7, that can be very well described as falling into the categories suggested by the title of a famous movie (if my memory serves me right): ‘The good, the bad, and the ugly’. To which we may add a fourth one: the absurd.

It is a fact that there are a lot of absurdities and obscenities circulating on social media, and that more often than not go viral. Evil is sensational, and spreads; the good goes mostly unnoticed.

It is instructive to note how the Oxford English Dictionary defines absurd: 1. wildly unreasonable, illogical or inappropriate. 2. (of a person) unreasonable or inappropriate in manner. 3. (of a thing) ludicrous, incongruous. And that exactly fits the definition of fake news, an absurdity which can be pernicious and dangerous. For as French thinker Voltaire is cited as saying: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities’.

Words that are most apt for our times that are being subjected to a proliferation of fake news, whereby local becomes global and vice-versa, leading to victimisation, arrests, persecutions, violence – in brief, atrocities that are perpetrated when made-up incidents and events are taken as being true and are hurriedly interpreted without a proper understanding and appreciation of the real context(s). Many a conspiracy theory is fabricated on the basis of fake news, and is then exploited to push a given agenda or prejudice to the detriment of social peace and harmony, not to speak of the immense harm that can be done to individuals and institutions.

The conspiracy theory whereby the US elections were rigged in November last, persistently believed in despite accumulating evidence to the contrary, is what resulted in the insurrection on Capitol Hill in Washington, and led to the loss of five innocent lives. Hence the heavy militarized presence for the inauguration of the incoming president Joe Biden, and thankfully there have been no riots by adversaries as had been feared.

As laymen we must beware of taking at face value posts that raise doubts or suspicions in our minds as to their veracity, since spreading them can lead to unintended consequences. In the absence of means to probe further we can only take a call on the basis of our commonsense, reason, knowledge and experience. The onus of responsibility to clarify matters lies heavily on those whom society entrusts to uncover the facts, investigating journalists and institutions that have the duty of applying the highest ethical norms and standards in the pursuit of their assigned roles, at the same time respecting the dignity of individuals who may be implicated in any given case.

The overload of circulating information, especially of the viral sort, poses the risk of conflating fake with fact, and imposes an even greater need for carefully separating the wheat from the chaff in the quest to establish the truth.

Currently some absurdities going round about anti-Covid vaccines, for example, are giving rise to ‘vaccine hesitancy’ in the populations where vaccine rollouts have been initiated, such as the US and India, meaning that people are not coming forth to get immunized in the numbers expected and planned for. Batches of vaccines have thus had to be disposed off – a clear loss at a time of such urgency and financial constraint. We are concerned here with a matter of life and death, and we can judge for ourselves how serious the consequence can be at both the individual and the collective, populations levels if we do not listen to or seek the correct information being dispensed by experts in the field.

There are much better things to do in life than to waste time on absurdities and inanities. On the other hand, it is also our responsibility to counter them and neutralise their harm potential. We may be living in an age of absurdities, of fake news. But we don’t have to be so stupid as to be the moutons de panurge – blind followers – of the malevolent manipulators who want to entrap us in their perfidious designs. Let us use our intelligence and logic to thwart their endeavours at creating havoc.

Time to end on a lighter note, admittedly a social media post: Today it’s the 21st day of the 21st year of the 21st century, 21-21-21 – let us celebrate! Why not…

* Published in print edition on 22 January 2021

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