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42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton
42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton

Opinion | Truth matters less in a post-truth world

The 1998 impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in the US for allegedly lying under oath split opinion over truth and falsehood. Standards have shifted since. Or have we got too cynical?

Many observers, globally, suspect that being economical with the truth no longer attracts the reproach it once did. We are, after all, in the era of post-truth, a term that was crowned “word of the year" by Oxford Dictionaries in 2016. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". Those who celebrate it like to give the concept a post-modernist spin, arguing that truth is contextual rather than the binary opposite of falsehood. Those who oppose its ascent see calamity writ large on the future, pointing out how the negation of untruths fostered science and also the vitality of truth to the cause of justice. As a test case of attitudes, consider the last Congressional trial held to impeach a US president. Two decades ago, the then president Bill Clinton’s response to charges of having lied under oath about alleged sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky split opinion everywhere. Some thought Clinton ought to have quit for perjury if not for the scandal (he kept his job), others pardoned what they saw as a minor folly in the larger scheme of things, but few would hand him a clean chit with a straight face. Today, that 1998 testimony may arguably win admiration for the ingenuity of its fudge.

The question posed to Clinton was simple. He was asked whether a statement of denial issued by his lawyer that “there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form" between him and Lewinsky was false or not. His reply has gone down in history as a brazen act of word jugglery. “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is," he reportedly said. “If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is, and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement." By the logic offered, the statement under scrutiny could technically be upheld as true, since at the precise moment it was made, there was no sex being engaged in. It was, as some quipped, a tense trial.

Was it much ado about nothing? In India, some glee was expressed over the flap that US politics was thrown into over semantics. Others, in Clinton’s support, invoked cultural cues that had come down the ages, such as an argument in favour of the noble half-truth drawn from the Mahabharata. In a famous episode, the epic’s protagonists portray the death of an elephant as that of a key opponent’s son, who happens to have the same name, to break the enemy’s morale—with the crucial clarification conveyed inaudibly. While such shades of grey were debated, Clinton’s dodge also appalled a large number of Indians. Gandhians, for instance, saw the whole sordid affair in the US as an affront to all the values they held integral to the practice of politics. It’s easy to empathize with them. In The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, Mahatma Gandhi wrote of his conviction that “morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality". Ideas of what is okay and what’s not do change with time, but the Mahatma’s enduring influence should grant us the confidence to bet that the real truth shall survive the rise of post-truth.

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