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Journalism counters manufactured ignorance

The disinformation industry is growing at an alarming speed and undermining democracy in an incremental manner. As part of this endeavour, there is a conscious attempt to remove the lustre from some defining terms. For instance, words such as pluralism, inclusiveness, fraternity, equality, and affirmative action are seen as terms defining the politics of a bygone era. The echo chamber of social media further distorts the truth.

Sometimes, readers send me WhatsApp forwards asking why the newspaper did not carry a particular story. They use social media trivia to prove a point that journalism is inherently against the ruling elites. In the present climate where conspiracy theories abound and forced false equivalences reign, readers must know that a news ombudsman has a framework to evaluate complaints and compliments. As the Readers’ Editor, I am committed to rectify any journalistic flaws through a process called ‘visible mending’. I evaluate news and investigative reports based on facts but rarely entertain complaints based on perceptions.

Commitment to inform

Readers must realise that the cyberspace consists of both knowledge and ignorance. However, today its commitment to inform is nearly outweighed by the voices of the apologists for the regime. Credible and trustworthy journalism is often pitted against blatant propagandist drivel. What is happening now is a clash of ideas between one set of professionals committed to knowledge production for public good and another set of partisan groups involved in ignorance production for political longevity. And this is the difference between sensitive journalism and the puffery of propaganda.

Philosophically, the idea of knowledge production has been explored in a systematic manner and the discipline is called epistemology. It would be helpful for the readers to know about a nascent discipline that is gaining ground among academia. It is called ‘agnotology’, which means the study of ignorance. Two professors of history of science at Stanford University, Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, edited an anthology of essays titled Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, which looked at the theme of what keeps ignorance alive and what allows it to be used as a political instrument. Scholars of the essays explained how ignorance is produced or maintained in diverse settings, through mechanisms such as deliberate or inadvertent neglect; secrecy and suppression; document destruction; unquestioned tradition; and myriad forms of inherent or avoidable culturo-political selectivity. Agnotology is “the study of ignorance making, the lost and forgotten”.

In his introductory chapter, ‘A missing term to describe the cultural production of ignorance and its study’, Mr. Proctor argued: “Ignorance has many interesting surrogates and overlaps in myriad ways with — as it is generated by — secrecy, stupidity, apathy, censorship, disinformation, faith, and forgetfulness, all of which are science-twitched. Ignorance hides in the shadows of philosophy and is frowned upon in sociology, but it also pops up in a great deal of popular rhetoric: it’s no excuse, it’s what can’t hurt you, it’s bliss.” In a forceful manner, he explained how technologies cause the proliferation of ignorance: “The public seems to be awakening to the fact that in the midst of the ‘information’ explosion, there has been an ‘ignorance’ explosion as well.”

In 1984, Thomas Pynchon, in his introduction to his collection of novellas Slow Learner, wrote: “Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence, and for all I know, rules of operation as well.” We need to know the contours of the ignorance that flows from prime-time noise. The ignorance-generating mechanism has a sense of coherence, creates its own set of tortured data, politically vacuous vocabulary, and eliminates the distinction between justice and revenge. It stands testimony to George Orwell’s observation: “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them”.

A cursory reading of the responses to critical voices in the comment section of this newspaper proves that there is an explosion of ignorance. In the short-term, journalists who retain their analytical and interrogative spirit may pay a price for speaking truth to power. But they are performing an irreducible and inalienable democratic duty: confronting a system that produces ignorance.

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