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A Crisis of Subjectivity

Since the inescapable U.S. election the concept of ‘fake news’, and its corollary, ‘post-truth’, has taken hold within everyday public discourse. As the mediated world increasingly reflects the subjective nature of reality championed by Postmodernism, we are faced with the issue of ‘proving’ claims that at their extremes can be the difference between life and death. Nowhere is this more evident currently than in Myanmar. Throughout the continuing Rohingya crisis, in which 600,000 and counting refugees have fled the Rakhine state since August 2017, the Myanmar government has refused to allow the United Nations, humanitarian groups and global media into the region to verify claims of systemic violence and ethnic cleansing. This has lead to the circulation of false images and consequent uncertainty about the true scale and form of violence occurring within the state. Furthermore, this crisis of verification has enabled Aung San Suu Kyi to employ accusations of ‘fake news’ as a means to deflect responsibility and therefore obscure her complicity in genocide. The actualisation of Postmodernism in the world today thus chillingly demonstrates its fundamental theoretical failing, namely how to engage in meaningful ethical action in absence of morality and truth.

The dawning of global mass communication has heralded our entrance into the postmodern world. Currently 51% of the world’s population have access to the internet. Of course, this still leaves 49%, the majority within the non-western world, without access; however, global growth rates suggest that this percentage is rapidly shrinking. Due to unprecedented access to platforms of self-expression, we can get hold of an ever increasing plurality of narratives within a matter of seconds. As a result, trying to grasp at objective truth is becoming increasingly difficult. Filtering through tidal wave of narratives to find even reliable knowledge thus becomes a near impossible task. Images tweeted by the Turkish Vice President Mehmet Simsek allegedly depicting increasing violence in the Rakhine state were actually images of the Rwandan Genocide and other conflicts. His tweets had been re-tweeted thousands of times before the true origins of the images came to light. The situation demonstrated the  increasing importance of verifying the legitimacy of images alongside the development of, and accessibility to, cameras and editing tools. Therefore, we can arguably no longer rely upon our visual senses as a source of knowledge, in turn validating the Postmodernist claim that seeing cannot equate to believing.

Furthermore, the dissemination of these false images has enabled Aung San Suu Kyi to claim that all evidence of state-sponsored systematic ethnic cleansing is ‘fake news’. Consequently, Suu Kyi and the Burmese military leadership can sustain a frankly delusional denial of mass human rights abuses. The destabilisation of evident ‘truth’ pioneered by Postmodernism was initially imbued with emancipatory impetus and inspired many post-colonial movements and gender studies to de-naturalise seemingly universal truths and expose the power structures they sustain. Yet it has now provided politicians with an insidious political tool for legitimising challenges and preserving their own power. This strategy has been embraced by President Trump, arguably as the central means by which he has maintained power. By repeatedly claiming ‘fake news’ he dismisses all assertions dissonant to his self-serving narratives. Just as cries of ‘fake news’ can be used to expose the specific power interests of particular narratives, they can equally be wielded as a smokescreen for such self-interested narratives themselves. This reveals the fundamental self-defeating catch-22 within Postmodernism; without objective reality, there can be no common standards for truth and morality with which to evaluate, challenge and falsify narratives.

Without moral grounding, justified action becomes impossible. By accepting that we can never truly ‘know’ anything, we absolve any ethical responsibility to act and engage in the world. Despite the ever increasing testimonies from many of the now 600,000 refugees that have been fleeing Myanmar in the past month, the fundamental reason that the international community cannot establish or verify the reality of exactly what is occurring in the Rakhine state is due to United Nations and international journalists being denied access to the region, unless under a state-lead visitation. Therefore, we do not ‘know’ enough about what is occurring in Myanmar to justify meaningful international action. Hence, Postmodernism enables us to remain comfortable in our own ignorance and provides a dangerous justification for silence against actions we consider ethically abhorrent. This means that the international community can absolve itself from responsibility to protect the humanity of the Rohingya people.

Yet, whilst Postmodernism cannot provide satisfactory solutions to the absence of universal and objective truth, this is not to say that it cannot offer any strategies or mechanisms for dealing with moral, ontological and epistemological ambiguity. In fact, Postmodernism’s fundamentally most important contribution to intellectual thought, but also global society, has been its powerful advocacy of the necessity to ceaselessly challenge and question all narratives- to be constantly critical and aware of the biases of others and ourselves. Whilst the rise of social media has radically increased the quantity of information through which we must filter, it has also given a platform for dissonant critiques and voices. Being critical of narratives, therefore, means recognising legitimate, as well as illegitimate ones. With regards to the Rohingya Crisis, Amnesty International has worked tirelessly to challenge Aung San Suu Kyi’s claims that ‘clearance operations’ had ceased. Using satellite technology, the organisation has been able to show disquieting images of Rohingya villages burning to the ground next to untouched non-Rohingya villages. This strongly indicates that Rohingya communities remain specifically and systematically targeted and destroyed. Of course, these images cannot be taken at face value, nor provide indisputable truth, but they substantially contribute to clearing a degree of the uncertainty of the situation within the region.

The integration of Postmodernism into the contemporary social realm has enabled a ‘post-truth’ world to come into being, where all sources of knowledge are unstable and individualised narratives grow exponentially. However, whilst the claim of subjective reality has been actualised by the revolution in technological-based communication, Postmodernism’s conceptual  inability to offer any standards that can guide us in navigating global challenges is also apparent. However, to dismiss Postmodernism altogether as a dark warning against the dangers of abstract theorising would be to obscure and erase its contributions to the emancipation of millions of oppressed peoples throughout the 20th century. Instead, we must return to the fundamental mechanism of Postmodernism; the constant necessity to question dominant narratives. Rather than burying our heads in the sand, the international community must tirelessly strive to create dialogues and challenge claims rather than bemoaning the seeming futility of this.

Despite the ambiguity of outcome, the act of trying remains paramount. Therefore, now more than ever, Postmodernism cannot become a justification for ignorance. Rather, we must restore its emancipatory legacy; subjectivity can never become a scapegoat for the denial of dissonant opinions and information. If anything, an embrace of subjectivity demands even deeper scrutiny of all claims, both ‘fake’ and ‘real’.

Andrea Garcia-Ochoa Lee is studying at LSE and UC Berkely for a BSc in International Relations and History.

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