06 March 2014

Of factoids, powerpuff presentations and powerhuff pouting

There's a term being tossed around in Geneva these days: widespread allegations. 'Widespread'?  What does that mean?  Longtime Tiger-lover Bishop Rayappu Joseph sending a note to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and Sara saying something to Jehan which Jehan whispers into Nimalka Fernando's ear and which Nimalka passes onto Callum Macrae and which Callum emails Frances Harrison and the whole bunch of them cross-posting this same message to each other and to ready recipients such as Michele Sison, John Rankin, David Cameron, Samuel Harper, John Kerry, Navi Pillay etc., etc.?  Is that how we get 'widespread'?  Reminded me of something my late friend and benefactor Errol Alphonso once told me and which I reflected on in an article written three years ago. Here goes.

I learn a new word every day, courtesy my friend and benefactor Errol Alphonso.  More often than not the rare words he sends my way have some relevance to something I’ve written or an issue that I am interested about at the time.  A few days ago he sent me ‘factoid’. 

Factoid is a noun. It is an invented ‘fact’, meaning something that is presented as true but which is in fact nothing but a construct of the imagination, often deliberate and uttered with intention to mislead.  It is an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print, to be precise. It could also refer to a briefly stated and usually trivial fact.  It is the first meaning that got my attention.

I immediately remembered the Buddha’s incomparable Charter on Free Inquiry, the Kalama Sutta, where the All Knowing and Most Compassionate One spoke thus to the Kalamas: ‘Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 

“These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.  In other words, the Buddha recommends, among other things, that factoids should be subjected to examination and not taken as self-evident truths.

We’ve seen things in print.  We’ve seen submissions and representations made by the malicious, with the malicious and for the malicious. We’ve seen factoids repeated. We’ve seen them being quoted without any consideration for the most basic ethics of information gathering, i.e. reliability and verification, and then re-quoted by their very creators.  This is how factoids become fact. 

It all began with some doctors being forced to do some fact-doctoring at gun-point.  We had naïve, ignorant, highly excitable and/or politically motivated neutrals (sic) cleverly embedded in NGOs and UN agencies intent on making mountain out of molehill, giving a long afterlife to these factoids.  Bitterness at expected or preferred outcome not materializing may have given birth to revenge intent and fed malice. And so factoid was clothed as fact, quoted and re-quoted many, many times, in report after report filed by people with very little integrity, a truck load of meanness and well-positioned to do best at doing their worst. 

So we have tendentious comments by people like Jehan Perera and Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, duly picked up by the likes of Patricia Butenis, David Milliband, Bernard Kouchner, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Navi Pillai and Ban Ki-moon.  Factoids get fatter each time they get written and spoken. In this instance these were factoids that moved around in a process into which factoid-repetition was scripted even before they were birthed.  Darusman was factoid-briefed, it seems. 

Navi Pillai was on a factoid-fattening mission.  The community of nations stumped her.  Ki-moon took the factoid-baton and quite in contravention of accepted UN procedure, commissioned some factoid-loving friends to breathe some life into these untruths.  And now the factoids have come a full circle. We have Saravanamuttu, Perera and even confused Marxists like Kumar David (whose bitterness allows him to twist every Marxian quote he knows to now genuflect before Prabhakaran and now before the JVP) absolutely intoxicated with them.  They are factoid-drunk and stagger around making grand pronouncements with zilch to offer by way of substantiation.
Errol had sent me another term which sums up all the theatrics that these political losers have been up to: ‘powerpuff presentation’ which refers to a powerpoint presentation containing lots of flashy animations, cool pictures, and all sorts of other snazzy gimmics, but almost entirely lacking in any real substance.   I think it is applicable to factoid-filled reports. 

NGOs are supposed to be good at ‘frilling’ to sell projects to potential donors, justify their existence and maintain stature.  They know enough about powerpoint presentations and are therefore well equipped to powerpuff and powerhuff, as required by moment and context.   They’ve done a lot of huff and puff with respect factoid-construction.  There is little else they can do, after all.  It’s huff and puff all the way, from factoid to factoid repetition and factoid marketing. 

All things considered, I feel sorry for them. And so, in the spirit of the moment, the 2600th Sambuddhatva Jayanthi, I wish them all niduk, nirogi suwa. Now and always. May they be blessed by the Noble Triple Gem.