In the wake of the UK Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump, some observers have written about the arrival of a new ‘post-factual’ politics, characterised by emotional appeals, populist rhetoric, and an almost willful refusal to engage with questions of actual policy and fact. Evidence for this claim is not difficult to find; in the United States and United Kingdom, surveys are increasingly showing that people on opposing sides of the political divide have radically different views of reality. For example, self-identified Republicans and Democrats disagree on a range of issues including the health of the US economy, levels of unemployment, and the incidence of crime in major urban centers. Similarly, the campaign to leave the European Union prior to the Brexit vote made a number of dubious claims regarding the powers of the EU, the monetary benefit that would be gained by leaving it, and the impact of immigration on jobs and wages. That many of these assertions were patently false was of apparently little consequence.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, one of the key hallmarks of this supposed ‘post-factual’ order is the ready availability of concrete, objective information that refutes much of what is peddled by populist politicians, but is nonetheless ignored or rejected by voters who receive it. For example, evaluating the state of an economy is not too difficult, with there being several indicators that can be relied upon to provide a reasonably accurate picture of its health. Yet, large sections of the American population simply cannot agree on whether the US economy has shown any signs of recovery since the 2007 Financial Crisis. The psychological mechanisms underpinning this phenomenon are relatively well understood. People love to be told that they are correct, and are less likely to question information that confirms pre-existing biases. Following from this, when people are provided with information that contradicts their worldview, one standard defence is to simply dismiss this information, either by ignoring it outright, by questioning the credentials and motivations of those who provide it, or by twisting it around in order to have it conform to their beliefs. Ironically, as recent research has shown, education is not necessarily a safeguard against such bias, as people with higher levels of learning are often more likely to reject contradictory evidence because of an increased amount of confidence in their own reasoning and knowledge. Finally, the world we now live in is one in which people are often tied in to very specific information eco-systems; social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, leads to people receiving increasing amounts of curated content from self-selected friends and sources that reinforce extant biases, and the television landscape is one in which a proliferation of channels allows consumers to simply watch content they agree with without really having to engage with opposing points of view.

Most importantly of all, however, are the underlying causes that have prompted the surge of populist, ‘post-factual’ politicians and movements around the world. Across the globe, support for these political actors largely comes from segments of the population that are disenchanted and disaffected with the status quo. This could include blue-collar workers in the US and UK, left behind by globalisation and the decline of industry in those countries, young people faced with poor employment prospects and large levels of debt, and even middle-class voters squeezed by economic austerity and wary of cultural change. What is common to these people is a distrust of the political establishment, traditional political elites, and ‘experts’, all of whom seen as having presided over the processes of change generating this dissatisfaction. When new political players emerge to tap into these veins of discontent, their appeals to a mythical and glorious past, free from foreign cultures and values, and their fanciful promises of economic transformation, premised on an impossible implementation of outdated and impractical policy prescriptions, often serve to comfort, and give hope to, those with grievances directed towards existing political systems. If nothing else, the prospect of a change in the status quo is often sufficient to galvanise anti-systemic sentiment. The fact that much of what is offered is simply unattainable is of little concern when the primary objective is to simply shake things up.

After Imran Khan called off his party’s lockdown’ of Islamabad earlier this week, one of the most interesting conspiracy theories doing the rounds on social media in Pakistan tied the cessation of Indian shelling on the border to the ebbing of the threat posed by the PTI to the PML-N. The reasoning here was simple; India had started attacking Pakistan to attract attention away from events in Islamabad, and had therefore ceased to do so once Nawaz Sharif’s position was secured. According to the theory, India did this because of its deep desire to keep the PML-N in power, with the allegedly close relationship between Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi being cited as evidence of how the former was little more than a traitorous agent working for the latter. This entire account built on earlier pronouncement, made by leaders of both the PTI and the Jamaat-i-Islami, that denounced Nawaz Sharif for being a pawn in the hands of a nebulous ‘Indo-Israeli’ lobby.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and yet, predictably enough, none has been provided to support the notion that Pakistan’s prime minister is secretly working for India. Yet, that has not stopped people from saying it and, more importantly, believing it. The same logic has been applied to a broad swathe of liberals, activists, and intellectuals who have opposed mainstream narratives regarding religion, democracy, and militancy in Pakistan; Routinely accused of being agents on the payroll of insidious foreign powers, these individuals are subjected to abuse and harassment without a shred of evidence being provided to substantiate the accusations made against them. The dangerous polarisation of the political discourse can also be seen in how the simple act of criticising a political party automatically leads to allegations of partisan bias. That there may be rational and reasoned arguments for opposing a party, or that a person may question a politician without endorsing his or her rivals, is something that often escapes the frothing hordes baying for the blood of those who disagree with them. Why should the truth matter when all that matters is how one feels.

Postscript: As Lahore and its surrounding districts are enveloped by smog, those in India and Pakistan continuously advocating the adoption of a more belligerent attitude towards each other would do well to dwell on the common challenges faced by both countries. Air pollution in Northern India and Pakistani Punjab can be at least partially attributed to crop burning and coal-fuelled factories in Indian Punjab. Bringing levels of pollution down, on both sides of the border, will necessarily require the creation of an institutional framework that allows both countries to agree on measures and mechanisms through which to achieve this goal. The same is true for water and other resources in the subcontinent, and the suggestion that any of this can be achieved by force, or amidst ongoing enmity, is simply ludicrous.