It’s been a long year, but don’t forget the earth is still round

05 December 2017 - 07:20
Image: Gallo Images/iStockphoto

I'm not saying I believe the earth is flat. I'm not saying that at all. I'm just saying - wait, what the hell am I saying?

Let me take a big step back to about a month ago, when the media machine hit a new vein of gold: flat-earthers.

Apparently spanning the planet from left edge to right, these earnest fantasists who believe that we're riding a giant rock-pizza through space suddenly seemed to be everywhere, revealing their idiocy to major news sites or posting videos to Facebook in which they grappled with toy aeroplanes and inflatable globes.

My first response was disbelief, then, when it happened again, derision. By the third report, my contempt was aimed at the publications that persisted in publishing such drivel.

The fourth time I read about the nincompoops who are determined to ignore 500 years of science, something alarming happened.

In a very small, very primitive corner of my brain, a little voice piped up. "Oh look," it said.

"Flat-earthers have become a thing. Okay then. Some people believe the earth is round, and some people believe it's flat."

It was a depressing realisation: simply by being exposed to that vastly stupid belief enough times, I had begun to accept its existence. My contempt for it had been defused into something akin to - was it tolerance? Far worse: it was apathy. Instead of thinking of them as wilfully ignorant patsies ripe for the plucking by anti-science populists, I saw their (flat) world view as just another opinion added harmlessly, meaninglessly, to a vast pile of opinions that numb me every day. And one opinion is as valid as another, right?

Nazi propaganda maestro Joseph Goebbels is supposed to have said: "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

I don't know if Goebbels actually said that - it was Mark Twain who famously said: "Half the attributions on the internet are a lie, the other half are a damned lie" - but there is a profoundly sinister truth at its heart.

Flat-earthers have become a thing. Okay then. Some people believe the earth is round, and some people believe it's flat.

The evidence is everywhere: just say something often enough and we're sold. It's why the Kardashians are famous and why people queue to pay corporations to wear advertisements on their clothes.

It's why millions of Americans think that Donald Trump is making America great again and why millions of South Africans think that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will do the same for this country. And it's why so few people seem to be giving a damn about Naspers trying to sidestep responsibility as MultiChoice is accused of having a sleazy relationship with the Zupta capture machine.

Of course, there might be another explanation for that last one: scandal fatigue. It's been a long year - hell, it's been a long decade - and it's possible that we burnt out our last corporate scandal nerve on Bell Pottinger or KPMG.

But I don't think we should underestimate the power of good, old-fashioned propaganda. And when it comes to that dark art, Naspers is one of the all-time greats.

Repeat the right words often enough - a proudly South African giant, apologetic about its past but looking to a bright future! - and who can now remember that Naspers refused to testify before the TRC for being the official, unabashed mouthpiece of white supremacy?

Endlessly champion "free speech", and who will notice that WeChat - owned by Tencent which has made Naspers so vastly rich - is accused of censoring any reference in China to pro-democracy rallies or the imprisonment of human rights activists and their lawyers?

In the coming weeks, all the usual propaganda will be poured into our ears and eyes. Advertising agencies will tell women that they are hideous and men that they are impotent. But as this country spins ever faster towards its fate, they will be joined by a fresh chorus of liars, trying to batter us into a state of apathy.

It will be hard to resist. They're incredibly good at their job. But when it all starts feeling a little bit too plausible, perhaps we can take a moment to stand apart, and to remind ourselves that the earth is round and turning as it has always turned.

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