Hasan Minhaj’s search for the premise

When Hasan Minhaj spoke on his show about living through some dangerous experiences as a Muslim man from an Indian family growing up in the US of A, he wasn’t speaking the truth. He told Clare Malone of The New Yorker that his stories have “seeds” of truth”, that his comedy is 70% “emotional truth—this happened” and 30% “hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction”. First, we really need to use words other than ‘truth’ to talk about things that aren’t true the way a ‘truth’ is expected to be. Second, I was only queasy as long as it seemed that Minhaj was passing off other similar people’s stories as his own, but then it seemed to be that they weren’t anyone’s stories at all, a problem exacerbated by the ways in which they involved women. Then he said this, which rang closer home in a different way:

“The punch line is worth the fictionalized premise”

So he had a punchline and went looking for a premise – the sort of thing that’s sunk scientists and journalists when they tried to do the same thing. It’s also the trope that cryptocurrencies popularised in the heyday of ‘investments’ in bitcoin and NFTs. They were solutions looking for problems, and when solutions look for problems, they tend to ignore the structural factors that create the problems. For example, crypto-bros wanted to democratise the ownership of pieces of art rather than letting them accumulate in the hands of extremely wealthy individuals. But NFTs aren’t concerned with the relationships between creditors and debtors, wealth and social signalling, and art and capitalism. So they failed to make a difference.

But that shouldn’t diminish the irony that the world today is one big premise looking for a punchline, sometimes desperately. In India itself, the incumbent BJP government has assumed many elements of authoritarian and fascist ideologies in its rule, and the social fabric has suffered. One cause of suffering is that the government has, together with unscrupulous TV news anchors and some supine public institutions, vitiated public dialogue, spread misinformation, deviated in spirit from the implementation of the RTI Act, and suppressed the production and release of data from public surveys and research that are critical of its dogma.

One consequence of all this for journalists has been that proof that might seal a causal relationship between a hypothesis and a set of facts is often out of reach, and too often just so. During the pandemic, for example, almost every instance of health journalism was also an instance of investigative journalism. In the last decade, using various forms of retaliation and sanction, the government has silenced some critics and forced others to think twice before responding to reporters. In this milieu, journalism can build only a more incomplete picture of reality as we experience or even observe it (more than subjective experiences that it couldn’t fully capture anyway). Individuals are free to piece together the rest in their imagination, and they do. But for journalists at least, it’s a cardinal sin to present this extrapolation as fact. It’s important, but it’s not fact. This was for example one of the issues with Ronan Farrow’s work during the #MeToo movement.

Minhaj isn’t a journalist and punchlines aren’t reports put together through journalistic work – yet his quote is insightful to the practice of journalism. After substituting “conclusion” for “punch line”, for instance, we have a faithful reflection of what might have gone wrong with The Wire‘s TekFog and Meta reports last year, and after which The Wire sued Devesh Kumar, the person at the centre of both investigative efforts, for deceiving The Wire‘s journalists. Kumar had allegedly invented the raison d’être of both series to match what many of us have come to accept as an incontestable reality.

(Note: I worked with The Wire at the time these reports were published but wasn’t involved in reporting or publishing them. I have, however, since unpublished one post on this blog in which I considered TekFog’s implications for science journalism.)

The alleged premise in both cases was broadly that people affiliated with the BJP were using sophisticated IT tools to manipulate the spread of hateful messages (‘TekFog’) and removal of anti-party sentiment (‘Meta’) on social media platforms. The conclusions in both sets of reports – before The Wire repudiated them – were in line with the fact that BJP leaders have regularly resorted to communalising rhetoric to win votes and BJP governments have jailed people for social-media posts criticising the party’s views and actions. But it soon became clear that the conclusions weren’t worth the premise even in circumstances as difficult as those created by the foot-soldiers of Hindutva. This to me is what makes Minhaj’s rationale so disagreeable.

Of course, journalism is different from a talk-show, but Malone’s reply to Minhaj as he tries repeatedly to justify the fictionalising should resonate with anyone who claims to relate the truth but doesn’t: “But it didn’t happen to you.” (Who is experiencing the event matters as well, so the last two words may be redundant.) It’s the simplest argument against confirmation bias, and it also speaks to an important part of the identity of comedians like Minhaj, Jon Stewart, John Oliver, etc.: they’re a source of new information about the world insofar as they expect to be perceived to be credible when they tell us how to think about that information, and that so happens to be in the form of jokes.

While Minhaj is influential, the outing of his more striking anecdotes as untrue leaves him the story, as it did Farrow and Kumar, rather than the actual people and ideas that he apparently wished to highlight. And that’s harmful to those people and ideas. In the words of legal scholars Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry, writing in 1997 in the aftermath of the Tawana Brawley case:

Indifference to the distinction between fact and fiction minimizes real suffering by implying that it is no worse than imagined or self-inflicted suffering.