This story is akin to that of the blind men and the elephant

It is now almost a month since Malaysian Airlines MH370 vanished. Naval and Air force crews are still combing the southern Indian Ocean for possible remains of the aircraft, with no real success. Time is running out as the black box signal lasts only for about 30 days. Beyond that point, locating the aircraft which is thought to have crashed some 2,000 km southwest of Perth, will prove to be very difficult.

To the families of the 239 passengers and crew, finding the aircraft or whatever remains of it is important for a closure and to put an end to all the speculation and theories that have swirled around ever since the flight disappeared from Malaysia’s radar screens on the night of March 8 between Malaysia and Vietnam.

Remember the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, where a rape and a murder is interpreted in different ways by different observers? How reality is interpreted in many subjective ways and the fallibility and untrustworthy nature of the human perception is the central theme of the film. Characters utilise selective perception to suit their needs rather than to tell the truth and reflect reality. One infers that truth is relative.

The film begins with the following lines: “I don’t understand, I just don’t understand, I don’t understand it at all, I never heard such a strange story, why don’t you tell me about it. This man and I have just seen it and heard it ourselves, But even I have never heard a story as horrible as this, Yes, so horrible, This time I may finally lose my faith in the human soul, Hear me out, Maybe you can tell me what it means.”

As in what is called the Rashomon Effect, the unreliability of the narrator comes to the fore in the tragic story of the missing aircraft. From the day after the crash, there has been a multitude of theories on what happened to the Malaysian flight with its passengers and crew.

Yet, to this day, other than the fact that the flight that took off from Kuala Lumpur never reached its destination in Beijing, there has been no conclusive evidence that the aircraft had crashed in the Indian Ocean as it has been claimed by many countries including Australia and Singapore. The relatives of the passengers, fed by ever-changing stories, are in no mood to believe the aircraft went down in the ocean after moving away from its flight path. Also, the public at large are rubbishing media reports as not credible.

Never before has public opinion been so strident and unrelenting over the coverage of an event by the media. In fact, reports of cover-up by Malaysia abetted by other countries seem to occupy the distraught relatives’ mind. How has this come about? Is this because the medium are considered untrustworthy?

Or, as in Rashomon is it the onslaught of most improbable theories that are never-ending that has numbed the senses of the public so much that they seem to have stopped taking in information, credible or not. This leads us to the question of what the truth is. Will public opinion change if the aircraft is found in the Indian Ocean with or without the passengers? Has the world reached a tipping point on the presentation of facts by the media? It is pertinent to ask whether the truth that gets told will be considered as subjective, and why.

Subjective Truth? Phelan (Phelan & Martin 1999; Phelan 2005) classifies unreliability by focussing on three axes: the axis of facts; the axis of values or ethics; and the axis of knowledge and perception. As in the story of the blind men and an elephant, one’s subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth.

Tragic as it is, the story of Malaysian 370 is pretty similar to the story of the blind men and the elephant. Are the media groping in the dark, forming their own conclusions of the reality, actively fed by disinformation? Will the public at large ever get to know the truth? And when they reach there, will that be accepted as the truth? Hard questions indeed.

subbush@gmail.com

More In: Open Page | Opinion