The Esoteric Nature Of Truth

post truth koli mitra

In the post-modern half-century that we just lived through, the once revolutionary question – “Is there such a thing as truth?” – has become a conventional, almost banal concept; a reflexive mental habit of serious academics and armchair philosophers alike, says Koli Mitra.

In this era of ‘Alternative Facts’, more than ever, the truth really matters, not only as a matter of “speaking truth to power” the way many ordinary people and journalists alike are doing in order to resist the likes of Donald Trump, but also in the more morally complicated area of compassion and truth. It’s easy to call out bad facts when they emanate from a will to oppress or do harm. But what about when they come from movements that we think are aimed at the greater good? There have been an increasing number of hoaxes, for example, being perpetrated in order to discredit the “Alt-Right” and white nationalists. It’s tough to condemn them, for fear of discrediting an overwhelmingly legitimate concern. Another example is the spate of violence against conservatives (the latest high profile cases being in university campuses). Much of the press, which tends to be liberal, perhaps understandably, has been slower to report them than they have been in cases of attacks on liberal speakers and activists. We tend to give a benefit of the doubt to causes that are informed by justice rather than by hostility — but ultimately, should facts ever be favoured (and/or disfavoured) regardless of their implications on the broader struggle? The clear answer might seem to be “no”. But then, what if calling out overzealous crossing of the lines on the part of movements that are actually about justice and compassion, starts to discredit those movements? I think in the long view, our commitment to the truth must win. Because justice that requires deception is not really justice –it’s a provisional compromise between competing levels of injustice in a culture that’s essentially broken. It’s a tough lesson.

The difference is that Trump doesn’t seem to care if people catch him lying. In fact, he doesn’t seem to really care that there is an actual line separating the true and the false and that it might matter in ways other than how it affects him personally. He openly flouts the empirical. He’s been called a “post-factual” figure.

Donald Trump, president of the United States, arguably the world’s most powerful individual, has a remarkably fluid relationship with the truth. And it is fundamentally different from Barack Obama’s statements about the “fast and furious” gunrunning scandal or George W. Bush’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or Bill Clinton’s denials about Monica Lewinsky or any number of politicians’ lies about any number of things. The difference is that Trump doesn’t seem to care if people catch him lying. In fact, he doesn’t seem to really care that there is an actual line separating the true and the false and that it might matter in ways other than how it affects him personally. He openly flouts the empirical. He’s been called a “post-factual” figure. When the media presses him regarding his lies/untrue statements, he fires back that THEY are lying. He labels them “fake news.” His aides share this trait. Top Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway keeps repeating the non-existent “Bowling Green Massacre” (in order to amp up the terrorism alarm) and when she was asked about false statements made by her colleague Sean Spicer, the press secretary, she explained that Spicer’s comments were not falsehoods but “alternative facts.” And not only doesn’t any of this affect Trump’s popularity with this core base, it endears him to them. As one reporter for the Economist put it, for “men like Trump,” the purpose of lying is not to convince, but is to “reinforce prejudices.” Chilling.

On the upside, civil activism and dissent is at an all-time high. But unfortunately, the anti-Trump sentiment is also proving rather susceptible to bias-confirming propaganda and lies. We are shocked that the Trump voters are unfazed by their man openly lying with such frequency and ease, but many of his “resisters” are also displaying an almost programmed response to accept or reject any assertion they hear about him or his supporters, depending on which worldview it confirms.  Journalist Tavis Smiley got a lot of push back from his fellow progressives for saying that there was truth in Trump’s statement that “there are a lot of killers.” [Context: Fox News interviewer Bill O’Reilly had asked Trump how he could respect Vladimir Putin, given that Putin was, in O’Reilly’s words “a killer.” The president answered that there are “a lot killers… You think our country is so innocent?”]  I don’t have a position on this, because I don’t have relevant background information of any depth. But Smiley’s point was being purportedly “rebutted” by people describing Trump’s comments as everything from “unpatriotic” to “undiplomatic” to a frightening reflection of Trump’s acceptance of the idea that all nations, including ours have “a lot of killers” and that it shouldn’t mean that killers are not deserving of respect and admiration. Those are valid concerns. But none of them are probative of whether his statement was actually true, which is the only thing Smiley was asserting (he is a vigorous critic of Trump and has called for an effort to prevent Trump from becoming normalised).

Questions about what is true have become loosely but extensively entwined with questions about what is desirable. Loose enough that we recognise it when people of a different political persuasion fail to make the distinction, but entwined enough that it doesn’t register when it comes from people we agree with.

This is the troubling issue, as I see it. Questions about what is true have become loosely but extensively entwined with questions about what is desirable. Loose enough that we recognise it when people of a different political persuasion fail to make the distinction, but entwined enough that it doesn’t register when it comes from people we agree with. One striking example is the issue of politically motivated violence. A media narrative, very much social-media driven – suggests that violence or harassment by suddenly emboldened Trump supporters against LGBTQ people and minorities – especially middle eastern women in head scarves – has become rampant since the election and further intensified after the inauguration. While there certainly have been a number of verified cases, there have also been many unsubstantiated claims, several of which were later proven to be hoaxes. But the narrative that of pro-Trump mobs and thugs are supposedly walking around, just beating people up at will, seems to be simply accepted as true. And, incidentally, a growing number of cases of violence by anti-Trump protestors against Trump supporters (or conservatives in general) have been verified. Several conservative guest speakers on university campuses have faced protests that, though initially peaceful, broke into violence (frequently as a result of being infiltrated by the left anarchist group Black Bloc and others). Of course any behaviour of this kind –whatever its stripe – is contemptible and deeply worrying. In one especially atrocious incident, an 83 year-old Korean woman on a street corner was suddenly punched in the face by a passing stranger who yelled “White Power” and jogged away (but was later apprehended and arrested for the assault). The victim fell on the sidewalk, her head bleeding. When I saw it on Facebook I became literally nauseated. But the unbelievable horror of the incident is not evidence that it is a very widespread phenomenon nor that it is one-sided.

But their naked glee is on open display since the election and inauguration. Posters that say “make America white again”; or “Muslim-free zone”; or “aliens not welcome” have cropped up. White nationalists and members of the “Alt Right” movement are no longer lurking in society’s fringes.

What the evidence does show is that verbal expressions of white supremacy and xenophobia – particularly anti-Islamic xenophobia – have become frequent and high pitched. It’s not a new trend, but it has been re-energised of late. I think their “coming out” movement is part of the cause rather than the effect of Trump’s electoral success. But their naked glee is on open display since the election and inauguration. Posters that say “make America white again”; or “Muslim-free zone”; or “aliens not welcome” have cropped up. White nationalists and members of the “Alt Right” movement are no longer lurking in society’s fringes. They are openly holding meetings and are even being normalised by getting book deals and invitations to speak at mainstream venues. It is certainly not a coincidence that this is happening just when the white house is occupied by a man who refused to renounce the support of white supremacists during his campaign and now have appointed known Alt-Right and Racial Separatists in key advisory positions and in his cabinet. In addition, there is an uptick in overreaching by law enforcement. Police departments and immigration enforcement agents have increased detentions and arrests and incidents of stopping people to question them for no reason and conducting raids on Middle Easter and Latino communities based on flimsy to non-existent grounds.

The most troubling behaviour is coming from the White House itself. There is an authoritarian posture – with Trump advisor Stephen Miller admonishing the press and the judiciary that “the president’s power (vis a vis National Security)… will not be questioned.” They are displaying stunning levels of disregard for the truth, callousness about refugees, hostility toward Muslims, disdain for rules and standards conduct (including those that prevent corruption and self-enrichment by the president). Their undisclosed relationships with foreign powers, namely Russia, raise very serious questions regarding the safety and security of the country to which they so loudly declare their allegiance. Not to mention, this administration’s serious lack of judgment and knowledge about the jobs they are supposed to do and the relevant background information or history they need to do it. The outgoing Obama administration had reportedly spent considerable time and effort in preparing to brief the incoming team during the transition (as the Bush team had done for them eight years ago); but the Trump team was not interested. For the most part, they either declined to meet with them or took cursory meetings and rejected the input.

The reason to be alarmed by the Trump administration is that many of their actions pose real threats to a free society; not simply that they confirm our expectation that this group of people will pose such a threat.

These extraordinarily disturbing trends must be watched and resisted. But none of it requires or warrants (or is helped by) exaggerating our grievances or fabricating some of them to pad the list. The reason to be alarmed by the Trump administration is that many of their actions pose real threats to a free society; not simply that they confirm our expectation that this group of people will pose such a threat. That is not to say that we must be artificially “even-handed” in dealing with them. In fact, I think the practice of doing just that is part of the problem. So much of this administration’s conduct reaches the verge of being illegal power grabs, that they must never be normalised with false equivalence to their political foes. But it also must never permit us to give ourselves any slack when it comes to the rigors of truth.

For many years, powerful people in government, media and industry have had a hand in shaping – or infecting – the public discourse with distortions, misleading information, and even framing public policy issues in deliberately deceptive manner, slanting the public debate the public consciousness toward their own causes and interests.

A deeper inquiry is needed to understand why there has been such a societal decline in standards of truthfulness and fact-based communication and decision-making. Donald Trump did not create this crisis. He capitalised on it and he represents the extreme culmination of it.  For many years, powerful people in government, media and industry have had a hand in shaping – or infecting – the public discourse with distortions, misleading information, and even framing public policy issues in deliberately deceptive manner, slanting the public debate and the public consciousness toward their own causes and interests. This practice is, in large part, responsible for eroding standards of both civic conduct and truthfulness in disseminating information. I have written about this phenomenon for Kindle Magazine in the past. I believe that this erosion of the public conversation and behavioural standards helped Trump become acceptable to a large enough portion of the electorate to make him president.

The very idea of critical thinking skills (especially evidence-based reasoning) often gets dismissed as a myth or as “elitist” – or even more insanely, as “masculine” or “colonial”.  Nobody wants to learn anything or be held to the responsibility to establish anything with evidence, and suggesting that they should do so earns you the reputation or “collaborating” with the power structure. In this environment, it gets hard to talk about “truth” with any degree of shared understanding.

However, there are other factors, which less sinister but that nonetheless contribute to a general cultural laxity about fact-based knowledge. More than ever, we live cocooned in discrete, consensus-seeking echo chambers with like-minded people. We consume unprecedented amounts of information, but much of it is customised to our tastes, and forced through our ideological prisms, and confirms what we think we know or what we want to believe regardless of its basis in truth. No matter what your fantasy about the world, there is some corner of the Internet where people will tell you that such a world is reality. Or at least they will assure you that a subjective belief is “valid”.  It is as if we have democratised the public discourse but did nothing to democratise access to critical thinking skills. The very idea of critical thinking skills (especially evidence-based reasoning) often gets dismissed as a myth or as “elitist” – or even more insanely, as “masculine” or “colonial”.  Nobody wants to learn anything or be held to the responsibility to establish anything with evidence, and suggesting that they should do so earns you the reputation or “collaborating” with the power structure. In this environment, it gets hard to talk about “truth” with any degree of shared understanding.

Everywhere – starting from lowly social media chatter and substance-free political speeches all the way up to the rarefied world of the academia (which still likes to claim the mantel of rigorous and open intellectual debate) – one sees a casual disregard for the very idea of truth, clothed in the language of “questioning” the received notions about truth. But saying that there is a right or wrong answer in some areas of inquiry is not at all the same as dismissing the debate about WHICH answer is right; it is not the same as saying perspective doesn’t matter; it is not the same as saying context doesn’t matter; it is definitely not the same as saying that the biases of power and privilege don’t need to be dismantled in order to find the truer answer. In fact, it is precisely the pretence that objective truth doesn’t exist that creates impervious defences for prejudice and intellectual rigidity. After all, if we are all trapped in our “equally valid” solipsistic universes and there are no universally true-shared spheres of reality, then why even bother to try to understand each other? This is precisely what’s happening. In the name of perspectival “inclusiveness” what he have created is a world where increasingly we each demand that MY perspective is valid (as is, without the need to be defended). We all claim the right to “have our voices heard” but we are not listening to the voices of others – even when do, it’s to “validate” them in ways that comport with our worldview anyway. We never feel obliged to be open to persuasion.

Our nod to objectivity (because we have an innate sense of its importance) is the lazy practice of simply offering up two opposite views side by side. The news media now routinely covers events as an ideological balancing act, where two guests from opposite political factions are invited to provide their perspectives.

Our nod to objectivity (because we have an innate sense of its importance) is the lazy practice of simply offering up two opposite views side by side. The news media now routinely covers events as an ideological balancing act, where two guests from opposite political factions are invited to provide their perspectives. And then you, the viewer, are invited to decide who is right (or, more accurately, to decide which view you like better). It has a great democratic appeal – but the practice often substitutes consensus for truth and ideological turf war for debate. And, as a bonus, the more extreme, even absurd perspectives – such as Donald Trump’s – gets normalised because we feel obliged to give it the same deference we give to any regular politician, so we can give a hearing to “both sides” and satisfy a false sense of fairness. I have to think this practice contributes to – or at least reinforces – a general erosion of the primacy of factual truth and rationality in the way we accept or reject information.

In the post-modern half-century that we just lived through, the once revolutionary question – “is there such a thing a truth?” – has become a conventional, almost banal concept; a reflexive mental habit of serious academics and armchair philosophers alike. Whereas modern thought departed from older traditions by (mostly) admitting to the ultimate un-knowability of complete truths, postmodern thinking came to be dominated by the view that objective truth simply doesn’t exist and all conceptions of equal validity. I wonder if this is because humans have something of a hardwired, need for things to be absolute, with clear, binary, positions of “right” and “wrong”; such that, when this instinct conflicts with our rational faculties… which tell us that things aren’t always so clear-cut… we go a little crazy. We might try to be sceptical or attempt to a reality multifaceted and to see it from various angles… but we might eventually end up with a perversely self-cancelling absolute: “NOTHING is absolute!” and “There is NEVER any right or wrong!”

But, as the epistemologist Michael P. Lynch has said, in his book “Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity” most of people, in our everyday lives are perfectly capable of accepting that there can be objective truth without negating the validity of differing choices and conceptions in other spheres of existence. In fact, he says, most of us intuitively assume this to be true.

At its worst, reality-scepticism is just arcane intellectual fodder for theorists and have little or no impact on the rest of us, who are happy to wallow in mundane aspects of truth– ordinary, factual truth.

The postmodern perspective usually lives in the world of abstract ideas and addresses problems of “deep truth” – grand narratives versus particularised stories, claims of universality versus attempts at empathy and intersectionality. Something that was, at its best, useful in opening up cognitive horizons and enhancing the ways of seeing and exposing (within claims of objectivity) many biases derived from power and privilege, as was so richly revealed by the late John Berger, to whom this month’s Kindle Magazine is dedicated. At its worst, reality-scepticism is just arcane intellectual fodder for theorists and have little or no impact on the rest of us, who are happy to wallow in mundane aspects of truth– ordinary, factual truth. You know, things like science; Barack Obama’s birth place; the size of Donald Trump’s actual electoral vote margin (smaller than that of Bush Sr. and Obama, contrary to the Trump’s claim of “the biggest … since Ronald Reagan”); the likely effect on my oesophagus of these cheese Pringles I’m currently scarfing down; and the fact that we can’t cross a liquid lake on foot. In other words, objective, verifiable facts that make up reality are still accepted by most of us, as a product of instinct. I think even the most committed post-structuralist probably doesn’t believe that the exact location of her car keys can be correctly identified in multiple, mutually exclusive ways, or that her own lack of knowledge about them casts doubt on the specificity of its location as an externally “true” matter. And yet, strangely, the idea that reality is fuzzy has become quite normalised as at least a part of how we think/talk about knowledge and reality, but we tend to apply it self-servingly, rather philosophically consistently.

 

 

 

Image via theconversation.com

Passionate rationalist. Bleeding-heart moderate. Geek. Afflicted with a "language fetish". Koli practiced law on Wall Street until her lifelong love affair with writing demanded its rightful place as her primary occupation.

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