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Sunday, March 20, 2016

True Revolutionaries

Welcome back to our two-part treatment of the (post-)modern attitude to truth.

Yesterday we were observing that the concept of an actual objective truth has gone out of fashion these days. More and more, the average person of today tends to disbelieve that anything can be, in any final and universally binding sense, “true”. Truth has been banished because there are so many voices shouting so many messages that most of us don’t know where to find it if it did exist. We’re overwhelmed by multiculturalism, media overload, the speed of modern life and the decline of the formerly-solid touchpoints of religion and tradition, even if we know nothing about the theory behind it, or about the new skeptical “hermeneutics” being taught in the contemporary academy. We’re all just pretty confused about truth.

Skepticism about truth has come to look like a kind of common sense. There are a lot of messages out there. And we’ve been misled before. Everything that looks like truth could be a fix, and we don’t want to get taken in. So we resort to loosening our hold on certainty.

At the same time, we noted yesterday, this doesn’t save us from being fooled. For whatever messages do come at us with sufficient speed or indirectness to reach us tend to be accepted without much critical reflection. And living without being able to refer to truth, as we noted at the end, deprives us of particular advantages and goods we still feel we need. In fact, we can’t live without some kind of truth: so what do we do?

Step 2: The word “truth” is redefined as “that which I happen to prefer” or “that which I have chosen” or “the preference of my group, culture or society”, rather than as an assertion of actual truth.

After all, actual truth is obligatory. It’s universal. It’s always true for everybody, regardless of their preferences, feelings, biases and inclinations. A person who holds to something other than the truth believes a falsehood. They are mistaken, wrong, ill-advised and perhaps even foolish. It’s always better for people to believe the truth about a thing, and it’s never ultimately in their interest to be misleading themselves about it. There is no room in the word “truth” for a tolerance of difference. It’s uncompromising.

And today, that’s offensive. Living as we do in the midst of a multicultural, pluralist ethos, living in a consumer society in which our choices are the primary determinants of what we get, and living amid an information revolution in which torrents of new data are continually pouring down on our heads … how dare you tell me you actually know something that could subvert all that? How dare you question my preferences and choices? How dare you marginalize all those other people who hold opinions different from yours? And above all, how dare you compel me to change my mind? I’ve been living very happily, thank you very much. And I’ll thank you to keep your opinion to yourself!


In this connection, I’ve noted that my students today have a new synonym. The synonymous phrase for “making someone believe a truth” is “forcing onto”, as in, “Who are you to force your opinion onto me?”

I think this coinage captures a nuance of the experience of confronting truth when you’re used to relativism: it’s the sensation of being “forced” to accept or do something you do not want to do. There’s an element of violence perceived in being compelled to abandon one’s comfortable prejudices in favour of any obligatory alternative. Today, even the process of being freed from one’s illusions is considered not as necessary, not as a process of education, not as a favour but as an act of aggression.

Of course, we might say that people are entitled to remain the fools they choose to be. But that’s harsh. I think the truth is that they are sadly misled — misled not only by the propaganda of the day, but by the dynamics of the very world in which they live. Being relativistic has been a coping mechanism that has allowed them to dwell amid difficult social circumstances with a minimum of stress. So to tell such people the truth feels to them about as kind as putting the torch to their homes. Now how will they live?

You might wonder how they have lived so comfortably for so long with no access to truth. The answer is simple. They’ve been lying to themselves. And they’ve done it in a particular, subtle kind of way that has effectively hidden even from them that they’ve lost contact with truth.

Truth Decay

The trick has been to proceed slowly, and to redefine truth. What most people today think “truth” means is one of two things:

Firstly, there’s personal truth. This means all the things an individual person believes or prefers to believe at a given time. This stock of ideas may change, but only at the will of the individual, not as a result of any compulsion from outside, and certainly not at the behest of some other person. Really, the idea of personal truth depends on mistaking the concept “the truth about what I believe” for the concept “the actual truth about the way things are”. That a person believes something is taken as undermining any justification for questioning it: “Well I believe it, so get lost”. The “I” there is emphatic: there can be no further discussion because I known darn well what believe.

In my students, I see this view expressed in their love of phrases like, “In my opinion”, “I think” and “I believe” as preliminaries to all sorts of claims. They think it adds some important information — authority, even — to a statement if one claims to own it. It’s a defensive phrase, challenging the reader to contradict it only at the risk of being unjust to the particular person who is uttering it. Paradoxically, it’s also a kind of disclaimer, a promise that if it doesn’t turn out to be true, it’s only a belief or opinion anyway, so the speaker ought to be left free to abandon it if he or she desires to do so at a future time. “Accept my view because it’s mine, and don’t blame me if I don’t stick to it” seems to be the import intended by these phrases.

Personal truth is understood to be infinitely defensible and infinitely revisable at the same time. It asserts its own will strongly, but dissolves like tissue when any commitment or consistency is asked of it. That’s the first kind of “truth” people recognize today.

The Social Path

The second is social truth. Social truth arises because the individual knows he is embedded in a society of opinionated others. And while he is aware that many of the personal truths he holds are only his own, he is also vaguely aware that he is really indebted to his society for most of them. Other people are “out there” who believe similar things. And this can prove useful, too, since being in the majority is always very reassuring when one is asserting one’s opinion.

Still, the individual is aware of the potential for some variance between his own views and those of the larger society. Not everybody agrees with him. So to maintain his personal beliefs, the individual must either: (a) assert them as expressions of personal freedom guaranteed him by the larger society anyway; or (b) assert them as acceptable variations on a consensus “social truth” theme. In either case, he is assured the comfort of the herd.

Either way, social relativism ensues. The individual asserts that his or her views are the views of normal people within the present, particular social ethos, and so are normal, normative, and authoritative within that particular geographical or cultural location in which he or she lives. At the same time, nothing decided by that particular society is obligatory outside of that social locale. In fact, very paradoxically, the individual believes it would actually be wrong (in a very strong and definite, universal moral sense) to impose the views of one society upon another. “What do we know about what they know?” the individual asks; and then, with false modesty, “Who are we to judge people so different from us?”

Wrong for Us and Right for Them

“Maybe it’s wrong for us, but right for them,” goes the common line. That’s absurd, of course, even on a merely moral level, and it gets into some serious human rights jackpots right away. It would then follow that forcible female circumcision is right for Somalis but wrong for Brazilians. Murdering civilians would be wrong for Jews but right for Palestinians. Human sacrifice would be right for ancient Mayans but wrong for modern Mennonites. And so on.

Aware of such vulnerabilities, many relativists will lapse into some kind of appeal to law. “Well,” they say, “we know that human sacrifice is wrong because it’s against the law”. For them, the corporate social will expressed in the law becomes the new authority to back their personal preferences. The fact that laws are changeable, temporal and often unjust fails to register with them. They celebrate the overthrowing of historical laws — the voting laws, the race laws, the abortion laws, the liquor laws — as clear triumphs of social justice and right thinking over wrong, but they defer to today’s laws essentially as justifying authorities whenever they are forced into a corner.

Anyway, laws are different in different times and places, so appeals to law clarify nothing. Social relativism commits people to the view that all these contradictory laws are equivalent. All laws must represent some sort of true and appropriate judgment about what is fair, good and right. And what is “true” of modern Western laws, liberal laws, is equally “true” of tyrannical, racist, sexist and oppressive laws. Again, we have self-contradiction and absurdity.

As ridiculous as all that is, you will actually meet people who will insist that social truth even governs matters of plain scientific fact. Modern liberals will tell you that it is unbearably imperious of modern people to say that smearing oneself with woad and worshipping the tree gods is misguided. Maybe, for those people, the trees really are gods. I’ve actually had one such social relativist take me to task for joking about the world being founded on the backs of turtles: who knows what could be the case, I guess. One professor I had at university prided himself on being a rationalist, but went on to explain to me that with “good reasons” he believed in astrology. He offered to cast my chart. I declined.

The Defeater

Of course, the defeater for this one is also easy. In the moral realm, if truth is relative to time, place and society, then torturing people is “right” for ISIL and only “wrong” for Americans. Slavery was only “wrong” for Northerners, and was “right” for Southerners, so there would be no ultimate way to decry slavery. And in the current discussion, being a moral relativist would be “right” for moral relativists; but being a moral universalist would not in any way be “wrong” for those who believe in moral universals. So really, the moral relativists have left themselves in no rational position to criticize their opposition.

And they really do want to. One of the favourite liberal mantras today goes, “We’ve gotta speak truth to power”. Right on, brother. But how are you going to speak it when there ain’t no truth? What are you going to tell the “power”: that you want them to honour your personal prejudices? That they owe it to you to follow your social preferences? It’s pretty hard to see why. And if the “power” doesn’t care about your feelings, what are you going to say?

The Truth

The truth is this: all the modern misconceptions of truth are parasitic upon the idea of actual truth, universal truth, binding truth. Personal truth means “what I, in truth, believe”, or else it is merely a synonym for “delusion”. It has to refer to some objective reality, or it has no way of compelling upon us the respect it desires to have. For if it is not objectively true that we owe people the right to their opinions, then we can simply disregard all “personal” truths if we so desire, and treat their holders as we please.

Unless it’s objectively right to respect people’s opinions, we don’t need to do it. And unless there is an objective truth about what those opinions are, there’s no way for us to know how to do it. So even “personal truth” needs actual truth in order to get any traction.

How about “social truth”? The same thing applies. Unless there is some objective content to social beliefs, how can we know we owe them respect? How can we even know what they are, in fact? If they are entirely relative, then when the social ethos in which we live swings its politics away from the freedoms we now cherish, there would be absolutely no grounds on which to protest. No social right to self-determination can be asserted unless, somehow, we know that all people have such a right, always and in every place.

We can show people these inconsistencies rationally. There is no difficulty in doing that. But the people to whom we are speaking have been indoctrinated against reason. They’ve been fed the line that rationality is “paternalistic” or “imperialist” or “fascistic” or “epistemologically naïve”, and relativism is true. So how do we get around such hare-brained thinking?

A Better Way

I’m thinking it’s not by reasons. People don’t disbelieve in truth because of reasons. They doubt truth because it accords with the way they live. They live in a state of overwhelm and doubt, and relativism is the serviceable view for people living that way — even though it is absurd and unintelligent to do so. I suspect that the reasons people give for their disbelief in actual truth are made up after the fact, and are not the cause of their relativism.

The bottom line is that modern people are confused. Confused, scared and outmatched. They’re confused by the amount of information they have to absorb on a daily basis, overwhelmed by the amount of it, cynical about everything that presents itself as truth, but simultaneously receptive to the irrationalities — such as the blandishments of advertising, the aphorisms of the political left and right and the broad currents of public opinion that get around their defenses by their sheer multitude or indirectness. Reason isn’t protecting them, so modern people generally give up on it. Instead, they accept whatever reasons they can adduce to let them live in whatever way they may find most congenial and safe, and they leave things there.

I don’t think we can win such people with pure reasons. Nor do I think we can offer them a mode of life more comfortable, attractive and practical for their intended purposes than they presently have. So what can we offer them?

Hold the Course

Only this: the truth. For all its attractions, the way of the modern world is to live by lies and self-deception. In the end, the old relationship between truth and reality still exists. It inevitably favours those who respect it and harms those who do not. Either it is true that God exists, or it is not. Either Christ is the way to God, or he is not. Either salvation actually saves, or it does not. For such things there is no middle way, no “true for me and not for you”, no “true for my society and not for yours”, no “true for now, but not for later” and no “true for premodern people, but not for postmoderns”. Despite what its detractors say, truth is really binding and universal. It always has been, and it always will be.

Either the truth will set you free, or you will not be free.

¡Viva la Revolución!

“In times of universal deceit,” George Orwell is often quoted as saying, “telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be true that Orwell actually said that line. He should have, though, because the line itself is true.

Today, Christians are the only true revolutionaries: because in the word of God and the person of Christ, they alone possess the truth and advocate for truth. If we forget it or if we become ashamed of it and fall silent, we need not suppose the world will ever find the truth again, for it is quite clear today that they no longer have any clue where it is.

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