Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Language of the Debate (9)

Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, a Romanian-born Jewish political activist who authored over fifty books and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He died in 2016. In January 1968, he published a memoir in which he shared memorable encounters with “sages, mystics, teachers, and dreamers”.

Wiesel was not the earliest media figure to water down the concept of truth and make redundancies like “objective truth” an unfortunate necessity, but if you thought the problem originated with Jordan Peterson and his ilk, this 55-year old excerpt from Legends of Our Time may serve as a wake-up call. Satan has been working away at the meaning of words since the beginning of human history, and he has his cat’s-paws in every generation. Elie Wiesel, for all his creditable moments, was one of these.

Sleepless in Tel Aviv

In his introduction, Wiesel tells this story about a meeting in a suburb near Tel Aviv with a rabbi who knew his grandfather:

“ ‘What are you writing?’ the Rebbe asked. ‘Stories,’ I said. He wanted to know what kind of stories: true stories. ‘About people you knew?’ Yes, about people I might have known. ‘About things that happened?’ Yes, about things that happened or could have happened. ‘But they did not?’ No, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end. The Rebbe leaned forward as if to measure me up and said with more sorrow than anger: ‘That means that you are writing lies!’ I did not answer immediately. The scolded child within me had nothing to say in his defense. Yet, I had to justify myself: ‘Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are — although they never occurred.’ ”

This is precisely the rationale to which progressives appeal when they lie in the service of their cause.

13. “True”

“I know this much is true,” sang Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet back in 1983. Even then, not many unbelievers shared his confidence. The notion that “truth” and “reality” are synonyms had already become primarily a Christian idea. The average teen around me used expressions like “my truth” and “your truth” as if they actually meant something more significant than treasured opinions or stories of lived experience. “The plural of anecdote is not data,” one Christian friend reminded me. But to a feminized, relativistic world, that’s exactly what anecdotes are: “hard evidence” sufficient for a softened cranium.

Flash forward to 2023 and “my truth” can even be something demonstrably false, even in outright defiance of biological reality. That’s quite the 180.

The word “truth” has had a clearly defined meaning for centuries, as is evident from a quick trip back to Webster’s Dictionary, 1828 Edition:

TRUTH, noun
1. Conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be.

That definition is a thing of beauty. As with all dictionary definitions, multiple options are provided, each of which only serves to reinforce the point that the word “true” has traditionally been used to describe conformity to that which is external or objective, not perspectival at all. For example, “Correct opinion.” An opinion may be said to be true by checking it against something else for correctness. Or “Exactness; conformity to rule.” Again, there is an external standard, the “rule”. Yet again, we have “Veracity; purity from falsehood,” where truth is contrasted with its opposite.

Objectivity and Externality

In fact, this assumption that the meaning of “truth” properly relates to something objective and external rather than being merely subjectively perceived is still preserved at the modern and comparatively sloppy dictionary.com, where most Google searches tend to dump you by default. Here you find definitions like “conformity with fact or reality; verity” and “a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like.”

Thus by definition any perspective may really be said to be “true” ONLY when it accurately reflects reality. To the extent that it fails to do that, it is no longer truth but some degree of error, whether great or small. Nevertheless, we may still speak of attempts at expressing truth comparatively. Some hypotheses are “truer” than others, and in any group of attempts to express verity, one will be “truest”. If truth is a target, then the closer the better. Perhaps the next shot will hit the bullseye.

The Subversion of Truth

Now, truth is a pretty resilient concept. It will not endure being conveniently defined-away without standing up and making a fuss. In fact, we cannot speak meaningfully about much without the inherent objectivity of truth coloring our vocabulary. Relativists find themselves using bafflegab expressions like “true perspectives” while simultaneously substituting “perspective” for “truth”, rendering themselves incoherent. (To use either “perspective-y perspectives” or “true truths” would give the bait-and-switch game away.)

So then, it is not the case that the definition of “truth” has shifted organically with popular usage over the past two centuries, as often happens in every language. Today’s most popular dictionary and its equivalent from two centuries ago are completely in accord with one another. Rather, what’s going on is that the meaning of “truth” is being subverted by people who should know better.

Reality vs. the Narrative

When Elie Wiesel said, “Some events do take place but are not true; others are — although they never occurred”, he was trying to tell the rabbi in his story that the accuracy of what we say is less important than the narratives we are trying to forward. For Wiesel, a lie in service of what he perceives to be a good cause is fair game. Likewise, when they are used against what he deems to be a good cause, even scientifically-established realities like the binary nature of the biological sexes may be rejected as untruthful. Muslims call this taqiya, the commission of a sinful act for a pious goal. It is simply the old “end justifies the means” game by another name.

By Wiesel’s standard, it doesn’t matter if an alleged rapist is actually guilty or not, so long as it forwards the “Believe all women” narrative. It doesn’t matter if an illegal drug overdose contributed to George Floyd’s untimely death because “Black Lives Matter”. It doesn’t matter if 99% of scientists don’t actually agree about the causes of climate change because if we don’t do something about it, we are all going to die. It doesn’t matter if the COVID vaccine actually worked so long as its existence helped governments manage the potential danger of social unrest. Call me a non-nuanced thinker, but I’m with Wiesel’s Rebbe: “That means that you are writing lies!”

When the Lord Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life”, he was not playing word games to win arguments. We should be careful not to either.

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