Our faith in the truth seems to be weakening. Some questions need answering.
What is truth anyway? Can we trust to impartiality? And without truth can there be politics?
People’s faith is failing because the system itself is failing in front of us. At the same time there is no viable political alterative being put forward. In Britain both of the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, seem content with re-inventing themselves as pastiche versions of their 1950s-selves. Nor can we rely on the good times to keep rolling regardless. The growth model of economics, which was always built on shaky foundations anyway, is renting at the seams. Capitalism, rather than pop, is eating itself.
This dislocation from former certainties is essential to comprehend because what is true is only that which we as a society can agree on. The finer details might elicit points of disagreement, but the fundamentals can be taken as certainties. The modern world is essentially characterised as one where the world can be understood, measured and comprehended as a finite whole. Truth is something you can pin down. In political terms this means that those living in the modern era – roughly the mid-eighteenth century onwards – look to establish objective facts and improve society based on those. It seems a sensible way to go about things.
In order to examine the question of what has gone wrong, as outlined in the previous post, we should consider first where the modern interest in truth come from?
Modernism and the story of truth
The Encylopedie was the archetypal enlightenment project. It was no less than an attempt to compile all available knowledge into a single entity, to catalogue a final inventory of truth. Like it’s modern equivalent, Wikipedia, the encyclopedie of Diderot was made possible by a shift in information technology. Where Jimmy Wales’ online encyclopaedia is the child of the internet, the original French version was made possible by the printing press and reliable correspondence.
Modern journalism is motivated by the same impetus to seek truth, and so improve society. The use of the term ‘the fourth estate’ to refer to the press and publishing houses takes its lineage directly from revolutionary France. The idea of objectively gathering the best information in order to improve society, by speaking truth to power, was best summed up by CP Scott. The editor of the Guardian from 1872 – 1979 he famously declared that “comment is free, but facts are sacred”.
Modern economics – in a world where the improvement s in a country’s fortunes could be measured in the amount of steel it had produced the rational, the concrete the factual had an unassailable power. The world was seen as finite, measurable and discrete.
The post-modern challenge
Where the science of Newton inspired the liberal arts to seek rational, objective truth it was the sciences which began the process of undermining the whole edifice. The sciences – and especially physics – has been undermining the idea of a clock work reality for some time.
The idea of Newtonian universe was challenged by a series of theories in the early twentieth century. The names themselves give a strong sense of the philosophical course they plotted: Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Tarski’s undefinability theorem. All attacked the idea of empirical, measurable, knowable reality. Society at large was hardly affected at first, bemused if anything, but like the bow wave of a large boat, what seems calm from a distance can have devastating effect once it reaches the shore.
Worth special mention is Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which had profound scientific ramifications, and also some immense physical ones. In explaining the relationship between matter and energy Einstein’s theory made the atomic bomb a possibility, and then a reality. The cutting edge of science did not seem to be something that was necessarily a force for good. If Hiroshima and Nagasaki was what we were making progress towards, what kind of progress was it?
The social sciences caught up properly with the introduction of postmodern thought from the 1960s onwards. The accepted narrative of progress in society crashed hard against the obvious injustice of the Vietnam war. The counterculture which urged people to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ saw the ‘truth’ as just one story among many. The establishment’s – the Man’s – version was put forward as the one true version of reality only because it was backed by force. Not only was the pursuit of truth perhaps not possible, it wasn’t even desirable.
Are we living in post-truth times?
Truth is subjective and is based on a shared understanding of reality. Looked at one way this can be hugely destablilising, both socially and politically. Yet it is possible for different truths to co-exist without crowding one another out. The world is too vast to be completely understood, even a well-resourced and powerful, elite group. In the twenty-first century world no one group can hold the keys to the kingdom because knowledge has expanded too rapidly. Well, good – the old system worked only for a tiny minority and not massed ranks of the huddled poor.
I contend that we are not living in post-truth times, but mid-truth times.
There are multitudinous challenges that face people with political aims, be they street movements, elected representatives or civil society organisations. Some twentieth century problems are receding into the background: hunger is all but preventable, war is in retreat from most of the world and disease, though fighting a rear-guard action, is also less of an imminent threat. The new centuries problems are rapidly-emerging, global and dauntingly vast in scale: climate change, population expansion and migration, and the robotisation of the economy.
Where does this leave us in terms of the day-to-day reaction of a hate-spewing, crowd-pumping Donald Trump? Can we challenge the obvious falsehood and the outright lies? Of course. Simply because there are many truths it doesn’t mean there are fewer lies. They can be called out as straightforwardly as before.
The greater challenge, and the greater prize, is to address the problem highlighted by Trump’s opponent in this current American presidential election. Hillary Clinton is extremely unpopular with voters. She is perceived as part of an entrenched elite, who plays her cards close to her chest and, of all the things, keeps information to herself – as in the notorious case of her email servers. Without being able to present a credible alternative to the demagoguery of Trump, Clinton presents an equally unpalatable option. Trump may be a throwback to the 1930s, but Clinton’s politics seems like a re-tread of the 1970s and ‘80s; in the eyes of many voters that’s hardly any better.
We are living through a transitional phase, where old certainties have evaporated before new certainties have formed. There is a battle for ideas and it seems that everything is up for grabs. It is disorientating, disturbing even. Yet it is also enervating and energising. The democratisation of information has made a post-monolithic truth era a possibility, where structures are flat and power is shared. We’re not there yet and it will be a while before we arrive. It took the printing press a while to usher in the new concept of modern truth, this next change will be no different.