The debate about the importance of Objective Truth and about what exactly constitutes it is becoming the defining issue of our times. These two essays make opposing cases around this topic. One argues in favour of a narrative-based approach to the creation of meaning in the post-modern world. It sees the search for fact-based truth as a rabbit-hole that is hardly worth entering; in fact, it argues that compelling story-telling, rather than slavish adherence to Fact, is the only way to make sense of our world today. The opposing essay proposes that only objective truth can save us from the consequences of extreme relativism, and that only renewed re-dedication to the search for objective truth can offer a beacon of certainty in a world that seems to have gone mad.
The answer, as always, probably lies somewhere in between.
Yes. If We Abandon Truth, We Abandon All Hope
In the immortal words of Talking Heads:
‘Facts aren’t true, just ‘points of view’,
facts CAN mean what we want them to’
We live in an era that is supposedly ‘post-truth’.
It seems we now live in Kellyanne Conway’s world of ‘alternative facts’.
If the facts don’t suit the argument, well then just make them up – and state them with conviction.
During the Conservative Party leadership campaign in mid-2019, Boris Johnson infamously brandished a kipper in the air and claimed that EU Food Hygiene regulations were making distribution of this noble fish species from the Isle of Man uneconomic, because of a requirement to pack them in ice when shipping them.
Five minutes fact-checking revealed that the Isle of Man was not included in the scope of the UK’s EU membership – and that there were no EU food safety regulations governing the packaging of smoked kippers (although there were UK ones!)
Boris won a landslide victory in the UK General Election of December 2019.
For example …
Vladimir Putin denied that any Russian troops were present in Crimea at the time of the annexation of Crimea in early 2014, despite conclusive independent photographic evidence to the contrary.
Nor, according to Putin, was there any collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in 2016. (Even though Trump specifically referenced Russian capacity to harvest private emails in relation to Hilary Clinton – and explicitly invited them to do so.)
Lastly, Putin said that the two Russian agents who were discovered to have been in Salisbury at the time of the killing of the Skripals in 2018 were ‘civilians’. One of the agents said that ‘they were there to see the city’s wonderful cathedral’.
Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President of Russia in 2018, with 77% of the popular vote.
For example …
On Tuesday, 16th July, 2019, Donald Trump made no fewer than 13 false claims in a single US Cabinet meeting, including that the Governments of Guatemala and Honduras had organised and directed caravans of migrants to head for the United States (they had not), that he had personally organised permits that allowed a Louisiana liquid nitrogen gas plant to open (they were granted by the Obama administration in 2014) and that his tariffs on Chinese foodstuffs more than compensated US farmers for losses from his trade war with China (they had not, by a distance of some US$5 bn.).
Donald Trump is the over-whelming favourite to win re-election to the presidency of the US in 2020 with a record approval rating among core Republican voters.
So, it might seem that truth is no longer an imperative. For many, adherence to objective truth is just an inconvenience, a mere barrier in the road of persuasion. Truth is something to be ignored, denied or twisted to suit a purpose.
As the boss of Russia Today puts it, ‘There is no truth, only narrative’.
So, why not admit defeat and give up on the truth?
As Holocaust historian and professor of European history Timothy Snyder wrote:
“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Simply, if we fail to ‘speak truth to power’ we fail to demand a moral response to the problems we face as a civilisation. We deny the scientific reality of Climate Change. We accept incipient bigotry and discrimination against minorities. We institutionalise inequality and racism. If we abandon any attachment to truth, we pave the way for oppressive, authoritarian governments to do as they wish. It is no accident that Orwell’s ‘1984’ is top of many best-seller charts these days. He seems to have been right in so many respects, except perhaps that he was thirty years out in timing.
Speaking at his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2016, then President Barack Obama said to an audience largely comprised of the White House Press Corps
‘At a time when the economics of the business (of journalism) sometimes incentivise speed over depth, and when conflict and controversy most immediately attract viewers, the good news is that there are so many of you who are pushing against these trends …
This is also a time around the world when some of the fundamentals of liberal democracy are under attack, and when notions of objectivity and of facts, and of free press and of evidence are trying to be undermined … that is why your power and your responsibility to dig and to question and counter distortions is more important than ever.
Taking a stance on behalf of what is true … is the essence of good journalism‘
No, far from being redundant, truth and rigour are more relevant than ever in establishing the basis for moral authority. If journalists and others earn their corn and challenge convention by painstakingly checking their facts, by witnessing events first-hand and by leaving trite value judgements at the door of the organisations they serve, they just might offer some much-needed perspective and certainty in a world apparently gone mad.
If they do, journalists can shine a beacon of moral certainty on the 21st century political and social landscape–and on the many charlatans who inhabit it.
No. The Facts Can’t Save Us Now
In mid-July of 2019 it emerged that Britain’s Ministry of Defence, if not the NSA, enjoys veto power over the Guardian newspaper’s ability to publish anything damaging to its interests. While this was rightly met with horror by those who understand the value of an independent press, precisely nothing about this revelation should surprise anyone.
Reality has been curated since the dawn of civilisation, by the rich and powerful who, seeking to secure their wealth and position, have taken pains to shape society to their likeness. These Masters of the Spectacle have employed fools for the town square, air dropped pamphlets, bought newspapers and film studios, politicians and elections, built new media empires and commissioned algorithms to ensure the primacy of their points of view and to proscribe the limits of acceptable discourse.
As Edward Bernays, godfather of public relations (and cousin of Freud), wrote in 1928:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”Edward bernays, propaganda
Canadian scholar Henry Giroux recently pointed out that we live in pre-truth not a post-truth world. After all, entire cultures have been built on bizarre myths and comforting lies: alien gods, violent Santas, the Second Coming, Chosenness, Exceptionalism. And so too have these cultures been shaped. Recall doctor-recommended smoking for pregnant women (For a slim baby and an easy birth!) Recall the sinking of the Lusitania. Recall the Gulf of Tonkin. Recall the righteousness of Charlie Haughey. Recall what Bush the Younger did to inspire Colbert’s coining of the term ‘truthiness’.
The Truth, it would seem, is that we humans are mostly impervious to facts. We prefer immediacy, novelty and spectacle to truth (which is often uncomfortable and inconvenient). Ask a human being why they chose something, or voted for someone, or acted in a certain way and they are unlikely to offer facts with their answer. Rather, they are more likely to respond with subjective evidence or descriptions of their feelings. Because I liked it. They seemed honest. It felt like the right thing to do. We find qualitative arguments more compelling than quantitative data. Who, When, Where, How Much and How Many may provide the facts that orient us in spacetime, but What and Why are what put bodies in motion—and they are subjective (Is Truth a particle or a wave?).
So what to do? While the wholesale abandonment of Objective Truth inarguably spells disaster for our our ability to relate to one another, if not our future on this planet, any attempt to enforce Objective Truth is equally misguided, if not more dangerous. Not only would this necessitate censorship (how and by whom or what?) and tyrannical policing (how and by whom or what?), it would spell the end of debate, the death of individual expression and inevitably result in the establishment of of a global monoculture (Part 1984 part Brave New World, it’s safe to assume).
So what to do? Firstly, we need to understand the new rules of attention and economics in a digital society. This means being non-reactive and refusing to be baited: Don’t. Feed. The Trolls. It means understanding that follower counts and search engine rankings don’t equate to credibility. It means understanding our own biases; learning to discern reportage from editorial, truth from propaganda, the person from the idea. It means curating a more truthful future.
Then, we must meet people where they are and start telling better stories. We must learn to ‘manipulate the mechanism.’ If every crisis begins with a crisis of narrative, we must beat the liars at their own game and wrest the tools of rhetoric from their tiny, hammy fists.