Battle in Print: The Truth? - you must be making it up!

Sarah Boyes, 29 October 2008

Truth today is no intellectually contested concept in any significant sense, and the idea of creating and fighting for Truth lies far from the public imagination. More broadly in society, any authoratative truth about how the world is or should be – as once came from religion or politics – seems banal or unnecessary, and fervency of belief is feared for where it might lead.

With Home Secretary Jacqui Smith proposing new measures this week to ban individuals from Britain who are ‘suspected of stirring up tensions’, including ‘anti-abortionists, animal rights extremists, neo-Nazis and extremist clerics’ (Alan Travis, Guardian), what’s taken to constitute strong beliefs today stands testament to a lack of political imagination. Indeed, whilst fighting for the truth used to set us free by showing us what the world was really like and illuminating the path to greater freedom, in the contemporary climate the absence of any living, definitive truth is celebrated, even heralded as a progressive development. The form of truth is now the topic of specialised academic dissection, and the theoretical discussion has become increasingly dislocated from public life and current affairs. A general mood of cynical consensus throughout society suggests truth can no longer change the world, and a suspicious attitude towards radical politics seems to say it’s about time to grow up and throw off what was always just another mind forg’d manacle from The Man.

But the resonance and importance of the idea of truth hasn’t been lost entirely; the concept still plays a role on a more subjective level: people will talk about ‘my truth’ or things ‘feeling true’ to them. Eureka moments still characterise human activity and relationships, whilst new religions and therapies claim to unlock ‘inner truths’.  Difference feminism and many post-colonial and gay identity groups buy into the notion that ‘we’ have a ‘special way of knowing’ or experiencing the world that makes ‘our truth’ different and important because of that difference. Whilst this relativisation of truth to distinct identity groups acknowledges the truth starts off being made by individuals depending on their beliefs, values and way of seeing the world, but the rise of identity politics this has served only to institutionalise and neuter such ideas.

But despite the absence of any progressive and authoritative truth about how society is or should be, there is a new absolutism that chimes with the apolitical times: science. From dealing with health to the way we deal with education, from thinking about climate change to being a better person, ‘evidence-based’ policies and thinking are fast gaining purchase. It seems that bereft of a shared and robust socio-political framework for understanding modern life, the cold impartialities and objectivity offered by science provide a common ground for engagement. The consensus concerning climate change and more importantly how we should deal with it, shows a startling repackaging of scientific objectivity as uncontestable truth.

The scientific method, championed by Enlightenment thinkers for its emancipatory potential, has always offered an epistemological model that cuts across boundaries of race, class and gender, trading on the idea that man can use his own understanding to make sense of the world as a rational, knowing subject. Kant’s challenge of throwing off our self-imposed immaturity and daring to know involved not just an assumption that individuals can understand the world on their own terms and remake it as they see fit, but that a society of such individuals is far superior. On this view, whilst science can play a role in uncovering reality to the better benefit of society, the rational method can be employed by all human beings. Such radical ideas provided the intellectual groundwork for the French Revolution of 1789, which aimed to overthrow the monarchic and political establishments of the time.

However, today this point about the scientific method has been turned on its head, instead being used to shut down debate by forcing consensus. Now,  ‘the science’ is billed as providing gold-seal legitimisation for decisions that affect all sectors of society and parts of life; taking cue from the results of rational scientific investigation rather than incorporating the interests and views of various groups is represented as forward-thinking. The idea that ‘the science’ can be trusted above the ideas and strategies of mere mortals is used effectively by politicians and advertisers. Slogans like, ‘and now for the science…’. could be equally used to persuade people to buy anti-wrinkle cream as recycle their plastic bottles. Because they’re worth it.

However, criticising evidence-based thinking isn’t necessarily to deny any useful or important role for ‘the evidence’ when it comes to understanding how the world works. Rather, it is to point out that what sort of thing counts as ‘the evidence’ is a decision to be made depending on what one is trying to prove in the first place. For instance, when it comes to education, test scores will only count as evidence that certain standards have been met once those standards have been decided upon by teachers. Far from dropping human judgement out of the equation, ‘evidence-based’ education policies cover over the fact that judgements have already been made about what matters. But when it comes to thinking about truth in relation to science, it is placing human beings at the centre of making the world as they see fit that is important. Rather than accepting the ‘natural order’ of society and a view of history as determined by divine forces, control over both is shifted into the domain of rational human agency.

Today however, the picture of life being determined by forces outside of our control seems to frame public discourse. Not just do the mystical forces of ‘the market’ mess us around – seen most starkly in both the political elite’s and economists’ astonishment at the credit crunch and how it happened, but ‘nature’ is again asserting her awesome power over human societies in the form of climate change. In response, a scientific approach to understanding and making sense of these phenomena makes sense, but the dominant approach seems to analyse only the natural systems at play – be it the ecosystem or the inner workings of the market – rather than taking a more fruitful scientific approach to the study of society, and people’s place in it, wholesale. Indeed, such is the aversion to talking about society in any depth and thinking progressively about the future, that following the credit crunch and recent crisis of capitalism, the elite’s agenda has been torn between solving the economic problem and saving the planet.

It is because of this that Truth has always concerned a lot more than scientific platitudes: all sorts of figures have laid claim to knowing the truth about the human condition and their societies, from novelists and journalists to campaigners and politicians. In fact, one of the most important things about putting forward new ideas and persuading others is that no particular credentials are necessary. Whilst truths can have a resonance at various points in history for those around them, ideas that have reached the status of truths are always open to fresh contestation and new interpretations. Far from history having the definitive say on truths; it is people that make history.

These considerations give rise to one particular and powerful consideration when it comes to Truth: that it has a normative pull. Being convinced that a particular idea or critical insight has the status of being or getting at the truth, people will act to make it real, or else to put something better in its place. The novelist and journalist George Orwell (1903-1950) provides a good example: whilst his work claimed to uncover unpalatable truths about his own time that might still have resonance today; his particular brand of socialism also inspires a contemporary reading public. Though this phenomenon doesn’t mean that Eric Blair had monopoly on the ideas he expressed, or that he was the first person historically to express them. A less-known book by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), We, written in 1924 in Russia, carries an endorsement from Orwell in its most recent reprint by Vintage, and bears a striking similarity to 1984: such borrowing, rehashing, building on and reintrepretation - often across continents and throughout history - is often the way of intellectual culture.

Similarly, Jane Austen’s universally-acknowledged truth that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, has been convincing and inspiring people since it was written in 1813, yet new interpretations and variations of Pride and Prejudice aim to build on the historically-specific truth in terms of the social critique outlined in the novel, whilst refreshing it for the modern day in a bid to give the story new resonance. The radical Enlightenment poet William Blake who inspired revolutionary fervour in his day, today is reinterpreted as an eco-warrior by those who would claim to change the world in new ways. Whilst such phenomena raise interesting questions about authentic textual meanings and authorial ownership, when it comes to reforging a new truth for contemporary times, often seem to speak more of the present’s dislocated relationship with the past and the derth of new, authoritative ideas about the future that might give people enough confidence to do something about them.

Indeed, the intimate relationship between ideas and actions seems to explain a lot about the contemporary anti-intellectual climate. Much recent legislation has been concerned with banning books and narrowing down the limits of acceptable speech precisely because they might incite people to act. Not only does this constitute a pre-emptive measure that serves to shut down debate, but it speaks volumes about today’s fear of radical politics. ‘Radicalisation’ has been presented as a passive process imposed on unwilling victims incapable of making decisions for themselves; whilst ironically, the radicalism of 1968 is celebrated as an object of nostalgia. It seems that putting forward ideas is all very well so long as they don’t go about influencing anybody or trying to change anything.

The two main strands of thought associated with radicalism today are political Islam and the revolutionary green movement. Whilst both claim to diagnose unpalatable truths about contemporary society, touching on Western decadence and passive consumerism; and both suggest alternate ways of organising society – be it by implementing a Sharia state or going carbon-neutral – neither seem to offer robust enough critiques of contemporary society to have much persuasive force. Whilst political Islam has become exhaustively equated with ‘extremism’ following the awful events of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, and resulted in the ‘war’ against terror; the green movement has been taken up by the elite and many of its ideas adopted by Government. Whilst living in a Sharia state is rightly undesirable; does the misanthropic anti-growth sentiment that often seems at the heart of the green movement, and the coercive manner in which many of its ideas have been imposed on the rest of society, really seem much better? – When it comes to considering where both sets of ideas derive their authority, the first comes mostly from relgious scripture and the second from contemporary science. But any seriously living truth – in the sense that took hold during the Enlightenment period, or Paris, 1968 – must ultimately derive its authority from a persuaded public, that can take ownership of such ideas en masse.

Far from being an abstract philosophical concern, the difficult question of what a new truth might look like in the twenty-first century really boils down to how to go about successfully critiquing contemporary society and persuading people of new proposals for radical change.


Sarah Boyes is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor of Culture Wars, the online review


Smith strengthens rules on banning extremists, Alan Travis, Guardian, 28 October 2008

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