Over the last few decades issues such truth, fake news, misinformation, populism, woke and cancel culture have become critical discussion points in our democratic countries. The clash between these – mainly emotionally driven – bottom up developments and the lack of top down leadership aimed to look after the common good has contributed to a decline in truth.
This has also caused a crisis in scientific truth (facts) e.g. in relation to climate change, vaccinations and biological evolution. However, the current truth crisis has far more to do with emotional or ethical truth rather than material or scientific truth.
Political and economic developments over the last 30-40 years have furthermore seen a move in focus to the ‘me’ rather than the ‘us’. There has also been a shift in focus towards the functional rather than the emotional (ethics, values, care, the beautiful).
Societies can only prosper if they are based on mutual trust. Such societies are supported by independent institutions looking after the common good with a balance between the functional and the things we humans care for the most. In a political sense that means a move back to the centre. The ‘truth crisis’ is undermining the social code and the institutions established to manage the social code.
In this essay I argue that if the ‘truth crisis’ is allowed to continue it will undermine societies. I would furthermore argue that this crisis is potentially even worse than the climate crisis. However, I will also discuss the way forward to restore truth.
Without well-functioning societies based around the rule of law, a social code and a common good, we will be unable to solve the climate crisis and other crises such as for example future pandemics, the managements of technologies and global affairs such as war and peace.
The prelude to the current truth crisis.
In most of the period following WWII we have taken it for granted that in general people spoke the truth and therefor trusted the various societal systems that they were a part of. This applies to both what we can call material truth (scientific facts) and ethical truth (our values). Obviously, there are plenty of examples where this went wrong but in comparison to the situation today, we were in those days considerably more trustworthy of each other.
There have been significant changes since WWII which have influenced the issue of truth.
- We have seen an enormous increase in the global population. Creating a more complex, larger and more diffuse society.
- This is also putting pressure on the environment; we see the loss of biodiversity and the event of climate change. To address this requires structural societal changes to our way of life, something that is very hard to implement.
- Increased movements of people, goods and capital. Increased migration, refugees, travel and globalisation. Some people feel threatened by the different cultures, peoples, values, ideologies, religions.
- Enormous advances in science, information technology and communications. Making some people feeling lost.
- At the same time, it is providing everybody with platforms on which they can express their opinion, for good and for bad.
- Since the 1980s neo-liberal policies, favouring capital over labour (people). The only value being the economic one. This is fuelling inequality, anger and division.
American philosopher Richard Oxenberg (What Is Truth?: On the Need for an Old Paradigm) mentions that over that period we have also seen a shift away from (European continental) philosophy based on big issues such (societal) ethics, the meaning of life, etc to analytic philosophy (Anglosphere).
What is truth?
While the issue of denying scientific facts in relation to climate change, vaccinations and evolution is a divisive issue. The majority of people still trust science. The real issue is with ethical truth, as there are no facts to underpin this.
So, in this respect, what do people see as the truth? Libertarians, Socialist, Communists, Fascists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims all have different versions of what they call the truth. It is important to note that this has little to do with scientific truth, these groups are talking about the truth in the sense of what Aristotle calls ‘The Supreme Good‘. Within their own silos they share the same or similar version of the truth.
The philosopher Michel Foucault reflects on ‘truth’ in the following way:
“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint … Each society has its own regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true”.
Another philosopher John Dewey states: ‘Truth is a thing of this world.’
This means that there is a connection between truth and power. We see this in countries such as China and Russia, where totalitarian regimes dictate certain truths. But of course, the (mis)use of power equally applies to (populist) politicians in other countries.
On the material side, truth is linked to its interpretations of ‘expertise’, and on the analytic outcomes of science and technology. Here issues such as vaccinations, climate changes, mobile networks (5G) come to mind.
The Algerian French philosopher Jacques Derrida adds another interesting aspect. ‘Truth (capital T) is just a dream’. He calls it ‘transcendental signified’ it is something beyond the ordinary, beyond the everyday experience. It can’t be stable, there is no final Truth.
This also reminds me of Plato’s Forms and what we mentioned earlier the ‘Supreme Good’.
Derrida also explained this further by mentioning that the arrival of God – ‘the ultimate ‘transcendental signified‘ – would mean the end of religion. Equally there is no ‘transcedental signified Human‘. This is important to realise for those ‘taking the high ground’ regarding truth, this includes ultra’s on both the right and the left. Taking such a position is taking a political position and that needs to be judged as such and not on its truthfulness.
It is also essential to realise that we are competing people on an individual level, a corporate level and a political level. On a private level there is now clearly also competition in relation to societal values (issues that we care about, often passionately). Everybody is aiming at getting the maximum benefits. Truthfulness and the truth are often victims in such competitive processes. We can turn Martin Heidegger words around “truth is that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong.” Untruth makes people uncertain, doubtful and weak. So, there is an evolutionary trend towards truth.
He also mentioned: ‘to know and to speak real, requires a certain commitment: a commitment to face reality. Failures of truth are often failures to face up”.
What is the problem?
The cultural, moral and emotional differences are opportunistically used by politicians to win votes, or by ideologists and religious leaders to create divisions between ‘them and us’ in order to strengthen their own group within their own barricades.
A key development has been that thanks to technology individuals can now also take a leading role in the information and communication processes and many – often uninformed, disgruntled or even ideological brainwashed – individuals can use social media to weaponise opinions.
With societies in turmoil around different issues as those mentioned in the introduction, populists are able to gather support from disgruntled people across these silos. We saw this with Trumpism in America, where Donald Trumps was very successful in bringing diverse groups of mainly disgruntled people together to support his populist policies.
They do this by creating divisions often by using untruthful information, half-truth, or statements of victimisation. However, they are not seen as untruthful statements by those within their barricaded silos who support those politicians, ideologists, etc. They blindly accept their words, or they do so to protect their own group or they just believe whatever ‘their leader’ tells them. There are plenty of examples Hitler, Putin, Trump, the large list of cult and religious leaders and political ideologists such as Lenin and Trotsky.
Commercial media organisations who can make money out of fuelling social divisions also tap into human ‘weaknesses’ are adding to the problem. Others utilise people’s affiliation or membership of particular social groupings appealing to advantages and disadvantages, inequalities, religions and ideologies and differences between the various groupings within our society.
Foreign governments with totalitarian regimes such as Russia and China are able to utilise strategies based on (mis)using ethical issues to undermine and destabilise democratic societies, which are more open and therefore more vulnerable to untruthful information.
Within these autocratic regimes differences in opinions are simply suppressed and often violently. This is more difficult in the Western Democracies as there is freedom of press and freedom of speech. As a consequence, there is a much higher level of freedom for people to have different opinions.
To create a harmonious society, we need a shared truth across the society or at least a significant big enough group. What we see instead is a splintering more towards my-truth.
Elections across the western world show that large proportions of populations no longer trust the democratic systems and institutions, which are the pillars of our current western societies.
Some of this mistrust is due to a barrage of often conflicting information available in our open democratic societies and some because of often opportunistic politicising and ideologic messaging from within our societies or from outside (foreign) our societies The latter, often deliberately used to undermine the democratic processes in western societies.
Furthermore, neo-liberal capitalism focuses on the me rather than the us. This also clearly shows that we need to see democracy as on ongoing, never ending, process, that requires much more vigilance and care than we have been given it over recent decades. And in tradition of continental European philosophical tradition this means that the goal should be to benefit the community/whole – to make a plurality.
Looking towards solutions.
The key issue here is to first of all understand the difference between scientific truth and ethical truth.
In general term most people are still able to differentiate between them and do accept scientific facts. They also generally understand that science is an ongoing process and that facts can be finetuned and even changed, but in general that process is understood and accepted.
A clear warning here: this can easy change when leadership fails to support this, as we see in America.
In the bigger picture of life material (scientific) truth is not necessarily the truth that people are fundamentally seeking.
What we need to address is what we might call ‘ethical truth’. This is more about what we people care about, what our values are and what is the ‘worth’ of these values to us.
There is no ultimate Truth here so we need to take that into account, allow people the room to have their own interpretations, show tolerance and focus on the shared values within our societies and there are plenty of them so that should be achievable.
A dangerous situation is when uncontrolled emotional truth is led loose to undermine society. This happens when there is a severe breakdown in leadership. As truth is our default situation with good leadership this can be harnessed to build harmonious societies. For good functioning societies we do need both people pressures from the bottom up and the leadership from the top.
On the other side ignoring the emotional truth issues will only tear society further apart. Again, this is where leadership is needed to guide and manage that process.
Failing leaderships create total rudderless societies. At such a stage emotional driven divisions are able to barricade themselves in, and even scientific facts, empirical evidence, the rule of law and democratic institutions are no longer seen as truthful. This in turn can lead to a breakdown of society as every issue than becomes an emotional one. Reason has gone out of the window.
So how can avoid this and restore or strengthen societies. For this, we need to address the issues listed in the introduction. Let’s explore some possibilities.
The love for our home
Most people love their home, this is often extended to the street, neighbourhood and community we live in. One step further and we see our country and indeed our world as our home. This should be a basis for our shared love and care which in turn will lead to share values and shared care.
Interestingly we see that many issues we care about have a big enough support base (climate change, gender equality, anti-racism, etc) however solutions are far more complex and need careful consideration and time. So, one would argue that with that bottom-up support the leadership should take those issues onboard. However, here are often conflicting (political) interests at play that stops this from happening. These are tough long-term issues that need to be addressed and require societal transformations, reforms and above all that costs money. There will be a price to pay for it and this is a political problem/dilemma.
Short term politics are favouring short term policies aimed at pleasing the people rather than telling them the unpleasant truth that things need to change and that this will cost pain. Add to this the above-mentioned society in turmoil with divisions, misinformation, populism and so on and the task becomes even more problematic. As a result, nothing gets done and everybody has to suffer from the consequences.
While movements such as ‘Me Too’, Black Life Matters and Woke all started off with great intentions. Radicalisation of these issues are not helping the process of reform that is needed.
Demonising the ‘other side’ is equally untruthful. At the same time, from experience, we all know that what is silenced is often difficult to shut up.
Hardliners want to see a destructing of the past without any discussion. This is not the solution. The past with all its wrongs is what it is and provides the platform to discuss issues such as racism, colonisation, inequality, slavery, etc. We should learn from history, not destruct it. Even more toxic is the ‘cancel culture’, this makes dialectic discussions totally impossible.
Destruction hardly ever delivers any good outcomes. I find myself – only on this issue – on the side of the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton. The key – he argues – is to have a dialogue, listen to the other side, simply opposing different expressions is not how to solve those differences, The aim should be to reason with one other in order to find common ground. Looking for shared values, he argues for example a shared value is ‘the love for our home’. If we express our interest in the beautiful, our leaders will have to follow us in order to win votes. Again, we need both the pressure from the bottom up and the leadership from the top down.
Loving our home is also putting value on what we share in what is being beautiful, such as nature, an attractive street and good city panning through for example architecture, fostering the atmosphere that we find in historic places.
‘Function’ has been put far too central in politics, beauty is equally important to making our society (home) better. Neo-liberalism only values efficiency, effectiveness, economic principles and a lot of what we think as ‘beautiful’ gets offered on the altar of the economy.
Lost in hard economic, neo-liberal politics we fail to look for solutions of many of the existential ethical issues that our societies are facing.
We can win shared values back by putting an equal or even higher value on what we as humanity see as being beautiful. In this respect we might win over some of the conservatives as we are talking here about the conservation of the beautiful. The same would apply to the conservation of good education, our university system (humanities studies), healthcare systems, infrastructure and so on. If we as a society don’t see the value or the beauty in this, it will get less political attention=less money and we start losing it.
I think our culture and democratic values are more than just a judgement about taste (which is a personal issue), culture and (democratic) values effect the whole society. They are far more fundamental to our existence and -together- we need to take responsibility for it.
If we think about ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité ‘ what we currently are missing in the politicking in many societies is ‘fraternité ‘.
We need to invest in our society, current policies are more than often aimed at taking money away from society. Handing it back to the individual in the ever-continuing quest of lowering taxes – especially for businesses and those at the top end of the food chain. Obvious we need to look at balances and they are more likely to be found in the political centre.
Back to Derrida, shortly before his death he admitted that for some of the critical issues that are tearing us apart are no answers. “If we simply knew what to do there would not be any responsibility”. How profound is that.
So, we will have to live with this reality. Truth like democracy is a never-ending process. Truth is part of the messy business of life; life is not clear and not coherent as it is sometimes depicted by those pursuing material truth issues. So, the quest for truth will never end and it up to us to take the responsibility to guide that process as best as possible. If we look at history this is an ever-changing process and we need to take responsibility for what life is giving us in this day and age.
On the positive side we see that people are questioning a variety of values of our societies (political, moral, spiritual, etc). It is clear that different people hold different values and they care differently about these values and about different aspects of their societies. Issues here include identity, migrants, refugees, gender, religion, etc. Until recent we were able as societies to share sets of common values or at least avoid destructive differences of opinions on these issues. We need to find our way back to the Centre; as mentioned before we need to find the truth we share, to have a harmonious society.
Fortunately, we also do see positive moves in that direction with people taking ‘ethics’ into account in buying products and services. We see companies advertising their ‘ethical behaviour’, in order to win the trust of their customers. We also see individual politicians – often not linked to the main parties – who dare to speak out in favour of the ethical issues.
While it is easy to be sceptical about business initiatives as they are based on making money. For this to happen they have to react to what their customers demand. I would argue that on some of these issues businesses listen better to their customers than politicians to their constituents. If we look at climate change, businesses are far more investing in renewable energy, less pollution and more energy efficiency than many of our politicians. Yes, that is based on the principle of market demand and supply, I can’t see anything wrong with that. Whoever assist on working on the key societal issues and are coming up with solutions, I will applaud.
All of this are indications of a shift towards ‘ethical truth’. Richard Oxenberg describes this as follows. Understanding ethical truth through examining the nature of values and value judgments – indeed our reality -by which we live (called axiology) is rapidly becoming a key area of philosophy. Looking at it from what really matters in life for human beings, ethical truth is key, with material truth – science – providing a support function. We also need to realise that axiology will never provide hard evidence outcomes as can be provided by scientific truth.
From people movement to structural changes
It is clear that more and more people are becoming more vigilant in order to protect the truth, as they see that those in power will use ‘truth’ just for their only purposes. However, this at the same time sharpens the difference between these two groups.
The move towards ethical truth needs to evolve from an individual people movement to a societal/political movement. We as societies will have to manage these issues at a larger scale. Ignoring them and not addressing them is clearly undermining the cohesiveness of society. Where difference in ethics and values is not hurting society tolerance is essential to maintain a harmonious society.
Reasoning and critical thinking
There is no hard-clad ethical truth. The best we can do to deal with this is to pursue ‘reasonable truth’. All humans are able to use reason and by reasoning we should be able to come to an acceptable truth, which will require tolerance and finding middle grounds. By all means use scientific truth in this reasoning process to support this where that is possible.
This will require critical thinking and while the first attempts are being made to address this issue at education levels, large parts of society are indifferent. Perhaps the most dangerous element is apathy.
First, he states that truth telling is the default position of the human brain. While this is a rational process, in the end, the final decision then depends on more primitive emotional brain processes. This is where the problem starts if you do not go through thorough thought processes, both in relation to material and ethical truth issues. Decisions become more emotionally based rather than rationally based. Another effect of the emotional process is once the brain does not believe in an issue you will start feeling disgusted about that issue. We clearly see examples of this trend in the American society. This stops any rational thinking about the issue.
Advertising and politics and sometime religion are using this to emotionally influence us to ‘buy’ their product and paint the other ‘product’ as inferior. Their aim is not to be truthful to you but to get you to ‘buy’ their product, ideology, religion.
The ’genuine’ test
The issue in relation to ethical truth is far more complex, perhaps rather than looking for what is ‘real’ we need to check what is ‘genuine’. Is that a genuine value or is that in one way or another misrepresented by politics, religion, ideology, etc. We also have to recognise that because of the nature of ethical truth to road towards it is difficult, without a transformative structural change, a crisis, or a revolution its will be a process of muddling on.
As Kant, in 1784 wrote “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” But in that process, we should aim to make things better. We can do this – as another French philosopher Catherine Malabou mentioned – through plasticity. Our brain is a classic example of this it reforms itself, builds new pathways, creates new synapses. We as humans can use plasticity to make things better, here material truth (neurology) and ethical truth can come together.
All ‘thinking’ people have an obligation to ensure that we protect our values and our democratic way of life. Already ancient philosophers such as Plato and Socrates indicated that we need to be bold to speak what is true.
Society is greatly assisted by the new technologies that have become available in recent decades. Everybody can use the same technology both for good but also to undermine democracy, use hate speech and distribute fake and false news. However, we can also use that same technology to verify and fact check. Technology is neutral.
Overall, the use of technology by those supporting the truth, democracy and a harmonious society is many times larger than those who misuse the technology. This of course makes sense as most people want to pursue the truth. The problem is that the misuse of technology has been very damaging and is right so receiving an enormous amount of attention.
Within the technological developments, social media is bringing a whole new aspect to the tragedy of truth. As they are totally dominated by corporations which in turn are based on short term shareholders return. Here the issue is that ‘fiddling with the truth’ increases the traffic on their media, which in turns feeds their advertising revenues. Ensuring that – as much possible – the truth is protected on these media means less discourse and therefore less traffic and less profit. This doesn’t exclusively apply to social media, traditional media (newspapers, TV and radio) have equally moved into these directions as divisive news sells
The changes in technology effecting the media and information in general are changing so rapidly that it becomes increasingly more difficult to distinguish between ‘representation’ and realty. Populist leaders have been able to exploit this weakness very successfully.
Again, as truth is essential for our survival and wellbeing, also in relation to technology we will overcome the misuse. The European Union is leading this charge and countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also very actively addressing this issue.
But individual people can also do their bit. In this fast-moving world with a deluge of news, information and opinions it is important we apply (and educate) critical thinking and to learn to pause before we instantly react to for example Facebook posts. Before emotionally reacting, first look at confirmation, corroboration, verification, in short do a quick fact check before passing on the info, before liking it or before reacting to it. A good starting point here is to ask, is what I hear or read real and at least briefly think about that. If it is real, it is for all intents and purposes real, or to rephrase Aristotle” Wat is, is true”.
So how to move forward.
As truth is one of our most central concepts to keep societies together, letting go of the truth would mean a collapse of society. However, truth is the default position of our brain. Untruth, how even much it might be hidden will often provide a ‘tingle in our gut feeling’. That is when we need to pause. The reaction to untruth is often defiance and resistance. At the same time as truth is under attack, we see an increase in the demand for ‘Truth Telling’ be it regarding, treating first nation people, colonialism, discrimination, inequality, slave trading, climate change and so on.
Truth telling requires critical thinking, fact checking and so on. So, this could be a good platform to also address other elements of truth issues in social media, politics, the news media and so on. However, as truth is our default human position even on social media eventually will prevail.
I believe that the issue of truth is creating a serious crisis; in the western world because it gets undermined by politicians, news media and social media for the purpose of political or commercial gain and in countries such as China and Russia because people are – for political reasons – deliberate untruths are told.
It is good to end with Bertrand Russell’s ten commandments
Bertrand Russell‘s Ten Commandments
|1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence.
3. Never try to discourage thinking.
4. When you meet with opposition, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement.
9. Be scrupulously truthful even if the truth is inconvenient.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise.