Truth or Value?

It’s a cliche to say these days that we’re in a crisis of truth. And certainly, the world is an increasingly frightening place for those of us who are concerned with honest discourse. Foreign political misinformation campaigns, propaganda, and conspiracy theories are having yet another moment in civic discourse. In addition to this, gone are the old certainties and monolithic experiences of truth.

While this is certainly problematic as we look for a way forward, it’s not all bad. Far from it. Many of the old certainties were false certainties, and monolithic experiences of truth were monolithic only because only the experiences of the powerful were taken into account. So as much as the current state of truth in the world is troublesome — and I would say downright scary — I also have to say ‘good riddance’ to the old status quo.

There are two things I’d like to think about a bit here. The first is a twist on the insight of Niels Bohr that “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” This is particularly true when it comes to truths about our experience of the world. Sometimes, in order to do justice to the fullness of our experience, we must assert with equal force two seemingly opposite things: Life is so short but life is so long. Hell is other people; hell is our self. Children are the greatest source of joy; children are the greatest source of sorrow. Life — and human experience of it — is complicated, and often fraught with such inconsistent truths.

What these experiences have in common is that they’re about things we’re invested in. We are invested in our lives and in our relationships, and so they have the greatest potential to impact how we experience the world, for both good and bad. When we’re thinking about our present joys and hopes and dreams for the future, life feels like it’s zipping by at light speed. When we’re thinking about our present sorrows and deferred hopes, the prospect of the unrelenting march of decades before us feels impossibly long. Both can be true, often at the same time.

The second thing I’ve been reflecting on this week is that, particularly in broader social and political discourse, the core differences between viewpoints are often less a matter of truth than they are of values, or even the relative ranking of shared values. And values are far more difficult to argue than facts. This is part of why I don’t find debate particularly enjoyable — more often than not we aren’t coming up against right vs. wrong or truth vs. error, but a difficult mixture of selective interpretation of facts buttressing sets of differing values. For the record, this doesn’t mean that we don’t take sides; it just means that we shouldn’t expect to find common ground in truths before we find common ground in shared values.

In both of these sets of complexities about truth, I think it’s helpful to take a step back and, instead of asking “Is this really true?” asking more probing questions like “In what way is this true?”, “Where does this truth come from?”, and “Where does this truth lead us?” For conflicting truths in our own experience, these questions can help tease out why we’re feeling conflicted and how we might find a way forward. For social and political discourse, they can help us find empathy and understand for the other side, better understand our own positions, and maybe just maybe find some badly needed common ground. And I want to reiterate that this isn’t about not taking sides, or maintaining a false equivalency between positions — particularly on issues where power and privilege are in play. It’s simply about recognizing that truth is textured and complicated — as textured and complicated as life itself, and our experience of it. And we could all use some humility in recognizing that no matter how true and righteous our positions and beliefs may be, they don’t tell the whole story.

 

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