The Politics of Truth

The Politics of Truth

…the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.

John 18:37

I had a conversation about politics with a coworker a few months back. He had complained about how liberals don’t understand reason or logic, which is why you can’t argue with them.

I had then prodded his own beliefs about who a “real” American was, discussing matters like immigration, ethnicity, dual-loyalties, and so forth. Being from the military, he took a broad approach: “we all bleed red.” When I pointed out the logical shortcomings of this metric, I was told I needed to get my head checked.

I don’t think it’s necessary to dwell on why the color of blood is a poor distinguisher of nationality (it can actually be a poor distinguisher of species). What was more interesting — and what I think is far more universal — is the tendency to define one’s own side as being the side of “Truth,” or as the case may be, of reason, logic, or science.

This tendency is common to both today’s political right and left. One might even be tempted to accept this tendency as axiomatic: ‘of course each side believes that they are right and the other is wrong; why else would they argue?’ But this is actually not inherent, necessary, or even likely, and we can illustrate this with a simple hypothetical.

Different policies will effect areas in different ways. We might imagine two regions: a rural, agricultural community, and a more urban, business and tech-oriented community. Both experience cold winters. Now let us imagine a bill being proposed, which would grant $5 million in de-icing vehicles and equipment to the respective cities.

To the urban, population-dense city, this might prove to be an excellent investment. High-traffic roads make de-icing a more efficient use of resources, and de-icing equipment can be employed more quickly and effectively on better-maintained asphalt after ice sets in. But in a more rural environment, where houses and stores might be set miles apart, and relatively infrequently used roads — perhaps only gravel or dirt in some cases — make up a large part of the transportation system, employing de-icing equipment will almost certainly prove to be too little and too late. Most of the residents out there have probably already invested in 4WD vehicles anyhow, if not snowmobiles.

The most direct description of the conflict between these two communities has nothing whatsoever to do with “truth.” Rather, it has everything to do with what is in their interests.

Yet we can already imagine how such a conflict would be portrayed in today’s political landscape. The urbanites might characterize the rural community, skeptical of de-icing as an investment, as being uncaring of those who need EMT treatment. ‘They want sick people to die.’ Perhaps the rural folk might be described as hating or fearing “progress,” or of being selfish, of not wanting to “pay their fair share.” Meanwhile, the rural community would characterize the urban crowd as being stupid, logistically illiterate, or perhaps just greedy, wanting to expropriate money from outside communities for their own purposes (this might even be true). The urbanites are too incompetent to handle a little bit of snow; too stupid to manage for themselves, always requiring the government to do everything for them, and on someone else’s dime too.

If we are to continue imagining this hypothetical as allegorical to the modern state of things, we would see that in each case, the conflict is framed in terms of there being an objective and transcendent Truth. It is assumed that there is a best way, which is universal, and most of the demonizing of the other constituency stems from a belief that they are simply too stupid or too evil to accept this Truth.

Yet where our snow-strategy example is concerned, the best way is clearly not universal. And where there are universals, appeals to “Truth,” “Reason,” “Logic,” and “Science” are irrelevant. There is no controversy surrounding the current ban on murder, for example. In fact, the appeal to “Truth” actually seems to blind both sides to any kind of resolution or compromise that would result in a better society.

It may seem strange to look into theology for political answers, but I think that both the American Right and Left are fundamentally Christian in their spirit. This proclivity to define one’s own position in terms of a transcendent Truth is very Christian in nature, and is often framed explicitly as such. We can see this in other cases: the conflicting phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” are allusions to the exact same principle, only different in emphasis. “Black Lives Matter” is a tacit supposition that “black lives also matter,” somewhat ham-fistedly implying that in the current state of affairs, they are treated as if they do not. Both phrases, in other words, allude to a universal principle of human dignity, which is also Christian in origin.

I wonder how much further we might get politically if we acted a little less like Jesus, brazenly asserting that we are the truth, and more like Pilate, stepping back, asking questions, and always remembering one’s own place in things:

Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

“If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”

Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die.

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

John 18:28-38

I find it fascinating that Jesus has no answer to Pilate’s question… presumably because the answer he offers earlier in John — that the truth is, in fact, Jesus himself — would appear circular to a mind like Pilate’s. And how ironic it is that the common principle of Christian loyalty to “Truth” defines our modern political landscape in such a divided fashion. But I guess we were told that we would know them by their fruits:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

Matthew 10:34-36

If this doesn’t describe America’s political dynamics today, I’m not sure what does.

America is never going to abandon vain appeals “Truth” in the political domain, and it would be a Quixotic venture to attempt a crusade to fix the language of a whole community, let alone a whole nation or the world. But where personal sanity and immediate relationships are concerned, I think that much can be gained by abandoning our theological fixation on “Truth” which most of us do not understand and cannot define anyhow, any more than we could give an airtight definition of “facts,” “reason,” “logic,” or “science.”

Contextuality — and not factuality — seems to be the key to good communication and sound decision-making. Similarly, true beliefs seems to follow from proper contextuality more regularly than context-awareness follows from attempted truthfulness. The legal and cultural ramifications of this might be hard to predict beyond our own ecosystems, but an excessive interest in “Truth” does not seem to resolve this problem; if anything, it only gets us into more trouble while simultaneously making us more arrogant.

And unless we are Jews, perhaps we have little reason to care or pass judgment on such things anyhow.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. As I respect your writings (given your demonstrated ability to think critically about contemporary dogma), I’m willing to entertain the possibility that this is one of those examples where certain flawed ways of thinking are so engrained that I have difficulty seeing past them. I hope I’m not LARPing as a philosopher, I don’t have training in it, yet I have given the matter some thought.

    I’ve never understood where the difficulty is in agreeing (regardless of whether one is team blue or red) that truth is ontologically real yet difficult to perceive (as per 1 Corinthians 13:12). If one does hold the truth, surely I wouldn’t advise them to “act a little less like Jesus”. That it is difficult to know matters only in practice, yet not theoretically. Furthermore, what’s the point in critiquing Jesus for saying he was truth? If he was the incarnation of the actual deity holding the reigns to the totality of the universe, then the claim isn’t circular. There is no possibility of critique; only acceptance or explicit rejection of 14:6, as the Christian tradition would contend was its intention. Also, I do not see at all that both left and right are committed to the Christian notion of truth. One side is neurotically fixated on how descriptive claims lead to normative conclusions, and will ruthlessly wield power to purge such dissenters. In principle, I am for deconstructing truth claims if it is intended to achieve closer proclamations of truth. Yet I find that this is almost never the case. What am I missing?

    1. “I’ve never understood where the difficulty is in agreeing (regardless of whether one is team blue or red) that truth is ontologically real yet difficult to perceive.”

      This is probably the most eminently reasonable position one could possibly take, philosophically. I think one could argue that it’s the belief underlying Skepticism. But the problem is that no action follows from this, and all political disagreements are action-oriented, so they are motivated by the tacit belief that they have actionable certainty in the truth. To be skeptical in a pure sense would require one to be apolitical; to be politically involved would be to claim perception of at least some degree or aspect of the truth.

      I say “less like Jesus” not to offend, but to juxtapose Jesus’ relationship to truth with that of Pilate’s, who actually ARRIVES at the truth, but does not claim to speak on its behalf, let alone to BE truth itself. When we shift from claiming to see what we think is some part of the truth, to claiming to speak on behalf of truth itself (or maybe to “speak truth to power”), we are shifting into a polarizing and unskeptical frame, one which is unnecessary to take action, but which will likely lead to a great deal of overconfidence, confirmation bias, and pointless polarization.

      The point in criticizing Jesus is that I think that the claim to speak for Truth itself comes from Christianity.

      I’ll actually bite the bullet and say that the Left is actually MORE Christian, though they don’t realize it. Where truth is concerned, Jesus developed an ancient Greek Heroic Idealism into a philosophical and spiritual concept. Truth (with a capital T) became separated from the true statements which define the idea of “truth” in opposition to false statements, and so Christians worship the IDEA of truth, even just the word “truth.” Think of it as a kind of personalized Platonism. But Hegel took this idealism further still, applying it to the story and progress of History, and the modern progressive Left are explicit descendants of Hegelianism. The conservative movement of today is enmeshed in sub-cultures which call themselves Christian, but which often venerate civic-religious institutions like the Constitution above the Bible (this is very similar to the pre-Christian Roman civic religion).

      I’m definitely in the minority on this, and I’m obviously over-simplifying a lot (especially the Hegel part), so you won’t sound crazy for disagreeing with me; this is just my take after obsessively researching Homer for several years.

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