For different sleuths
In my recent post about contrarianism and what I called "contrarian diplomacy," I shared a few paragraphs from Michael Ignatieff's essay on thinking for yourself. In one of them, Ignatieff writes that "the point of thinking is to say something true, not something new."
In response to that, a reader, Carol, asked if there can be many truths. It's a great question. The kind that I read and instinctively want to have an answer for already. Because there is comfort in feeling like we know and discomfort in feeling like we don't. But I have learned over time that it is in my interest to move toward the discomfort of not knowing. See what's there. Maybe gather a few clues. Move on to a more informed not knowing. It doesn't mean that I always do it (my inner bullshitter and its cheap tricks are formidable foes). It just means that I've been around the sun enough times to know that I should, and to know that there is a far worse discomfort in feeling like we know while knowing—somewhere deep down—that we don't.
So I considered it. As I recall it now, my initial thought-stream went something like this: There can be only one truth, but we might not know—or agree on—what it is, and even if we think we know, that one truth can change with the arrival of new information, maybe? I should read up on this. But then what does it mean to "say something true"? If I think something's true and I say it, but I'm wrong, would I still be saying something true? I should read up on this. I should also do my taxes and look for cheaper health insurance. If it seems true to me but not to you, and vice versa, and we have all of the same information, then maybe "truth" is the wrong word? Do I need gas? Did I write "brother's" with an apostrophe earlier instead of "brothers" plural? That dog looks funny. Wouldn't I be saying something less true if I said something that I didn't think was true but that was, in fact, true? I should read up on this.
I read up on it. Most of that reading was cursory, so my homework is far from complete (I've not yet gone as deep as I'd like into the philosophical theories of truth, for example). But I did cobble together a few kinds of truths that seemed more clear, correct, and useful to me than some others. Namely, objective truth (the sun exists), subjective truth (the sun is beautiful), and consensus truth (the bright thing in the sky is called the sun).
The question, again, was "Can there be many truths?" Here's where I landed in response.
I think it depends what kind of truths we're talking about. Objective versus subjective versus consensus, and so on. With objective truths, I think there can be only one. With subjective truths, there can be many. I think this is the source of many problems in the world. People want their subjective truths (or beliefs, small-t truths) to override objective truths and become consensus truths, accepted by all. These kinds of small-t truths are part of what makes a small-l liberal society so important. If we mandate x or ban y to codify subjective truths, we become an illiberal society ensnared in ideological conflict, which, you know, we [kind of] are now.
It's not my intention to take sides, or to name or shame any groups or individuals. So I'm going to try to avoid doing both. But I do think examples of what I mean would be helpful. For a few of those, see the more dogmatic debates being had around gender identity, abortion rights, and Covid everything. There are truths (and, importantly, internal disagreements) on all sides. But some of them (a) are subjective truths, (b) defy objective truths, (c) lack consensus, and (d) are nonetheless presented as though they are incontrovertibly true.
That’s not to say that there aren’t sensible conversations being had on these and other divisive topics. There are, and I see them happening even through my weird window into the West on the internet, where so much is, seemingly by design and default these days, tribal and performative and turned up to 11. If these sensible online conversations are being had, then I think it's reasonable to believe that many sensible offline ones are being had, too. My disadvantage in making that point, of course, is that my feet are far from western soil. My information comes second hand. So I can’t really know. But I have my methods for knowing what I can. And enough of them now have led me to believe that it's "true." Most people have complex views and are open to reason, even though much of the stuff that rises to the top of the internet makes it look otherwise.
In any case, I do take issue with the less sensible conversations. The loud and domineering and intolerant ones. The exhausting ones that stretch their tentacles through raging tweets and bitter op-eds down to the levers and core of society. The ones that sound, to my ears, something like this.
—I believe subjective truth x, despite its inconsistency with consensus truth y and objective truth z. Society should therefore dismiss y and z and accept x. Resistance will not be tolerated.
—I don't believe subjective truth x, due to its inconsistency with consensus truth y and objective truth z. Society should therefore ban all things that exist in support of x (and/or mandate all things that exist in support of y and z). Resistance will be met with equal and opposite resistance.
—I reject the proposal to ban all things that exist in support of x (and/or mandate all things that exist in support of y and z). Society should therefore ban all things that exist in support of y and z (and/or mandate or encourage all things that exist in support of x). Resistance will heretofore be considered anti-x and/or be labeled misinformation and/or disinformation and/or conspiracy theory and/or violence.
Again, I know that there are far more sensible exchanges being had. The generic positions above are not straw men that I've constructed to distort or weaken the stronger arguments. Positions like the ones presented are annoyingly real, but they are not the best of the best. They are, in fact, the worst of the worst. Unfortunately, they are also the ones that seem to have gained the most traction with the powers that be (the media, the government, and so on).
The beautiful combination of (a) open minds, (b) tolerance, and (c) persuasion seems to have fallen out of style for many in supposedly liberal societies. I don't know that it ever actually was in style. But wherever it was, it appears to have fallen. In its place has arisen an ugly and opposite combination, one built on certainty (closed minds); illiberality (intolerance); and baseless, immovable demands (bypassed persuasion/forced consensus).
I accept that I might be off the mark. But from my window seat way over here in Thailand, what I see happening too often is this: a lot of people are working hard, but not smart, to advance their subjective truths as quickly as possible to be accepted as consensus truths. In doing so, they present those subjective truths as already settled consensus or objective truths. Absent open minds, tolerance, and persuasion, dissent and non-compliance are met with labels like misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theory, bigotry, racism, sexism, transphobia, and so on.
To be clear, those are all real things that persist to varying degrees in societies both liberal and otherwise. That's what makes the cheap trick so effective and frustrating. If you and I disagree on something and I call your facts "misinformation," all I've really done is attempt to achieve consensus via dismissal. Instead of countering your argument with a better one, I can just flag your views as "objectively" wrong and not worth any kind, smart, moral person's time.
In Ignatieff's essay, he wrote this about thinking, persuasion, and truth:
[Thinking] is an exercise in finding reasons to persuade yourself and others that something is true, or at least plausibly true. Thinking has truth as its goal and its organizing discipline. Bullshitters ... are precisely those who do not think: they simply express what comes into their minds, without concerning themselves with whether what they are saying has any relation to reality. Every university is, or should be, properly worried that their classrooms are training generation after generation of accredited bullshitters.
Later in the essay, he wrote this about thinking and liberal society:
If thinking for yourself is the goal of your life, then it pays to maintain a certain distance from the institutions in which you work and live. Distance implies wariness about received opinion, about fashions, about the recurring tides of certainty and urgency that course through the places where we work and soon have us all facing the same way, thinking the same thing. The larger point is about liberal society: if thinking for yourself is your goal, do not go looking for the warm bath of belonging or the certitude of faith. Do not expect a free society to provide these for you. Belonging is not the fondest dream of a serious intellectual.She dreams of other satisfactions first.
Liberal society works best—it is most productive as well as most free—when its members all feel a certain alienation, a certain dividedness about the objectives and the values of the institutions inside which they work. Alienation is another term for distance and detachment; it need not be melodramatic or wounding. It is simply one of the epistemological conditions for a working mind, and for the pleasures of its work. Objectivity is a variety of alienation. Who would trust the views of a thinker who is not to some degree alienated—that is, detached—from her subject? One of the very first scientific societies in the world, the Royal Society, founded in 1661 by the likes of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, took as its motto: Nullius in Verba. Take Nobody’s Word for it. Imagine: the greatest scientists of their time set up an organization to promote scientific thinking, and their working rule was not even to take each other’s word for the truth. That is an ideal of truth that is also an ideal about institutions: to give us a place not to belong and imbibe the pieties of a tribe, but where we take nobody’s word for it.
I concur and am moved nearly to tears when I read these words. What an aspiration.
I’m not interested in telling anyone that their subjective truths aren’t true. My only point on this is that subjective truths, as I understand them, are effectively just beliefs, feelings, and intuitions. And those are all fine. By all means, believe, feel, and intuit. And I will too. Let's just not go demanding that others comply or draw a "warm bath," as Ignatieff put it, for what we believe, feel, and intuit. We don't need it, and we are not necessarily obligated to provide it. Not if one of our aims is to be honest people.
What I am interested in is seeing more of those beautiful combinations I mentioned earlier.
Personally, I believe that men are men, women are women, transmen are transmen, and transwomen are transwomen. I believe that we are all the same, and we are all different. And I see nothing inherently wrong (or right, for that matter) with being any of us.I believe, to paraphrase a Louis C.K. bit, that abortion is sort of killing babies, but that women should be allowed to kill babies (up to a point). I believe that Covid absolutely may have come from a lab, and that there’s good reason to be skeptical about, for example, Covid vaccines (of which I've had three), and that it’s dismissive to call such beliefs conspiracy theories or declare the issues settled.
If you disagree with me, that’s great, something to be revered, even. But it's a belief. And our beliefs don't make us right. We’re not debating the existence of the sun, after all. We can’t just look up at the thing we've agreed to call the sky and see the truth. What we can do is take nobody’s word for it, think for ourselves, and talk it out. We can aim, even in disagreement, to be more rational, respectful, and connected. And we can all strive to be more open-minded, tolerant, and persuasive.
Where he says "serious intellectual," I would probably say "honest person." But both, I think, are true.