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Does Truth Really Matter in Politics?

The following remarks on truth and democracy were presented at the opening of a brainstorming session entitled Does Truth Really Matter in Australian Politics? Political Accountability in an Era of Agitated Media. The lively, all-day gathering of journalists, academics, students and web activists was convened by Peter Fray and hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR) and the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, 9th April, 2013.

Sceptics say that talk of truth is implausible, or a downright fraud, but remarkable – and puzzling – is the tenacity of the whole idea of truth. Look at two contradictory trends of our times. It’s said we live in the age of ‘truthiness’ (Stephen Colbert), an age when clever politicians say openly that what ‘is’ depends on ‘the meaning of what is is’ (Bill Clinton). It’s argued by others that truth is a trope, that everything’s relative to everything else. For still others, Truth died along with God, or ‘truth’ is a power/knowledge effect (Foucault).

Despite the scepticism and prevarication, we live in times when public references to the ‘truth’ of things are flourishing. There’s much talk of the value of ‘objectivity’, references to indisputable ‘facts’ and resort to Truth Commissions, websites such as www.factcheck.org and Truth-o-Meters provided by organisations like PolitiFact. Despite everything, we live in an age when people from all walks of life regularly say things like ‘that’s not true’. It’s a period as well when ‘sorting out the truth in politics’ hatches great political scandals that double as media events, episodes when ‘telling the truth’ becomes of paramount value.

I’d like to convince you that the simultaneous public denial and public embrace of truth is a feature of democracies like Australia. So let’s look in a bit more depth at the truth paradox, let’s call it. For complicated historical reasons that run deep, and stretch back to Luther’s famous, explosive, influential attack on popery as the sole interpreter of scripture in An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520), talk of ‘Truth’ or ‘truth’ has become philosophically and politically questionable. Tropes like ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ nowadays arouse suspicions. There’s a quantum turn going on, a pluralisation of people’s lived perceptions of the world. The whole trend is fed by a growing abundance of platforms where power is interrogated and chastened, so that monitory democracies tend to nurture uncertainty, doubt, scepticism, modesty, irony, the conviction that truth has many faces, the recognition that the meaning of the world and its dynamics are so complicated that, ultimately, its true meaning and significance cannot be fully grasped.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

During my lifetime, philosophers in the European tradition have complicated matters by pointing to the disputed plural meanings of the ‘truth’ word. For instance, truth can refer to propositions that correspond to ‘reality’, to the accurate ‘mirroring’ of reality by ideas in our heads, or in bar graphs or statistical charts that purport to represent ‘objectively’ some or other state of affairs. Alternatively, truth can refer to water-tight, logical reasoning, to the learned art of developing a chain of premises which lead to a valid conclusion, such as ‘snow is white is true if and only if snow is white’. Heidegger, by contrast, thought that truth can only mean ‘the disclosure of what keeps itself concealed’. Wittgenstein meanwhile famously said that truth or knowledge is in the end always based on acknowledgement, the more or less shared ‘world picture’ and language framework (Thomas Kuhn would later say the paradigm) in which we live our lives, a framework that pre-structures interpretations of the world and shapes what meaningfully is communicated to others.

These contested meanings of truth are symptomatic of the contemporary trend that is leading democracies towards the pluralisation of truth, or to organised efforts to destroy it outright. Coming to grips with this trend isn’t easy, so let’s for a moment think counter-factually about truth. Imagine a world where talk of truth and Truth had been abolished, for instance by switching on a political version of Killswitch, a mobile phone app that promises to ‘seamlessly and discreetly remove all traces of your ex from your Facebook’ (it was released, defiantly, on Valentine’s Day)? What would be the consequences? I see four probable effects.

First: the whole phenomenon of lying would disappear. Truth and lies are twins. We don’t usually think of things this way, but lying, the opposite of truth, keeps the whole idea of truth alive. Lying is the deliberate saying of what is not so. It is wilful deception – covering up things that the liar supposes to be ‘true’. When Harry Truman said: ‘Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in..’. Truman meant: when Richard Nixon lies, he supposes he knows what is true. When inventing effective lies, he designs falsehoods under the guidance of truth. When all’s said and done, Richard Nixon, the no good lying bastard, knows the meaning of, and pays homage to, truth.

It follows that in a world without truth, lying would by definition disappear. We could no longer say ‘all politicians are bloody liars’. We could no longer accuse bogus think tanks and lobbyists of ‘handling the truth carelessly’. Emancipated from the scourge of lying, we might feel welcome relief, and propose three cheers, but that would be premature, for the disappearing of truth would entail several probable downsides for democracy.

Truth, clutching a mirror and a serpent (1896), in the Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The most obvious setback would be that the powerful, those who decide on behalf of others who gets what when and how, would find it much easier to get their way. Speaking truth to power, the originally 18th - century mantra of philosophers, journalists and citizens, always forced the powerful to do battle with public accusations of their illegitimacy. Talk of truth (she was often represented as a woman) was one of power’s limits, as I tried to show in two studies of power: the late 18th-century life and writings of Tom Paine (who triggered the Silas Deane affair, the first public scandal of the young American republic) and a history of power in 20th-century Europe centred on Václav Havel, a citizen playwright who courageously defied arbitrary power for several decades before 1989 in the name of the principle of ‘living in the truth’ (it was famously articulated in the essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’).

So the abolition of truth would abolish more than lying. Truth is a trope, but its champions can have unsettling and undermining effects on arrogant and powerful governors. In a world where (say) belief in God has lost its absolute grip, so that references to God no longer serve as a check upon hubris, ditching truth would require citizens and their (elected and unelected) representatives to lay down a powerful weapon when confronted by arbitrary power. The powerless would become more vulnerable to the powerful.

There would be a second consequence: a world that disregarded veracity would become vulnerable to the spread of bullshit. Advertising, public relations and political ‘announcables’ (Lindsay Tanner) are examples of bullshit. It’s a democratic phenomenon: every citizen, every politician, every organisation is supposed to have views on things, no matter how ill-conceived or carelessly put. I recommend to you Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. It argues that bullshit, carefully defined, is on the rise, and that we should worry our heads about bullshit because it is much more dangerous than lying. Why? This is because bullshit sends veracity packing. Take an example: consider an Anzac Day orator, who goes on bombastically about how great Australia is, and how the diggers who gave their lives, their guts and their blood, on foreign shores made us the greatest country in the world. The speaker isn’t trying to deceive the audience; the speaker doesn’t care what the audience thinks. Matters of what’s true and what’s false are irrelevant. The speaker as ‘bullshit artist’ wants simply to be seen as a good bloke, a patriot, sincere all the way down to his socks, or underpants. Sincerity is a form of bullshit. It’s a performance, sure, but like excrement, from which all nutrients have been removed, bullshit is empty speech. It’s ‘hot air’, improvised speech from which informative content and truth claims have been extracted. The abolition of truth, it follows, would most probably increase the volume and spread of bullshit, which would function (as it already does now) as fertiliser for publicly unaccountable, arbitrary power.

The disappearance, or the disappearing of truth, would feed a third trend in 21st-century media-saturated democracies: the growth of pockets of organised public silence about the operation of power. I’ve tried elsewhere to analyse the dynamics of public silence by examining Lehmann Bros, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima. These are recent examples of the troubling privatisation of power. Those in charge of their operations managed successfully to govern their organisations in silence – silence within and outside the organisation. This silence fed upon intensive public relations campaigns that had the knock-on effect of cocooning these large-scale power adventures. That nurtured group think by fabricating positive stories of their performance within media-saturated settings. In the end, we now know, the privatisation of power resulted in catastrophes.

I’d like to close by returning to the truth paradox with which I began. Democratic societies are today simultaneously undermining and clinging to talk of truth. Truth is a democratic trope. It’s as if democracies can neither live with nor live without clean-cut, straightforward truth. Can they live indefinitely with the ambiguity? Perhaps they can’t. Perhaps something has to give. Perhaps we’re heading backwards into a world where simple-minded or un-ironic belief in Truth will triumph, a world that enfranchises Certainties and Facts – a world that embraces the view that Truth is a plebiscite of Facts and Certainties, whose clear and vocal verdicts must be respected.

Perhaps political gravity will pull us in this direction. For more than a few reasons, I somehow doubt it, if only because something subtle is going on within democracies such as Australia. Without mincing words, might it be that the stubbornness of truth, people’s embrace of a retro-ideal, is feeding a fundamental pluralisation of its meaning, to the point where truth has many faces and, in consequence, the greatest foes of truth are not lies and ignorance but the illusion of a single Truth – like the Market, the Nation, Christianity or Islam?

If Truth is the great enemy of truths, then it follows that the only known human cure for the potentially deadly effects of singular Truth and, as it happens, the cure for lying, bullshit and silence, is what Greek democrats called parrhesia. By this I mean free-spirited talk, the bold circulation of differing viewpoints about what is true and false, challenges to bullshit or unwarranted public silence, in other words, courageous conjectures, corrective judgements, the institutional humbling of power by means of checks and balances placed on the merchants of Truth, Lying, Bullshit and Silence, all done with a strong sense that ‘truth’ has many faces.

Something like this democratic conception of the pluralism of truths was recommended by Wittgenstein. ‘Suppose it were forbidden to say “I know” and only allowed to say “I believe I know”’, he wrote in On Certainty. I’ve always loved that aphorism, which happens to be the founding core principle of the Dutch start-up crowd-funded news site de Correspondent. Soon to launch (in September), it’s already raised around $1.3 million (in 8 days!) through reader subscription pledges in advance. de Correspondent is in pursuit of a new and more pluralist understanding of ‘truth’ and ‘news’.

Its editor, Rob Wijnberg, explains that ‘news’ claiming to be ‘true’ and ‘objective’ is the great unrecognised addiction of our time. He insists that those who only see the world via ‘the news’ are unlikely to know how the world works, and that what is therefore needed is a digital experiment that presents news differently, from a variety of perspectives, more slowly, more contextually. ‘I don’t believe in “the news” in the objective sense of the word’, says Wijnberg. ‘You can describe the world in infinite ways, and “the news” happens to be one of them…I want the correspondents to make their choices explicit – what they do think is important, and why should readers care about it? You do that by making clear that you’re not following an objective news agenda, but a subjective journey through the world.’

One final remark about the political consequences of a plural and more ironic understanding of truth: if I’m right about the need for democrats to think in terms of a plurality of truths, then the whole ideal of ‘the informed citizen’ has to be abandoned. It has become an unhelpful cliché in discussions of media and politics. Engaged citizens whose heads are stuffed with unlimited quantities of “information” about a “reality” that they’re on top of: that’s an utterly implausible and – yes – anti-democratic ideal which dates from the late nineteenth century. Favoured originally by the champions of a restricted, educated franchise, and by interests who rejected partisan politics grounded in the vagaries and injustices of everyday social life, the ideal of the “informed citizen” was elitist. Today, it’s an intellectualist ideal. It’s unsuited to the age of plural truths, lying, bullshit and silence. It does not belong to times that badly need not ‘informed citizens’, but wise citizens who know that they are not the only ones who know that they do not know everything.