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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.

Join the conversation

54 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    ah the old paradox of truth and lies........

    the philosophical meanderings that made philosophy what it is today.

    "does truth matter in politics today" - s'pose who it is you are talking to.

    may as well ask "does obfuscation matter in politics today".

    and the line "bullshit is on the rise".......dear oh dear. old fashioned religion from centuries gone past was the height of bullshit (if you ask me). the divine right of kings was bullshit. and so on.

    i think this article is best summed up by a long from the song...

    "you say it best when you say nothing at all" - now that's philosophy.

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      So far the worst sentence written in 2013"
      "There’s a quantum turn going on, a pluralisation of people’s lived perceptions of the world and 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…

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    2. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Or you could try to understand what's being said Kim - analyst are you?

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  2. Suzy Gneist
    Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

    Fantastic article, thank you. Love your description of the bullshit meme.
    Also the references to ongoing issues kept in silence when it would be in everyone's interest to remain on top of developments or lack thereof (the ongoing two-year old Fukushima meltdown being only one extreme example).
    What I'd love to add to this is that just as there isn't one singular truth, but overlapping truths as there are many overlapping futures, the same counts for such misconceptions as 'objective' science. There can be no such thing (and quantum physics supports this) and our ongoing belief in the idea of a universal scientific 'truth'.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      who believed in the idea of a universal scientific truth in the first place...

      must have been a philosopher

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    2. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      You'll find it requested, sometimes stated, in response to discussions on complex issues, Einstein failed to find it, but many still seem to believe that what we know now is equal to 'a' truth, rather than being a small part of a many-layered reality or truths.

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    3. George Harley

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Bit harsh there. Nobel laureate (Physics-quantum electrodynamics) Richard Feynman "I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics". Scientists must be the only group on the planet with a fall back position of "We don't know".
      Regards

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    4. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to George Harley

      Hi George, did you know it has been found that primary school children can grasp the concepts of QM better than adults? Maybe they have the advantage of a still open mind and less preconceptions about 'reality' :)
      When it comes to "we don't know' we're all in the same boat as the amount of knowledge we've accumulated is infinitesimal in the face of what there is to know. We know a little (it may seem much to an individual) and may even know a few things we don't know but the majority of knowledge is still in the 'we don't know what we don't know' field which always amuses me when someone insists that we know all there is to know about any particular subject. We kid ourselves if we think we know most of what there is to know.

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    5. George Harley

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      The words quantum mechanics (or variants) are often used in discussions. It is readily apparent when the user has no idea what it means. Deepak Chopra springs to mind.

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    6. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to George Harley

      I think most people have a real problem to accept the uncertainty principle because it plays havoc with their worldview composed of perceived certainties - which is why I believe children can grasp this better since their worldview usually still allows for uncertainty.
      But maybe you are making assumptions? I'm not that familiar with Chopra so can't comment. When it comes to mainstream access to QM concepts, I have recommended Gary Zukav's Dancing Wu Li Masters to non-scientific friends in the past :) more accessible than Feynman Et al.

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    7. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to George Harley

      I have.
      As a native German speaker I realise the difficulties of translating some concepts clearly, I find the same applies to philosophers like Kant or Nietzsche, not just scientists. I try to use terms that are commonly used when possible - all a word can ever convey is a limited idea open to interpretations. That's why misunderstandings are so common, particularly in written exchanges.

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    8. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to George Harley

      >> Scientists must be the only group on the planet with a fall back position of "We don't know". ,,

      Except for those pretending to be a scientist - they know.

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    9. George Harley

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      You inferred incorrectly. I used that term in quotation marks because in context "They don't know" would be ungramatical.
      Regards

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  3. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    From http://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/8/icelandic_lawmaker_birgitta_jonsdottir_on_challenging
    "BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: I don’t know. We can’t get it unsealed, by request by the U.S. government. And we’ve taken it again and again to court to try to unseal it, because they say the U.S. government says to the judge that they have investigative interests, or they don’t want me to know because they’re investigating. But they won’t tell me what they’re investigating. And I have been told by the Department…

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  4. Andee Jones

    Author and retired psychologist and academic at University of Melbourne

    Thank you for this piece John. Speaking of 'organised public silence about the operation of power', what about the black hole that consumes, before it hits the ground, public critique of the now-corporatised university? Where, in the corridors of The Conversation, can be found 'bold circulation of differing viewpoints' about whether, for example, the 2010-Boyer-lecturer-and-Vice-Chancellor was talking bullshit? I hope I’m wrong, but I believe I know that power will be speaking to truth if you try talking about it here. Ref Australian Universities Review, 55, 1, 69-71 http://www.aur.org.au/current

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  5. Pat Moore

    gardener

    That beautiful image of barefooted Truth holds a mirror, presumably of true reflection and subsequent thought and a serpent of wisdom which is the accumulated learning granted from the consideration upon that reflection of the true? Maybe the curious reversed image of mirroring is the thing which dialectically delivers the truths unto Truth?

    She is struggling for visibility now in the darkness cast by the massive cryptotyranny of the current global corporate empire with its hijacking and corruption of political process and representation, its harnessed organs of public media and its privatised insertion of thinktank culture into the bodypolitic all of which spread blankets of lies upon silenced truths.

    "Man is wolf to man" and "humanity is everywhere in chains" are eternal truths?

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    1. Lynne Newington

      Researcher

      In reply to Pat Moore

      I never questioned barefooted truth [my understanding thereof] until I came across Mental Reservation.
      It's what is used by the Catholic inner sanctum when one doesn't exactly lie or tell the truth, an evil tool of trade.

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    2. John Rutherford

      Worker

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Just like one mans trash is another mans treasure,One mans truth is another mans lie.That`s why a free and unrestricted internet is now and will be moreso in the future one of mans most valuable tools for finding what ever truth he seeks. The real danger lies in the mass media where large corporations and the powerful ( read controlling and fearful) individuals who run them feed the general population their own version of what is GOSPEL..! Just like religion centuries ago
      I like the idea of 226…

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  6. George Harley

    Retired Dogsbody

    Truth will never matter in any democracy that is based upon major parties engaging in an adversarial, winner take all dog fight. Partisanship and ideologies are inimical to a reasoned debate, let alone truth. Let's try 226 independents in our parliament for one term.

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    1. George Harley

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Then all we have to worry about is should a democratic truth be an average or a median. It's doin' me 'ead in. :/

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to George Harley

      I will warily agree with Ms Gneist on this one; 226 truths from 226 independents would equal utter chaos. Imagine Australia having 226 foreign policies or 226 defence policies.

      Gerard Dean

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    3. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Sorry, Gerard, you misunderstood me - I believe that negotiating policy among 226 independents would actually give us a more democratic outcome than just using one party world view and disregarding all others. I don't see chaos, rather true(r) representation and from what I have seen of most independents, they are quite capable of representing the views of their electorate and negotiate decisions without descending into chaos and disagreements.

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      sooner or later alliances would be formed and then block voting would happen and then -
      well back to the future.

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    5. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      alliances will always form since people always have more in common than what divides them, especially in a coherent group (like a community or nation) - but this would move away from the (antagonistic) oppositional, ideological party model towards a consensus model - preferable in my view.

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  7. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    is the truth really the truth, if not then is the truth a lie.
    and is a lie really a lie, if not is it then the truth.

    from Now & Zen by
    Mer C Sakes

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    1. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I always see dialectics as a continuum rather than opposites, in which case every truth contains its opposite to some degree just as every lie has to contain its opposite to be even slightly believable - it makes a lot more sense to me than the either/or separation.
      So truth/lie are individually attributed meanings, some of which are based on shared experiences - both exist simultaneously :)

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      but sometimes argument for argument's sake is a little wearing.

      navel gazing has it's place, but in today's world we need a little more resolve than worrying about whether there is truth in politics - as you say there is probably both truth and lies, so let's just leave it at that and get on with other things like education, environment, economics.

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  8. Russell Hamilton

    Librarian

    Well, I was enjoying that - right up 'till the last paragraph: "the whole ideal of ‘the informed citizen’ has to be abandoned"

    No! No! No!, as Mrs Thatcher said. So much for books, libraries, Radio National, all we need is My Kitchen Rules, or Dancing with the Stars.

    We do need informed citizens - it starts in schools and hopefully continues all through life. We need to teach people how to inform themselves. It is no more an elitest concept than that people should know how to read and write…

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  9. Leigh Burrell

    Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

    "the whole ideal of ‘the informed citizen’ has to be abandoned."

    You mean informed or omniscient? Sounds like the latter by the way you're carrying on.

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  10. David Stephens

    Writer and activist

    Will have to print this off and read it thoroughly. I am debating with myself whether it is possible to have honest history and a disquisition on truth may help. Bullshit and Anzac leapt out though, even from a quick scan. Aren't we in for a lathering from the Colonel Blimps as we approach the centenary of the war to end war?

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  11. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Amongst the dross a diamond, '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?'

    I will remember that Professor, especially when you claim to tell me the truth in future.

    Gerard Dean

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  12. ian cheong

    logged in via email @acm.org

    For as long as five year olds earn to lie, we will have to deal with the consequences of "less than truth" in the interests of individuals seeking money or power.

    This problem will never go away.

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  13. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    Thanks John - at once entertaining, confronting and thought provoking. This is going into my dictionary of quotes immediately :

    '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.'

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    1. Lynne Newington

      Researcher

      In reply to John Newton

      Does anyone remember when a man's word was his honour, sometimes sealed with a handshake.
      Imagine parents brought up with that menality today trying to deal with society and rearing children.
      The children are eaten alive.

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  14. Derek Bolton

    Retired s/w engineer

    "free-spirited talk, the bold circulation of differing viewpoints about what is true and false, challenges to bullshit or unwarranted public silence"
    That would be wonderful, of course, but how to arrange it and to know that it is operational? In an age of astroturfing and narrow media ownership, we may have the appearance of such an ideal without the reality (whatever that is).
    Even then, what does it benefit to hear many different views on a subject such as, say, climate change, in which most people are not able to judge which is right? In the end, we all have to decide whom to trust. To help with that, I see great merit in teaching critical thinking as a priority in schools. Asking cui bono would be a good start.

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  15. Joseph Bernard

    Director

    Excellent topic and thank you.

    the truth is most often a multi-dimensional complex series of perspectives.

    but the word itself "truth" is used to paint the world as being flat. The use of the word "truth" should almost be banned.

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  16. Michel Syna Rahme

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    With great respect I have a question Mr Keane. There could be things I'm not aware of, or have misunderstood, that simply make my questions below null and void, but hay that's life.

    "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…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Michel Syna Rahme

      truth is what ever you want it to be....
      evolution is not a truth for some people
      nor is truth itself

      a mentally "challenged" person can have their view of the truth and who is to say that isn't valid.

      you and i might see a beautiful day with the sun shining and the birds singing - to a person in a hospital bed dying of cancer, no day is beautiful.

      so indeed what is truth if not unfathomable.

      it's a bit like modesty - when you think you have it - you've lost it.

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    2. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "truth is what ever you want it to be.... "

      Yes, of course .... millions of people may have been killed in the holocaust, or not.

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  17. Tim Niven
    Tim Niven is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Chinese Student and EFL Teacher at Tzu Chi University, Hualien City, Taiwan

    Thanks for the read, John - I particularly like your counterfactual approach.

    It would indeed be a funny world if we gave up on truth. There's that unfortunate strand in philosophy, following Hume, which takes values to be an expression of wholly subjective taste - where the statement "voting Liberal is the right thing to do" is no more intellectually meaningful than "I like the blue one". But of course if I make a political statement, I'm really saying that I believe it to be true in some…

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    1. Tim Niven
      Tim Niven is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Chinese Student and EFL Teacher at Tzu Chi University, Hualien City, Taiwan

      In reply to Tim Niven

      I should also add my support for your democratic approach. As I say, we don't need to occupy some esoteric, Arhcimedean Point of privilege to play at truthy politics - so the unwashed rabble such as myself, we can have a crack at it. But of course you can be better and worse at it. So education should equip people with the epistemological tools to do better not worse. Not telling people what the truth is, but teaching them how to get at it. I'm yet to meet someone I think lacks the capacity, no matter how many times I hear Joe Hockey speak.

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  18. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Some of this was a challenging read but I enjoyed the article and agree with the argument presented .

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  19. Simon Allen Longstaff

    Executive Director at St James Ethics Centre

    I read this piece by John Keane quite a few days ago - and have been wrestling with its implications ever since. There is much with which I agree (especially concerning the importance of Wittgenstein's arguments for the centrality of 'inter-subjective agreement'. However, I felt a particular concern when i read Keane's conclusion that, "the whole ideal of ‘the informed citizen’ has to be abandoned". Indeed, I think that it is essential to democracy that we hold in mind the ideal of the informed citizen…

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