“Everything is political.” “Knowledge is merely a power struggle.” ‘My job as a journalist is to tell my truth.” “Objectivity and seeing things from both sides are overrated notions.” “Hate speech is anything we hate.” These are just a few of the observations of that reveal our current crisis of knowledge and further deepen cultural and political divisions across the globe and in the USA.
In our data-saturated and wisdom-deficient age, the very notion of objective truth is questioned, with particular “narratives” gaining prominence over exploration of evidence, critical thinking, and continual modification of understanding. Humility demands that we are tentative about final conclusions of many matters, but this does not mean utter agnosticism or an absence of relative certainty.
Along with profound public contention, this subjective view of truth leads to devastating personal and social consequences. First, we are paralyzed by self-deception and unable to tell the truth to ourselves, lest our carefully-crafted, protective “safe space” be shattered by the laser-light of reality. We adopt (even unconsciously) feigned humility and smug confidence utterly unjustified by any empirical facts or rational reflection. “My opinion is just as good as yours!” is the petulant cry of infantile thinking, not an invitation to debate as maturing adults.
A second consequence of this subjectivity and solipsistic mindset is that we no longer voice our ideas to each other, with a view toward civil debate and growing in wisdom. We are quick to cancel, slow to listen, and hastily place people in categories that allow us to avoid hearing their thoughts. We assume way too much, instead of looking for common ground, nuance, and potential refinement of our own ideas. For example, in the (often simplistic) debates between capitalism and socialism, caricatures abound and reality is tossed out the window. Most thoughtful women and men do not want a return to Maoism or Stalinism (though it is surprising how many will exchange freedom for security!). Free-market thinkers do understand that personal and social ethics are at the heart of the confidence and trust needed for free exchange and opportunity. The Scandinavian nations are capitalistic with a large safety net (and rather small, homogenous populations), and have been cutting back on the size of government for a decade or more. We need economic debates – without the labeling and libeling.
A third consequence is building public policy on insufficient information. Partisan loyalty is prized over careful stewardship of public resources, and immediate power gains take priority over long-term fiscal and social consequences. For example, better stewardship of the environment is the right direction, but the apocalyptic rhetoric is leading to policies devasting to the working classes and enriching to high-tech firms that will parrot the party line. The progress of the last several decades and the resistance of non-Western empires to any change is ignored in favor of “climate catastrophe.” Anyone not emotionally engaged in this crisis is deemed a “denier” – placing their views parallel to Holocaust denial! Research? It only matters if it furthers the narrative of massive wealth transfer. Criticism? You are destroying the earth. We can do better than this.
Looking forward, there are three positive dispositions and disciplines that are helpful. First, we can choose humility, courage, and love as our foundations for fruitful learning and discourse. If our motives are right, our minds are open, and we desire for all others the opportunities and wisdom we enjoy, the world is a better place. Second, we must – with kindness and patience – refuse all attempts at intimidation and state our convictions and ideas and allow them to germinate, be refined, and be either discarded or improved. Finally, we can consciously and consistently dialogue with women and men who see the world quite differently. Minds may not immediately change, but friendships can form, arenas of cooperation be discovered, and exemplary civil discourse can help set the tone for coming generations.
Let’s tell the truth to ourselves and others.