From time to time this blog will wax philosophical and grapple with the hard questions – and today we consider the question posed by Pontius Pilate to Jesus: What is Truth? I’ve always thought Pilate got a bad press; he didn’t after all want to condemn Jesus and like any politician he was just looking for a way out. In the end it was the Pharisees who killed Jesus; the Romans were merely the instrument, though god knows they were hardly pacifists.
It’s easier in a way to say what truth is not: or perhaps where it is not. It is not in government briefings, that’s for sure – these have not been so much economical with the truth as austere with it. It is not in any of Dominic Cummings’ ‘explanations’ of his recent outings (this episode of Have I Got News for You takes him apart brilliantly). There is a saying that truth will out, and sometimes it seems accurate. But it doesn’t always. Will we ever know who Jack the Ripper really was? Or why Dominic Cummings actually went to Barnard Castle?
Truth is like gold; it must be tested before being accepted as real. Truth can come from any source, though trust must count for something and those who lie for a living must expect to be routinely disbelieved even when they tell the truth (a stopped clock is right twice a day, it’s just that without another clock you can’t tell when.)
Is beauty truth, as Keats put it? And if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does that mean truth is there also? The trouble with where we are now is that truth is plural. There’s your truth and my truth, and they run on parallel lines or else go off at tangents. There may seem to be a consensus but as social media highlights, there are raging whirlwinds of opinion in all corners of society. Yes, everyone has a right to be heard; but not all opinions are equally valid, and without proper debate the truth of them can never be tested. We’ve moved from a situation where only the elite were purveyors of truth – like dealers in indigo in ancient Rome – to a situation where everyone has their opinion and the winner is the one who can shout – or shoot – the loudest. It may look like freedom but it’s actually a free-for-all: equality plus competition equals mayhem.
What then do we need? I would respectfully suggest the following list, which is far from exhaustive:
That no-one, not even scientists, has a monopoly on truth. Truth may come from anywhere but, like scientific theory, needs to be subjected to rigorous debate and testing.
That the polarisation of debate leads to a fragmented and chaotic society. I generally do not unfriend people I disagree with on Facebook (unless they become abusive) but the tendency of Facebook to become an echo chamber tends towards the maximum.* Unless we’re careful we can spend all our time talking to people who agree with us or abusing those who don’t.
That we need open, honest and above all respectful debate. Everyone, no matter who they are or what their position in society, has the right to an opinion. But like scientific data these opinions must be tested rigorously, by being subject to question and debate. It is not a denial of someone’s free speech to suggest that they are talking bollocks; nor is it abusive to demolish their argument. But all too quickly such debates end in abuse.
That we need more face-to-face contact. People are rarely as rude in real life as they are on social media; plus the extra-linguistic factors help to convey what mere printed words cannot. Tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, body language – these all help us to understand what the other person is saying, and emojis are no substitute.
This is not rocket science. So when lockdown ends, let’s get to it!
* The second law of socioodynamics, perhaps?
And guess what I found after posting this? I found this: