Truth Be Told – I
by Michael Brenner on 24 Feb 2020 1 Comment

A series of short essays on themes related to “Truth” and “Untruth” in contemporary culture.  


Truth supposedly is the object of our desires. Yet the supply always exceeds the demand. That anomaly is the point of departure for this collection of thoughts. Everyone talks about the truth, but most shy from it when presented. Puzzles of this nature prompted me to reflect on how truth, in its manifold forms, figures in the social psychology of individuals and cultures. The inclination to pursue the subject also stems from an awareness of truth’s progressive scarcity in public discourse.


Truth avoidance, whether through lying or dissembling or a myriad of other ways, is now the norm rather than the exception. The very idea of truth is in jeopardy. Public persons exploit - wittingly or not - the growing sense that the actual and the virtual are interchangeable. Our leaders’ dishonesty with themselves at times matches dishonesty in dealing with others. This phenomenon conforms to larger social trends in our so-called post-modern societies.


We all live by myths and legends. They abbreviate the universe for us. Rare indeed is the individual who seeks understanding animated by some inner drive to comprehend all - in whole or in its constituent parts. The freethinking truth-seeker is an oddity. Humans have only so much tolerance for the truth. Considerations of convenience and comfort are the main reason. Where the threshold of tolerance lies is a function of personality, intelligence, education, instrumental need and circumstances.


Many of the untutored and uninformed orient themselves by a crude mental map haphazardly cobbled together from bits and pieces of inherited folk wisdom, partially digested fragments from schoolroom days, the biases of their community, and eventful life experiences. It suffices so long as they don’t encounter things that either defy the coordinates of that simple mental map or are simply beyond them. It may take the form of a novel situation (a daughter’s racially uncongenial friend), an unprecedented event/problem (9/11), abuse by a trusted institution (the Catholic priesthood), a perversion of core patriotic values (torture and spying in the name of fighting terror), or an unfathomable personality (Barack Obama / Donald Trump). The natural reaction is to hold onto the old map ever more tightly while fending off the dangerous intruder by denouncing it with angry outbursts of frustration. The intellectual resources and secure self-esteem needed to cope with the novel just aren’t there.


Encounter with the novel can cause confusion and consternation for the uninformed. It threatens to undermine their sense of how the world works and what value to attach to things. The anxiety produced may be all the greater when the new information/perception is sensed to be a forerunner of other, more unsettling ideas. For while a single discreet change in one’s bearings can be made as a tactical adjustment, the prospect of being faced with an alteration in the reference marks for navigating the world on a routine basis is intolerable. That increases the anxiety at upsetting one’s orientation. Convenience and comfort are endangered - and with them the hard-won peace of mind that comes with acceptance of limits on what one knows and can know.


Most people manage to function with extreme mental myopia. That is to say, the world around them looks fuzzy except for persons and things close to them and/or who have been part of their direct experience. The rest lacks clear definition. Signals emanate from their surroundings, but they are received serially either as discrete bits of unfiltered data or placed unconsciously in a crude framework of explication. It is a rough amalgam of half-baked ideas, simplistic versions of some ideology, and salient personal events. The net effect may be that most people nowadays are not much different from their fellows in earlier ages.


On the plus side, they are literate, have access to infinitely more sources of information, and personally encounter more aspects of the social universe. That said, their mental apparatus, and emotional resilience for making sense of what they encounter has not improved commensurately. Moreover, the desire to more fully comprehend may be weak for reasons stemming from the assault on an ever-fragile sense of self by a plethora of stimuli. Hence, the compulsion to insulate oneself from a complicated, confusing environment is strong. So is the inclination to order it in narrow, stereotypical terms as necessary. In the process, truth is liable to degrade. That can take extreme forms. In present day America, concepts like liberty, free enterprise and the pursuit of happiness have suffered that fate.


As Dostoevsky foretold: “You cannot imagine what sorrow and anger seize one’s whole soul when a great idea, which one has long and piously revered, is picked up by some bunglers and dragged into the street, to more fools like themselves, and one suddenly meets it in the flea market, unrecognizable, dirty, askew, absurdly presented, without proportion, without harmony, a toy for stupid children.” - Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons


We find it far easier to recognize and accept fresh insight into others than into ourselves. ‘They’ are part of the external world that we can objectify to a degree. How much affect we feel toward others does have a bearing on our openness to better understanding of ‘who’ they are and our confidence evaluating their conduct. Dispassion about our own identity and qualities is of another order. After all, self-examination requires us to be at once subject and object. The essence of our being, and the pivot of our behavior, falls into existential doubt. The very act of reflection, of inner scrutiny, ipso facto changes who we are, in some way, to some immeasurable degree. That is discomforting. In extremes, we become agent, subject and receiver of our untruths.


Our minds are designed to forget as much as to remember - for good reason. Among the brain’s functions is to sift what is relevant and useful from the rest. If we did not routinely do so, our mind and emotions would be overwhelmed by a kaleidoscope of data, ideas and images. Purposeful behavior would be impossible. This filtering process does not necessarily involve insulating ourselves from the world around us. However, a narrowing of the aperture through which it registers on our consciousness does occur. It is reinforced by the multiple processes of socio-cultural conforming. Often, it is related to aging.


In a world like ours there is an incongruity between the extraordinarily numerous and varied stimuli and a steady narrowing of the slit through which they enter our awareness. A cultivated insularity is the cause. An insularity that has little if anything to do with introspection as self-reflection. That, in turns, leads to disengagement from public life in all its aspects.

-        When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.

-        When there is freedom of speech, I’ve found that the majority of people really have       nothing to say. - Yevgeny Yevtushenko


The genius of organized society lies in sustained accomplishments that are far beyond the capacities of the flawed and limited individuals who compose it. Vital to its doing so are similar ways of understanding the environment: social, physical and cosmological. This shared ‘truth’ about the world and how it operates underlies and extends further than the shared norms and expectations that govern routine social intercourse. The individual and the collectivity are both served. The latter achieves necessary coherence and congruence among its members.


Individuals acquire a set of meanings by which to make sense of a universe that they have very little native ability to comprehend. They also are blessed with the solidarity of their fellows that reinforces learned truths while succoring them. Only truly exceptional persons can find adequate intellectual and emotional sustenance without being deeply enmeshed in social relations. That is to say, to depend on society for human comfort and company. Or some subset of it – e.g. the Tea Party.


Truth, for the most part, is elastic, relative, and divisible. It comes under numerous labels, is taken in variable doses, and in forms ranging from the simple to the complex. Apart from ethicists and scientists, Truth is not absolute or an abstract. ‘Sufficing’ behavior is a term coined in regard to public policy-making. It connotes sufficiency - of means to reach sub-optimal outcomes. Accurate knowledge, that is to say truth, is sought to make it possible to do so. Truth sufficient unto the day and sufficient unto the task is valued. A search for greater precision, certainty or completeness is worthwhile only when the investment of time, energy and resources improves the odds on getting a markedly superior outcome. Making that effort turns on an implicit cost/benefit/ probability calculus. Truth as knowledge and/or understanding then can be seen as a commodity whose value fluctuates with need for it and expectation that it can be obtained.


(To be concluded…)

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