There is something entirely “new under the sun” challenging our democracy.
And it isn’t polarization. As long as we think and speak with relative freedom, we will struggle to agree enough to make our democracy possible. This is one of the core tensions at the heart of democracy, and disagreements often become polarization.
Something different has emerged as a force in our democracy. This is the idea that truth is unnecessary, undesirable, or even impossible.
In the past, we have always assumed that there was one correct way to describe reality. The fight was always over which group’s description was accurate. Today, an emerging post-truth culture believes that accurate descriptions of reality are irrelevant, if they exist at all.
Post-truth culture is evident when we believe that the truth reduces to whatever each individual says it is, that there is no truth beyond individual opinion.
It is evident when we believe that, whatever the truth might be, it simply doesn’t make any difference to our national life, that we can get by without it.
It is evident when we reduce truth to power, believing that “truth” changes with political leadership.
All of these ideas have been around for some time; it is their popularity that is new.
Why autocrats love post-truth culture
Post-truth culture is a direct threat to social life at every level, whether it be family, community or nation. Without a significant level of agreement on the nature of things, there is no basis for general agreement on anything, no basis for social life itself.
Authoritarian leaders resolve this problem by filling the vacuum with their own truth and eliminating critique.
Democratic governments must develop a different approach if they are to avoid crumbling into warring factions or transformation into authoritarian governments. Diverse subcultures can only respect each other when they stand together on a substantial, shared foundation of truth — generally held agreement on the nature of things.
So, how can democracies today nurture social and cultural diversity while also shoring up their shared sense of the truth?
We all share at least one thing: the truth itself
One first step is to recognize a cause of our current dilemma: communication via the internet.
Each day we drown in a tsunami of internet information. We are unable to navigate through all of this. As we choose our route, background (invisible to us) algorithms channel available destinations. The incentive for channeling our search is, ultimately, profit. Social well-being? Not so much.
In our economy, if we pay for our own individual information feeds, they will be personalized to maximize our enjoyment. It’s easy to see how we can all end up living in our own, customized versions of reality, maintained by a continuous stream of confirming evidence, safe from the irritating influence of people with different ideas.
In order to tame this beast, in the service of democracy, we must gain a clearer perspective on truth itself, as part of the human experience. We are all so busy maintaining and promoting our current, favorite version of the truth that we rarely, if ever, take the time to examine what we are doing.
If there is one thing that we still share in common about the truth, it is that we all do it. Let’s begin there. What do we find when we step back and observe ourselves creating agreement on the nature of reality? What does negotiating the truth — let’s call it “truthing”, or truth behavior — look like?
Focusing on truth rather than on “truths”: what truthing looks like
We have the tools to begin answering these questions. Consider some of what we already know from social science:
1. Truthing (truth behavior) is universal; it is a characteristic of every human person and human group of which we are aware. In other words, truthing is necessary for social life. We must agree enough to be able to coordinate our lives together.
2. Truth is organized in levels. Families form communities by achieving commonly-held assumptions and beliefs; there is no community without this. Nations exist to the extent that institutions, organizations, communities, etc., share a vision of the true nature of things. No generally-held truths, no nation.
3. Every family, every community, every nation — has, to a certain extent, a different set of truths from every other family, community or nation.
4. Every group, at every level, believes that its own description of reality is superior to all the alternatives. Every group has its own explanation and source for why this is so.
5. Humanity has no universally agreed upon way for assessing whether one group’s truth is more accurate or “better” than another’s.
6. Every group takes much of their agreement on the nature of things for granted. We are unaware of much of what we do share.
7. Every group’s set of truths is constantly changing, at all levels, to at least some degree.
These seven points seem to confirm that the truth really is whatever we say it is. We have no generally agreed upon, absolute source to guide us, or any guarantee of the certainty or ultimate accuracy of any group’s “true” beliefs. However, there is an additional, essential characteristic of truthing that puts all of this into perspective.
8. We cannot make up the truth any way that we wish — at least, we can’t and still survive as individuals, as a society, or as a species. This is not a theoretical point; it is a practical, every day, moment by moment, reality.
The bottom line
Absolute truth, the actual nature of reality, is, ultimately, bigger than our capacity to imagine it.
At the same time, we can’t effectively join together to enable our everyday existence — for even one day, hour, or moment — unless we can, together, describe reality with sufficient accuracy.
The solution? We must negotiate and share the most accurate descriptions of reality that we can, together, imagine, even though we never get it exactly right.
Let’s call this the principle of utility. We can believe that the world is flat until this belief is no longer useful. We can deny the existence of a virus or bacteria only by increasing our risk of infection. We do not have the luxury of creating the truth in any way that we wish.
Living with uncertainty: factual truth and democracy’s common ground
What does all of this teach us about building the common ground of truth necessary for democracy? I see three lessons:
· We must begin with what we are most likely to agree on: everyday reality. Let’s call our most accurate beliefs about everyday reality “facts”, or factual truths. In a democracy, factual truths are especially important, given that we might agree on little else. A first step in creating common ground is to agree on what facts are, on how they are created, and on our commitment to those facts.
· We must commit to fact creation in the face of constant uncertainty. There is no universally agreed upon source that can guarantee the ultimate accuracy of any of our beliefs, including our factual truths. What we take to be facts on one day can prove to be inaccurate on the next. Creating and maintaining our base of factual truths requires constant change and adjustment; we cannot let uncertainty and occasional failure distract us from this task.
· This common ground of factual knowledge — the basis of our democracy’s national truth — must coexist with and enable thriving cultural diversity, including diversity of beliefs and values.
How do we achieve these three goals?
I believe that the answer lies, “under our noses”, in the civil institutions that we have already developed in our national experience.
What do you believe?