How I wish we could reclaim the concept again—that there are some truths we all share, and that those truths are “self-evident.”
When I was a grad student in the 1990s, relativism was orthodoxy—up to a point, rightly so. Questioning the orthodoxy of a singular, objective Truth that applies to all people, in all cultures and subcultures, and at all times, became a necessary key facet of twentieth-century thought. In The Postmodern Condition, philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard referred to the loss of “grand narratives”—singular stories that “explain everything.” Religious narratives are a prime example, but so are other “grand narratives,” such as scientific methodology, American exceptionalism, the forward march of progress, the inevitable triumph and inherent good of market capitalism, and so forth.
Distrust of such “meta-narratives" was a hallmark of what it meant to be on the side of social progress. We were taught, in grad school, to question truth claims based in an objective “reality,” since “reality” itself was seen as impossible to understand from anything other than a subjective viewpoint. Truth with the capital T was understood as a weapon of conformity, a way of policing minority viewpoints. Legitimizing world views with an appeal to an objective “reality” was seen as suspect. The stories of the marginalized—“mini-narratives,” provisional and highly contextualized—need to be heard as a counterpoint to cultural dominance.
Somewhere along the line, something seems to have flipped.
What happens when those with reactionary, hateful agendas begin to develop “mini-narratives” of their own, legitimizing their world views without reference to any concept of a “shared reality”? What happens when we accept “truths” as so relative, so provisional, so contextual, and “reality” as so subjective, that any story is considered as potentially valid as the next? What happens?
When my first-year writing students were brainstorming potential research topics using inquiry-based learning, I was stunned when a full third of the class came up “Did we really land on the moon?” as a potential “line of intellectual inquiry.” (I channeled my shock into writing a last-minute change in lesson plan for the next class session, on “identifying hoaxes.” When I asked my students what gave them this idea, several of them told me they had “researched it in high school,” prodded by teachers who told them there was “credible evidence” that the moon landing had been staged.)
During a class discussion in Banned Books regarding censorship, about a third of the students agreed with someone who said that Holocaust deniers deserve “equal time” in academic settings because we need to “hear both sides of the story.” (I channeled my shock into writing a last-minute change in lesson plan that I now call my “3E's” lecture: the importance of evidence and ethics in determining whether various stories are "equal.")
Despite my best efforts to emulate a microbe under attack by an antibiotic by trying to evolve to the next, presumably unassailable level, the hits just kept on coming.
Was Barack Obama really born in Kenya? Is Barack Obama secretly a Muslim? Is Michelle Obama really a man? Did Secret Security squads enter the homes of store clerks under cover over darkness and harass them for saying “Merry Christmas” to the shopping public? Was the Sandy Hook massacre an elaborate conspiracy staged by actors?
Right now, there are so many things careening wildly astray in our society that it’s hard to know where to start, what to write about, whether anything I write can possibly do any good beyond helping me organize and articulate my own thoughts. In the troubling days since November 8, this is the first piece of substantive writing I’ve even tried to do. So much to say. Too much to say. (For me, writer’s block has never been about not having ideas; it’s always been about having too many ideas, more than can be wrestled into the linear pattern of words, sentences, paragraphs.)
As I write, I’m already aware that whatever I choose to focus on, I’m glossing over things of importance—probably things of more importance than whatever I’m choosing to write about. In the coming days, I’ll try to write about those things too—about hatred, prejudice, bigotry, dehumanization. About fear, anger, ignorance, projection, deflection, avoidance, co-optation, complacency.
For today, just for now, I’m thinking about Truth. I’m thinking about why, if we’re going to take a stance for social progress, for humanization, for inclusivity, for kindness and wisdom, we need to reclaim some sense of a shared reality. And that truth must be built on the concept of a shared humanity.
Because when I read comment streams (inadvisable if one values mental health), or dare to look at postings that turn my stomach when I try to grasp the depth of some people’s hatred for certain of their fellow human beings, one thing (among many) that occurs to me is: People came to this election cycle grounded in two completely separate “realities,” marked by completely different “provisional truths” or “mini-narratives.” If we can’t legitimize what’s true or not true with reference to some kind of objective reality—however much we acknowledge the difficulty of achieving “objectivity”—then why not Holocaust denial? Why not neo-Nazism? Why not racist conspiracy theories? Why not racism? Why not all the other ills unleashed by 2016 that have been enumerated in such painful detail elsewhere?
A few years ago, I had major surgery requiring an overnight stay in the hospital. My “roommate” was a bitter elderly woman who, I was told, had been there for weeks. When I was rolled in, she asked her family members to blockade the door to our shared bathroom with hospital furniture so that I couldn’t access it. (When I complained to the nurses, they responded by bringing me antibacterial hand wipes and a bedpan, telling me, “There’s not much we can do about her.” I complained to my surgeon when he came by the next morning to discharge me. He hit the roof, reported the nurses to their supervisor, and sent me a letter of apology and a $50 gift card to the hospital gift shop—probably in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit should I end up with sepsis.)
But I digress. The other thing my “roommate” did was run Fox News on her television—24/7. (When I asked the nurses if she could turn the volume down at 2:00 a.m. so I could sleep, they offered me earplugs, telling me, “There’s not much we can do about her.”) For 24 hours, I was bombarded with the world view being offered, round the clock, day in and day out, to those who inhabit that particular "reality." Even through the morphine haze, I remember thinking, “If this is all I heard, all the time—and I believed it, because I lived in a world where there were no grounds for not believing it—I would be terrified. And, probably, angry.” Maybe even angry enough to blockade my hospital bathroom from being invaded by the patient in the bed next to me. Angry enough to deny the humanity of others.
Right now there is so much we need to do that it’s hard to know where to start. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to state that the world as we know it --or thought we did--has been ripped to shreds. And, as individuals, I think many of us fluctuate between wanting to fight, and fearing that it’s hopeless. Fearing that the little actions of one person aren’t going to amount to a “hill of beans” given the enormity of what we’re facing right now—the raw, unbridled power that now seems to be trained on any of us who care about concepts like justice, or compassion.
I don’t yet know if it’s hopeless or not. Some days I feel like there’s hope. Some days, I don’t.
But if we have any hope of having hope, it seems one thing we need to do is get back to the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth (even as we acknowledge that, due to the limits of human subjectivity, no single human being will ever have the sole “hold” on Truth). That we have to embrace, rather than resist, the idea that there are such things as right and wrong--however much we acknowledge the necessary complexity of determining that. That we have to redefine “morality”—not as the policing of consensual sex, as the term is too often understood now, but in broader ways, such as whether we are treating all people as fully human and acting in ways that promote the common good.
We need, once again, to find some truths that are self-evident.