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170. Dispersion (III)

A common error that occurs when people discuss politics—or anything, for that matter—is that one side, usually both, will assert that they possess “the truth”. “The truth about transsexualism is that there are two sexes, male and female: this is what the science and tradition say. If you think otherwise, you’re retarded, a liar, or possibly both.” The position misleads, though it is popular: almost everyone claims to be a truth-teller; from Jordan Peterson to Noam Chomsky, we are told that it is a virtue to speak the truth—especially to power. There is even a whole style of YouTube video and online headline called: “The truth about…” To which, though I have used the form myself, I always raise an eyebrow and think: “Oh, really…” Leave aside for a moment the ways in which power can distort what we consider to be truth, and how often we speak power to truth—let us concentrate on this idea of “truth” or, more pernicious, “the truth”.

What people mean when they say “speak the truth” is often more like “be honest”: it is possible to be entirely honest and never speak the truth, to be honestly wrong—you could be misinformed or take sincere wrong guesses at what is the case. Honesty is really a special case of truth where we are truthful about what we think or feel; yet not everything honestly expressed—except feelings—is necessarily true, just truly expressed. Peterson comes close to this distinction when he says, “Tell the truth, or at least do not lie.” His mistake is that he puts the accent on “the truth”. Solzhenitsyn, his idol, was wiser when he said: “Live not by lies.” For Solzhenitsyn the commitment not to lie was the salient issue—refuse to participate in lies. He did not advise people to “tell the truth”—probably because he realised that it is very difficult to say what “the truth” is.

Insofar as we establish truth or truths, our actions are reductive: we remove error, we remove the extraneous—as with the simplification of an equation or when we discount anomalous eyewitness testimony. As Sherlock Holmes put it: “Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The idea that the truth or truths relate to a positive state or position—something that is possessed—conceals the negative nature of the pursuit of truth. The idea that a person has “truth” or “the truth” leads to the exclusion of contradictory evidence and inference: “I have the truth now, why should I worry?” Wisdom is almost entirely negative: it is a list of what not to do; the Ten Commandments are a list of thou shalt not—not a list of thou shall. For this reason, most self-help books are useless: we would really benefit from a list of one thousand actions the rich and successful learned do not work, but humans conceal failure and want to know positive steps to success—it is difficult to sell wisdom, it is the province of religion.

In most cases, it is dishonesty that is pernicious: when people know that a situation is so, but they sense a chance to exploit others through conscious concealment—either by commission, but usually by omission. The liar invents falsehoods; but there is another, more pernicious type, the type that withholds information and then exploits the asymmetry his concealment creates. This is a masculine trait: women do not know the difference between truth and lies, so when they lie they believe it entirely, even their complete fabrications—only stupid men fabricate, most men withhold information and exploit the asymmetry. This type, in a world of bureaucracies and large corporations, is the typical man; his existence gives credence to conspiracy theories, because it is all too common for information to be concealed by an emergent conspiracy of silence—keep that to yourself, lad (wink, wink). In short, reduce error to increase truth, but you will never have the truth.


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