Without truth, the sleep of reason produces monsters

by John MacBeath Watkins

The way the word "truth" is used in ordinary language, it seems to mean, "that which I believe without question." Yet it is often discussed as if it were something outside of human consciousness, a sort of metaphysical monster that guarantees that we will have something to hang onto in a world of conflicting claims.

But what if, like other words, it is simply one of the categories we use to think with? Would that make it any less essential or powerful?

Compare this to property. We know that property is not objects, which exist whether they are owned or not. Property is a concept that allows us to build customs and institutions that regulate the desire to possess things, and reduce conflict over who gets to use what.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes - The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43), from Los Caprichos - Google Art Project.jpg
"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"
Let's consider truth the same way. The world exists, and events occur, whether we know of them or not, just as object exist whether we own them or not. Truth is a concept that allows us to build customs and institutions that regulate our desire to know things, and to share that knowledge. When we speak the truth, we are making a claim that we have made a good-faith effort to ascertain the facts, and that we are making a good-faith effort to communicate what we have learned. If I look at the thermometer and announce that the temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit, I am making a good-faith report based on a perception I trust, of an instrument I trust. The reading on the thermometer is a physical fact, which can be referenced by others who doubt my perception.

We all know how to lie. It is one of those useful social skills that can save us from conflict or help us get what we want. There are those who think that, because we sometimes have difficulty knowing truth, that there is really no such thing, in which case all language is about power and persuasion, and none is about truth.

One of the more jaw-dropping moments in recent American politics was when Donald Trump-supporting CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes said:
“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts, and so Mr. Trump's tweet, amongst a certain crowd — a large part of the population — are truth."
She was referring to President Trump's preposterous claim that he had only lost the popular vote by 2% because 3 million illegal immigrants had voted for Hillary Clinton.

The man Hughes was defending alleged that the father of one of his Republican opponents was involved in the Kennedy assassination, and that Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, would go to jail if he was elected. When asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter if his rhetoric had gone too far, he replied, "No. I won."

But truth is not about winning. Truth can be powerful, but it is not about power. When we say something and claim it is true, we are making a claim about our intentions and our sincerity in speaking. We're saying that we are not trying to make excuses, or manipulate the listener, and we are saying we are not in doubt, that we sincerely believe what we are saying, and that we have arrived at that belief by trying to conform it to the known facts.

The claim that we are telling the truth may itself be a lie, but we know what kind of lie it is. It is a lie about our intentions, or the extent of our knowledge. The claim that we speak the truth is a claim of good faith, and the claim that someone is lying is a claim that they are speaking in bad faith.

Ms. Hughes was making a claim about facts that is fatuous at best and bad faith at worst. Her claim is that because many people believe something, it is true, even though they may believe something said in bad faith by a fabulist with only the most tenuous grasp of truth himself.

But strangely enough, people may "believe" something for reasons having nothing to do with truth. Some beliefs become tribal markers. People on the far right tend not to believe in anthropomorphic climate change, regardless of the evidence presented, not because they are sincerely trying to understand what is happening in the physical world, but because in their own social milieu, such a belief is necessary for social acceptance. 

Perversely, the more peculiar a belief is, the more effective a tribal marker it can be. To believe President Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. even after all the evidence of his birth in Hawaii had been presented was to show yourself to be part of a certain group, known as birthers.

But this belief is not based on a good-faith effort to ascertain the facts. It is a belief held in the face of contradictory evidence and in spite of it. People may assert that they believe it without question, but what is lacking is the good-faith effort to align their belief with the known facts. This is a belief that defies facts in the service of a cause: For holders of this belief, Mr. Obama could not be a legitimate president, therefore he had to be in some way disqualified from being a legitimate president. The birther belief system is not about truth, it is about power, and it is no surprise that one of its adherents came into the presidency intent on destroying any legacy that may have stemmed from the two terms of our first African-American president.

It is one instance of the fact that the lies people believe together can be stronger than the truth we know alone, because it can lead to collective action.

Donald Trump first came to political prominence as a birther. It should therefore be no surprise that his strongest adherents are people who would prefer that there should be no such thing as facts, because they get in the way of using language in the service of power.

Truth can subvert power. We can know things about our leaders that disqualify them from leading, we can know things that make their policies seem wrong-headed or even corrupt. Those who would make it seem impossible to know truth are attempting to suppress it.

Truth requires effort to ascertain facts and sincerity in reporting them. A passive and cynical people are easily led, because they will not make the effort or trust the sincerity required for truth. Those who report on Vladimir Putin's methods in ruling Russia say that he does not so much try to foster a particular set of beliefs as try to create an environment in which no one can discern the truth.

The more poisonous our politics become, the harder it is to maintain a place in our public discourse for truth. But politics is the means by which our individual moral judgments become the rules and policies we all must live by. To have that process corrupted would be fatal to our politics. 

We must have truth to which we may apply our reason; otherwise, how are we to agree on the rules and policies our moral judgments point toward? Without truth, reason slumbers, and the sleep of reason produces monsters.


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