Truth - a slippery concept

Mahatma Gandhi said:

“Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologise for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

I came across this quote by chance in a blog headed “In these dark days…speak your truth”. Not, on the face of it, quite the same thing, even if what Gandhi said could also be interpreted as making a belief the same as truth.

But it seems that it’s a confusion of thought which has royal approval - from the Queen of American TV, Oprah Winfrey. It was exemplified in her interview with those other minor royals, Harry and Meghan, when Meghan was encouraged to tell her truth about her hellish life as a part of the British royal family. Obviously it’s very easy to make fun of all this Californian posturing, but it shows that we’re not making much progress as a civilisation when truth is a relative concept. Traditionally, Easter is the time to reflect upon the idea of truth. During the questioning of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, Jesus claimed that he had come into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate then famously asked "What is truth?". As a Roman, governing a very fractious and divided colony, I can quite see why he would be somewhat cynical about the quality of the information he was being given, but for us to follow his example and allow such an important word to lose its meaning does seem rather unfortunate.

Thankfully, we no longer have the daily twitterings of Trump to remind us how far out of sight truth can sink.  But what about a definition of truth? Well, I take quite a simple view. The truth of a statement about something is defined by its correspondence to reality. Working out what the reality is, however, can be very difficult. We know that witness accounts of events can and usually do vary considerably. This is because we often see things from different angles or notice events at different times in their unfolding and then concentrate on different aspects of what is happening. This tells us that despite our best efforts, Courts will sometimes get their verdicts wrong - in both directions - and why there is a requirement on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt.

As we know, though, the renaissance was a major turning point in our attitude towards truth. No longer would we accept as truth what we were told by figures of authority, be they religious leaders or historic figures from the classical world giving us, not only their philosophies, but also their scientific insights. These though were based on speculation and myth rather than experiment. Modern science, tries to see how the world works through research but, even then, it may not result in more than a best guess. To say therefore that scientific research produces truth is far from the truth. What it can do, however, is tell us with much greater certainty what is false.

Post-modernism gives people who haven’t the first idea about these things to say that that all truth is subjective, a relative concept. When you read research papers from sociologists and psychologists, actually the main targets of post-modernism, there is unfortunately some truth in this. Their research methods ape those of what we might call ‘real’ scientists, but without the opportunity to carry out blind, randomised controlled trials. Indeed they would often be impossible to get past their ethics committees, as they would involve, like Skinner’s infamous prison guard experiments, a degree of harm to the subjects. But that is not to say that there are no sociological or psychological truths waiting to be found. After all, if we take the view that genetics has a significant role in how we behave, then it is reasonable to assume that there are at least some ground-rules waiting to be discovered.

Strangely though, for a world far more open to the idea of relative truth than it ever was, we seem simultaneously to be slipping back into a pre-renaissance world, relying on authority once more to give us an absolute version of the truth. The authority figures telling us what to think are neither Greek, Roman nor Pontiffs, but the opinions of often informal groups on social media, opinions which wash in tsunamis over us and insist that we act and think in particular ways.

A good example was the rush to judgement in response to the police action at the vigil held on Clapham Common  following the murder of Sarah Everard. Police were photographed handcuffing a prostrate woman protestor and, immediately, so many people condemned what the police had done as anti-women. To say to the contrary resulted in hate-filled posts on (anti) social media. Those criticising the police included the leader of the Liberal party, numerous labour party politicians and many vocal in the rights for women lobby. What they failed to do was first to check their facts before creating the storm of protest. They assumed that the police were guilty as charged. An investigation by the independent ‘Inspectorate of Constabulary’, which heard people’s testimonies and looked at footage shot on police body cameras and numerous mobile phones, however found this not to be the case. But because supposed representatives of an oppressed group (all women) said that they had been further oppressed, they had to be believed. It was their truth – somehow both relative and absolute at the same time.

Another example can be seen in the reaction to last week’s report on racism. I’m not the person to read and analyse the very many pages of data contained in the report. I have though read the report’s conclusions and, from them and explanations by the authors, have seen the sort of things they’re are suggesting and why. They are saying that to blame everything on racism is an over-simplification. Yes, racism still exists, although it is obvious to anyone (me) who has lived through the period from the 1950s until now that racism isn’t what it was. So then we should recognise that progress has been made, whilst still asking for more.

But the picture is far more complicated. The report and its conclusions make it clear that the data demonstrate that different ethnic groups, normally lumped together under the heading BAME, in fact have very different educational and health outcomes and employment success. As has been known for a very long time, white boys from poor backgrounds are in a worse position on measures of the consequences of deprivation than almost all other groups.

But “critical race theory”, tells us that white society is inherently oppressive towards people of colour and that this intersects with other forms of oppression involving sexuality, gender, disability or class.
Does that include the disadvantaged white boys? And if so in which category? No wonder truth is relative.

As we have seen from the response of many politicians, campaigners and academics, however, rather than first reading and then engaging with the report’s main conclusions, they seem more interested in arcane discussion concerning the redefinition of institutional racism in order to make sure that all disadvantage suffered by minority ethnic groups can be described as the result of racist structures. I exaggerate, but not much.

It is however self-defeating to say that we should concentrate on anti-racism, rather than tailoring our response to disadvantage to its actual individual causes. This though seems to make little difference to those determined to be part of a racially disadvantaged group, even when they are high-flying academics. They get their pre-renaissance authority from their very minority status: they tell us that they alone know the truth about minority oppression because of their lived experience. It is a truism that a victim of racism has more experience of it than a non-victim. It does not follow from this, however, that they are better able to see what may be the solutions to the problems we have as a society or to see how it may affect others not in their particular minority group. This requires data and not anecdote.

Paul Buckingham

6 April 2021

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