The Question of Truth
Does such a thing as truth exist? If so, how do we define it? Is it relative, dependent on culture or worldview, making one truth as good as another? Can truth guide how we live and work and respond to the chaos overwhelming the United States today?
The topic is huge. To explore it in depth would take a book. But there are some simple ideas we can look at. For instance, Michael Glanzberg, in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, notes that philosophers have devised many ways of understanding how we know truth from falsehood. One way is to use the correspondence theory of truth. That presumes that what makes something true is its factual nature. Thus, truth and fact correspond. 
These days, with “alternative facts” given as much credence as actual ones, it can be difficult to sort through and discover what is and is not true. But if a meme spiraling through the Facebook community makes us wonder, we can do some research and uncover the relevant facts. They are there if we dig deeply enough.
But not all facts are knowable. Not everything can be proven. Take religious beliefs, for instance. We might have been taught something about a divine creator in Sunday school. Many of us have had mystical experiences of the sacred. Even so, we don’t know for sure that there’s a God, and we can’t describe God. But that doesn’t change the nature of that deity. If a god of some sort exists, our beliefs do nothing to alter its essential nature. And that’s a fact.
Truth as Beliefs
But a correspondence lens is not the only way we think about truth. Sometimes, when we say “truth,” we’re talking about beliefs or values we hold, as in the phrase, “We take these truths to be self-evident.”
You may recognize those words from our country’s Declaration of Independence. The sentence continues: “that all men are created equal,  that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and Happiness.” 
I can’t think of any facts that correspond to those truths, so we might try looking at them according to the coherence understanding of truth. From that frame, these statements would be true if they make sense within a “coherent system of beliefs.”  Christianity might be one such frame, white supremacy another, Idealism a third. We could argue about how coherent any one of these systems is, but since more than one possible system exists from which to frame our beliefs, it seems plausible that truth is not absolute.
Truth as Relative
Some people would say that facts aren’t absolute, either. For instance, the world could be an illusion. Quantum physics implies that we don’t see reality as it is, which is perhaps why Albert Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion.” Hinduism teaches that phenomena, the things we see, smell, and touch, are a reflection of the supreme deity, Brahman. We do not actually have a separate existence. 
Buddhism includes similar teachings, noting that we won’t find reality in our sensory experiences. However, within Buddhism is the belief that a truth does lie beneath our illusions. If we must look deeply into what we see, by observing, listening to dharma teachings, and meditating, we can discover that truth. 
All these statements presume that, though reality is an illusion, something does exist, and we are experiencing it. How we interpret that experience is the question. Thus, we might say truth is relative.
Indeed, not everyone agrees that the truths listed in the Declaration are self-evident. Throughout history, and in the world today, this notion of “unalienable rights” for everyone, or the idea that all people deserve “life, liberty, and happiness,” makes no sense. When the Declaration was written, for instance, the signers didn’t conceive of women or “Indians” or the poor to be among those “equal” humans. In feudal England, the wealthy and powerful were mostly content with a world in which they enjoyed liberty and happiness at the expense of the masses. Dictators everywhere have resisted the notion of human rights.
Today, in the United States, some factions want to drag us back to a time when white men of means were equal, while everyone else was less equal. On a practical level, America has never been America for many of its citizens. The African American poet, Langston Hughes, put this eloquently in his poem, “Let America be America Again.” 
While Hughes extols the values on which our country was founded, he also lists the many people who have never experienced an America of freedom, opportunity, and liberty: the “Negro,” the poor white, the immigrant, the assembly-line worker. This is painfully true, but it is not the end of the story.
Many of us take it for granted, as Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King, Jr. said, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward freedom and justice.  If we look at the history of our country, we can see this. Some of the rights we’ve gained over time are ones we take for granted now, such as the right to a jury trial, the right for African Americans or for women to vote, and the right of women to own property. Others, such as gay marriage, are more recent. True, conservatives have sabotaged these and other rights that have become the norm in our nation, but not everything has gotten worse over the years. The vision of a land of the free still exists. It is part of who we Americans are, and who we long to be.
The Skillful Autocrat
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the rights that remain to us will last. Things could change, and not for the better.
I just finished reading Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen. Much of the book details how the current administration has undermined our democracy. Chillingly, Gessen paints a picture of an autocrat who, like a skilled sociopath, shreds our values and our faith. He laughs at civility, scorns justice, denigrates compassion, and twists truth until is it unrecognizable. He fans the fears of his constituency by raising the specter of the boogie man who wants to take away everything the “good people” have worked for. Because facts, knowledge, and science no longer matter, the autocrat can contradict himself and still not give his supporters pause. Anything he asks them to do, they will do, and he doesn’t have to ask directly. A hint, a wink. It’s all enough to bring violence crashing down on those who resist and condemn the tyrant.
Our current president has paved the way to rule over us for the rest of his life. For instance, he has installed his cronies in federal courts throughout the land, making it more certain that legal battles will reflect his desires rather than those of the American Constitution. He’s filled his administration with people like him, ones who lust for power, who twist laws to suit their whims, who show contempt for science, and who bully the innocent and the kind. Having implied that this election will not be fair, our president has refused to commit to stepping down should he lose. He and his Republican supporters are prepared for battle.
A World in Chaos
So what do we, as individuals, do?
Some things we have no power over. Even our legislators are swept up in circumstances beyond their control, though they’re doing their best to manage. Think tanks are reviewing scenarios and seeking solutions. Regardless of what happens, we will be able to protest, though in the worst case scenario, that will mean risking thousands of lives.
Our world is in chaos. The repeated deaths of black and brown people, the coronavirus, social isolation, job losses, online education, hurricanes, fires, and fear overwhelm us. We’re distracted. Yet we cannot ignore what our president has done. He has spun a story that arouses great hostility in those who believe him, but it is not a true story, and it is based on the values of selfishness, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and greed.
How do we counteract this?
Truths as Values
Not with facts. Don’t misunderstand me. Facts are important. Living as we do in a world in which Orwellian double-speak is the norm in totalitarian and autocratic regimes around the world, some of us long for a time when minds were changed by uncovering what the facts revealed rather than by denying those facts loudly and derisively.
Yet the only people whose minds will be changed by facts are the ones who already believe in decency, kindness, and respect. If we’re in the thrall of a sociopath, facts seem malleable, and we’re going to believe our leader.
Gessen points out in her book that, although it helps to have a functioning infrastructure that includes a non-corrupt court system and a free press, to combat autocracy, we must have a vision of civility and morality. We need to spin our own story of an alternate truth. All humans share some values. Most of us, even those who rally around our president, care about family, relationships, and faith. The truth we tell reflects these and other values we hold. That truth creates a vision of who we are and who we want to be. We need to reclaim the values that gave birth to this nation.
Make America America
Two stories about the founding of our country seem to be ascendant right now. One teaches that racism and misogyny were the norm and should be again. We should go back to that “greatness” when the strongman ruled. The other teaches that our country was built on racism and misogyny, so there is nothing good in who we are. It’s been lies from the very beginning, so those lovely-sounding memes and highfalutin words are meaningless.
I have a different story to tell. My story recognizes hypocrisy, but cautions that we are all hypocritical to some extent. None of us are perfectly aware or adept or awakened. But it’s not our job to see the hypocrisy in others and shame them for it. Our job is to recognize our own hypocrisy and cleanse it. Just because our nation hasn’t lived up to the ideals of our founding fathers doesn’t mean we should reject the story outright. We can make America America one day. Bit by bit, we manage to get closer. Then something happens to hurtle us back in time. But if we refuse to give up, we will prevail. We will make America into the America it was meant to be.
How to Run a Country
So I tell a story of people who care about the wounded and the suffering. When faced with a hurting individual, they lend a helping hand, like firefighters who go into burning buildings and nurses who take care of the sick, even if they are infectious. We humans can be heroic, tender, and noble. That is the story I tell.
The story I tell envisions a nation that relishes dialogue, entertains paradox, and seeks a path that builds character, not through shame, but through kind and gentle guidance. The nation I envision entertains facts. It wants to know what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, my nation realizes that shame and scorn never lead to anything good. They are tools of the bully, and they arouse fear and hatred. That is no way to run a country.
Therefore, my story proclaims that there is no villain here. Even vigilantes who raise weapons against protestors have themselves been fooled by tyrants and belittled by bullies. When we judge them and scorn them, we reflect the hatred and intolerance in our own hearts.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel rage, despair, or terror. Our feelings are real. They deserve our compassion, and we need to express them in some way. But lashing out with violence and intolerance of our own does not resist tyranny. It becomes a tyranny of its own.
So we love our enemies. At the same time, we don’t let ourselves get mowed down if we can avoid it. We need to protect the innocent and demand justice. If, at times, that means we have to fight back, then we fight back. But when we do so, we risk our souls. To build a different world, one based on justice and freedom, we must resist tyranny as safely and lovingly as we can.
Tell a New Story
So let’s tell a new story, a story that reflects a new truth. Tell about a nation that cares for those whose lives have fallen apart, about the poor and needy, the marginalized, the profiled. Tell the truth of how our circumstances shape us, how injustice causes despair, and how fairness heals. Talk about how the wealthy are as broken as any of us. Just because we have money doesn’t make us paragons, and it doesn’t make us fit to rule. Thus, we must decouple power from wealth. We must take money out of politics.
In the America I envision, we care about how our policies will affect the future, the children, the land. We believe that justice is complicated and freedom cannot exist without limits, that sometimes equity looks like inequality, because if you’re born on third base, as they say, you might need to give a little to those who haven’t been allowed to join the game.
I’m talking here about a truth based on values of freedom, justice, equity, and compassion. Of course, my vision is impractical. We never get things all the way right. But we can do better than we have before and far better than we’re doing now.
So tell some new stories. For instance, share the truth that race is an invention created by people who want to divide and control. Proclaim that we, the people of the United States of America, are one people. Point out that unchecked power leads to an insatiable lust for more power and makes even the powerful miserable, but shared power creates happiness. It’s true that some truths are more noble than others, and nobility matters. Kindness, generosity, compassion, empathy, limits to power . . . all these matter. They are part of the story we must tell.
America, the Land of the Loving
The greatest story we need to tell, though, is that we are love. Although some Christians behave as if they don’t understand what love is, to love one’s neighbor is a Christian value, but it is not only Christian. Jews also talk about the importance of love, as do Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, and Humanists. Love is the basic story of most faiths. It is part of our human heritage. That is the story that will change us and make us great in a way we’ve never before.
In my America, love rules. Let us share a vision of an America that comes out of the Declaration of Independence, the words on the Statue of Liberty, and the words of great men and women through the ages. Tell a story based on a vision that is grounded in a truth that we are created equal, that everyone deserves life, liberty, and happiness. Tell a story in which we welcome the tired and the weary and the refugee fleeing from war and corruption such as we, God willing, will never know. In the America we are talking about, we are all one, those who came here 10,000 years ago and became the Native Americans, and those who came here yesterday. All one. Together, we can help America become the America she was meant to be.
This may not be fact, and it might not come to pass the way I hope it will. But this truth is grounded in a vision of faith, oneness, and love. As such, it needs to told, over and over again.
In faith and fondness,
- Glanzberg, Michael, “Truth”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/truth/, accessed 9/26/20.
- In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton revised that phrase to read “that all men and women are created equal” in The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, Women’s Rights Convention, New York, 1848, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/declaration-of-sentiments.htm, accessed 9/26/20.
- Jefferson, Thomas, The Declaration of Independence, Second Continental Congress, Pennsylvania, 1776, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript, accessed 9/26/20.
- The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Maya,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, March 9, 2015, https://www.britannica.com/topic/maya-Indian-philosophy, accessed 9/26/20.
- “Reality in Buddhism,” Wikipedia, September 6, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality_in_Buddhism#Vipassana, accessed 9/26/20.Hughes, Langston, “Let America Be America Again,” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1994, https://poets.org/poem/let-america-be-america-again, accessed 9/26/20.
- Theodore Parker, a ninteenth-century Unitarian minister, wrote about abolition: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is long, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I’m convinced we shall overcome because the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” See “Theodore Parker,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Parker, September 26, 2020, accessed 9/26/20.
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