Back in the late 1960s I remember starting to hear people say that there is no such thing as absolute or objective truth. That truth could only be relative and conditional. That truth and the concept of knowing and believing something to be true applied differently in various spheres of knowledge and belief and among various peoples and societies.
Since this was also the time I was leaving the enclosed certainties of home, family, and high school and going into the wider world of the university, to this day I am not completely sure whether this variable approach to truth was a new concept in the world or just new to me in my suddenly wider reading among philosophies, religions, social theories, and the other grist processed in the mill of the humanities. The slippery nature of truth may long have been a tenet of some modern European and ancient Asian philosophies to which I was just opening my eyes.
But I’m willing to bet that, at the time, the disappearance of absolute or knowable truth was not generally accepted in the wider population. Certainly, our news reporters and commentators, the people who spoke to the public from a position of authority, acted as if the facts they were relating and analyzing descended from some knowable, supportable, and unchanging source. That they were speaking “the truth.”
But now, fifty years later, it seems that the acceptance of relative and conditional truth—as opposed to the absolute kind—has become common in the general population. Variable reality has become, in the modern usage, a “meme.”
Some of this change has been helped along by wider public knowledge of those ancient Asian philosophies. Zen Buddhism, for example, treats the world we can see, taste, smell, and touch as a sensory illusion that overlies a larger reality—or perhaps no reality at all. In the Hindu religion, from which Buddhism was originally a protest against the endless cycles of return and rebirth, the world around us is maya, an illusion, delusion, a magical trick of the demigods and not the underlying reality.
Some of the change has been adapted from the European existentialists, who taught that philosophic inquiry begins with the subjective, human viewpoint rather than from any universal, Platonic, or Aristotelian examination of an external reality. Later theorists, particularly in the areas of language and literature, brought in the concept of deconstruction, which attempted to separate the language and context of any communication from its meaning and the reader’s understanding. The assumptions of the religious, political, and emotional environment, the language, and the knowledge base of, for example, Shakespeare’s current readers and theatrical audiences are so interwoven and complex that modern readers cannot hope to thoroughly understand his work as it was intended and indeed as it is written.
And some of this rejection of absolute truth comes from a wider knowledge and acceptance of modern physics, particularly quantum mechanics. In the realm of the very small, where bits of matter sometimes act like bits of energy, exact knowledge becomes a chimera, a ghost of the old-style, mechanistic thinking of early physicists like Newton and Galileo. A quantum theorist knows that you can establish by observation either a particle’s position or its momentum and direction but not both, because to observe the one is to change the other. And, in dealing with such innumerable quantities of particles, the physicist relies on statistics and probability rather than trying to account for each photon, electron, or proton and neutron in an experiment. In the underlying philosophy of physics, reality is what you can actually detect and measure, not some presumed or imagined vision of what’s supposed to be happening.
All of these influences, which started to become mainstream in the intellectual, political, and moral upheaval of the late 1960s, helped erode a public belief in some kind of absolute, definable, true-for-all-people-and-times, knowledge of “the truth.”
In this country, the mainstreaming of this slippery version of reality was helped along by a growing agnosticism, acceptance of public atheism, and outright hostility to established religion. It gradually became fine for a person to be “spiritual” in the manner of the Zen Buddhists1 or Hindu mystics, but it was old-fashioned and absurd to still subscribe to the bourgeois, stifling, close-minded teachings of the Judeo-Christian religions.
And finally, the verbal tactics from the left side of the political aisle were brought to bear in this change. The National Socialists’ use of the “lie big enough, told often enough” to change public perception caught the attention of the entire twentieth century. Add Lenin’s earlier directive, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth,” which embedded the practicality of manipulating the truth in every political tactician’s mind. Challenging the apolitical teachings of the church and creating your own version of reality, especially a version based on statistics and false premises, forever changed the public trust in some externally verified, universal, and absolute truth.
So long as the politicians and their allies in the newsrooms of the big daily newspapers, broadcast television, and the professional commentariat could limit the scope of discussion, it was relatively safe to allow the public to understand that truth was relative, conditional, and negotiable. It served to undermine the old assurances, the established viewpoints, and the life lessons that Rudyard Kipling called “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” Undermining popular assumptions and creating new myths and legends are what politicians and professional opinion leaders do.
And the process worked, after its fashion, for about forty years. But then in the past ten years or so that funny little science-and-technology-sharing computer circuit called “the internet” sprang into full flower. Not only could every person on the planet—except maybe those in censorship-heavy societies, like the People’s Republic of China—have his or her own Facebook page and Instagram messaging account without doing much more than press a few buttons, but everyone who wanted to put in the effort could publish his or her own books and pamphlets in electronic and paperback form, put up a web page that had all the visual authority of any “legitimate” news source, create podcasts that sounded exactly like radio and television interviews, and go into the news business with the same tools as the big city dailies and broadcast journalists. Add to that the quality of video imaging through your average smartphone being equal or superior to the best handheld equipment of a decade ago—and a lot more available and present on the scene—and you have a dozen eyes and a hundred voices ready to report “the news.”
Then the meme of truth being relative and conditional began to backfire. The established media, with their highly paid teams of reporters, editors, and commentators, their worldwide news bureaus, and their tested and accepted political narrative suddenly had to compete with god-knows-who from god-knows-where. The “news” and the “truth” started coming out of the woodwork and flying around the room—around the internet—like a storm of bats exiting their cavern at dusk.
The paid media can cry “Fake news!” at all the controverting crosstalk of the benighted amateurs, and the million voices of the internet can cry “Fake news!” right back at them.
In this, I am not advocating for a return to an oligopoly of opinion, held by the magnates who own and run the largest printing presses and most expensive broadcast newsrooms. That cat is out of the bag and long gone by now.2 I am not pining for the established voice of religion, or the oldest political parties, or my grandfather’s choice of books in the family library. In a way, the little-D democracy of letting every person have a voice is refreshing. The choice of which truth to believe is now the responsibility of the average citizen. The story is not handed down by the party in power or its media moguls, but flutters on the wind like a thousand little birds. Each of us must use his or her best intelligence and widest reading of history, science, and sociology to determine where an acceptable truth might lie. As Gurney Halleck said in the movie version of Dune, “Now, guard yourself for true!”
But maybe it was a bad idea, in the first place, and for political reasons, to sell the public on the belief that truth was not absolute or discernable but subject to preference, opinion, and varying conditions. In the internally wired society, you end up in the unfortunate position where my lie is just as good as your truth. But there we are.
1. Buddhism and its offshoot Zen are not actually mystical, mysterious, or even spiritual. Buddhism is a philosophy bounded by a practical approach to life and human existence. It is more of a psychological practice than a religion. But that’s just my “truth.”
2. Those national governments that think they can control their public’s opinions and perceptions by editing, filtering, and banning websites on the internet are playing a losing game. No matter how many censors you employ, the worldwide web will have a hundred times as many chattering sources who are well versed in employing euphemisms, creating metaphors, and hacking the code.