Truth is hard, sometimes

I recently got a note from somebody telling me he wasn’t interested in taking sides, or even forming an opinion, but in learning the truth about a conflict we are mutually interested in.   The comment reminded me of an essential thing about truth.   It looks different depending on our point of view, how much information we have, our tolerance for cognitive discomfort, our level of self-awareness and honesty, while at the same time, things are objectively more or less true when viewed in light of the facts, and in the context of the situation. Truth can get famously foggy during a moral battle.

There is an eternal debate, among eggheads (old term for intellectuals) about the nature of truth and morality, the nature of reality.   These brainy types like the structure and rigor of science, even when talking about matters of the spirit and the soul.   Two prominent schools of thought are moral relativism and moral absolutism, both terms also used as pejoratives.  Most people simply believe in the truth that confirms their view of things and call it a day.  Academics write books, teach courses and defend their school of thought in the debate over the true nature of cherished, elusive truth.  Some views are closer to the truth than others, alternative facts are not the same as actual facts.   The academic stand-off goes something like this:

Moral relativists believe that truth, and its close cousin morality, are not absolute but change according to culture, social condition and historical epoch.  An example of this lack of universal morality/truth would be leaving a new born baby on a hill top to die.   Many, perhaps most, would recoil from this practice, condemn it as immoral.   But what if the baby’s mother, and the entire community, were starving to death during a drought?   People living in this harsh environment would not judge a mother for exposing her child for a quick death rather than struggling to keep the doomed baby alive, using valuable resources that others with a real chance of survival need.  In fact, in that case, she’s doing the right thing. Sadly, this rare example, though hard to refute, muddies the discussion of universal right and wrong.  If all morality is relative, who’s to say who is moral and who is acting immorally — how do any of us know the best way to act? 

Moral absolutists believe there is a universal morality, an immutable set of truths that apply across all cultures, times and places.   Murder, for example, the willful taking of an innocent life in a malicious or depraved manner — universally evil.   If there are universal truths, and it’s hard to imagine that something like refraining from murder is not a universally valued trait (but, see example above) then laws can be made based on these principles, to combat evil impulses.  Sadly, moral absolutists are often religious hardliners with no tolerance for the viewpoints of those who don’t embrace their religious views.  Their moral absolutism allows them to believe  morally problematic things, like the abortion doctor who was killed outside the clinic is burning in Hell, while the one who shot him gets a wink from Jesus Christ.

Truth can be elusive, though only in academia (and politics) are there only two ways to see it.  Truth is compatible with both of the warring views above, it is not always one thing or the other.   

Facts exist — I punched you in the nose, your nose bled, you called the cops, the cops arrived and told us both to sober up and fuck off.  The truth is that we had a conflict that turned violent, you were threatened enough to call the cops.  We will tell different stories about the facts.  

You will insist the punch was completely unprovoked, that I blindsided you, fooled you into relaxing just before bashing you.  That will be your “truth” and those sympathetic to you will accept it.  My story will have a detailed set-up, the context that came before the blow, the reason you needed to be hit right at that moment, and those who relate to my telling will be certain I was well provoked before I busted you in the head.   

The reflex of many people is to believe that the real truth exists somewhere between those two stories.  Somebody standing close by while the conflict escalated will be better situated to evaluate the stories, we’d think, but they have biases too.   Plus they won’t necessarily know the history, the smug look, repetition of the most hated phrases, and how they predictably ratcheted up the tension.   Context is important, though not always easily discernible. 

You have the classic “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  In the case of the more than a thousand angry people who stormed the Capitol after sending 140 cops to the hospital, we can call them insurrectionists, waving a Confederate flag as their belligerently rebellious forebears would have, after sacking the Capitol.   Others call them “patriots” who were engaged in “legitimate political discourse” and are now being held, totally unfairly, as “political prisoners” and martyrs.   Those who blow themselves up for their beliefs are called martyrs, or insane, murderous assholes, depending.

So too in personal life.  Your deepest needs will dictate the truths you believe.   Truth can’t be divorced from opinion, since what we believe to be true forms the basis of our opinions. An opinion based on truth is more legitimate than one based on spin, color, a persuasive, selective  retelling of events that leaves out important facts.   Events and the sequence of how things unfolded, the cause and effect,  how one thing led to another, are the building blocks of truth.  Not everyone is prepared to deal with a truth that is upsetting and potentially destabilizing, like: the peacemaker on his moral high horse has also deployed irritating gas, which had nothing to do with his mission to make peace, in the name of making peace.

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