Truth-telling in an Age of Wiki-Arthur Holland Michel10-03-2011
You Can’t Tell it if you Don’t Have It
We cannot be truth-tellers unless we are truth-seekers. So, in a roundabout way, if we want to talk about truth-telling in an age of democracy, we must first think about truth-seeking in an age of democracy.
Changing Times, Changing Truth
We also have to face the fact that the true democracy of our time is not a democracy of structure and process, but instead a democracy of information. Governments are no longer held strictly accountable through an institutional system of checks and balances meant to keep tabs on behalf of the people, but directly by the people, through WikiLeaks, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. Our understanding of truth has to play catch-up to the times we live in.
Nowhere has this been seen more clearly than in the Arab Spring. Investigations by government agencies or international watchdogs have been replaced with this:
@AnonymousSyria: Brave protesters defy the terror of machine guns in #Palmyra tonight. Incredible. At least one injured. #Syria
With “a click of the button,” @AnonymousSyria distributed, and continues to distribute, information on the government crackdown to almost 6,000 people following his Twitter. These people re-post the video. International news channels write articles about the video. People in other countries re-post the articles. Information travels very quickly. And most importantly, it by-passes the government.
This democracy of information has also caused an information glut which calls into question the very nature of truth. The internet has made the “truth” more accessible to the average person than it has ever been, but it has also deeply called into question the very nature of that truth. Encyclopaedias held for several centuries the position of books of truth, but today’s (by a long shot) most popular and prolific and expansive encyclopaedia can be edited any person with an internet connection and so much as half a brain. “Seeking” and telling the truth in an age of truth-glut, when truths can be created and deleted at the click of a button, is deeply problematic. It means that the world is full of truths, often contradictory.
Truth-seeking as a Private Struggle
For a long time, “truth-seeking” has meant “demanding the truth.” In democracy, the energy with which we seek truth is the energy that fuels a healthy civil society. That same energy arguably almost toppled the British government this summer when the News of the World hacking scandal broke out and the whole British government was found to have been living cosily for over a decade in Rupert Murdoch’s pocket. The scandal was old-fashioned in the sense that the British public still felt they had to “demand the truth” from the politicians. Scandals of this kind are becoming a rare breed, because politicians are no longer the merchants of truth. We have Wikileaks for that. Anybody with an internet connection can access a world of information. Truth-seeking does not happen in the public – and by that I mean institutional – arena anymore. Instead, it happens on the personal computer. Truth-seeking has become a private struggle. The truth-seeking of our age is one of which Hannah Arendt would approve.
Don’t be Fooled
But in that privacy, it is easy to be misled. And likewise, it is easy to mislead others. That is why attention is required anew as to how to be truth-seekers and truth-tellers. In the age of Wiki, we are so deeply beset by information that dresses itself as fact, that the question has become, How do we know when a fact is actually true? If institutional systems no longer hold the keys to the vaults of truth, how do we as individuals certify truth when we find it? Wikipedia is hardly the answer. What, then, are we left with?
The Gaddafi loyalists and mercenaries who were holed up in abandoned offices and apartment blocks and houses on the outskirts of Tripoli and in the town of Bani Walid last month may very well have been “demanding the truth” about the situation. But imagine that they receive two conflicting reports – one report states that Gaddafi is alive and well and has opened a counter-offensive on the rebel stronghold at Benghazi. The other report informs the men that Gaddafi has surrendered himself. The rebels, though they demand the truth, will be far more likely to openly accept the former report as the true one. They are not consciously lying to themselves. Likewise, when they rush to their comrades and tell them that Gaddafi is on the counter-offensive, they are not consciously choosing to tell a lie. Truth-telling, then, is not necessarily about actively choosing to tell the truth over a lie and neither is truth seeking the mere act of “demanding the truth.”
If You Aren’t Getting any Closer, You’re getting Further Away
Truth-telling as it applies to a healthy democracy is an honest relationship to facts and the nature of ‘fact.’ The Gaddafi soldiers have fallen back on instinct and belief as their compass for truth. What we have to realise is that we too are falling back on instinct most times that we decide between truths. Congresswoman Bachman is a good example – though we might disagree with her views, her unrelenting belief in the creation myth is a product of her humanity, not of her stupidity. Falling back on instinct may be useful when, as Frost would put it, you come to a fork in the road, but when it comes to our system of governance and collective decision-making, instinct just will not cut it. As truth-seeking becomes a personal struggle, we need to acquire the tools to engage with information on a personal level. For each “truth” that we find ourselves believing, we should ask of ourselves, “Why do I believe this?” If we cannot satisfactorily answer that question, then we cannot trust the information. We must, I believe, settle for a constant sense of unease with the facts. Our challenge in the age of Wiki is to accept that we can never get to truth, we can only ever be in either a state of approximation to it, or distancing from it.
How to be a Truth-Teller in an Age of Wiki
Truth-seeking must therefore become constant state of seeking the truth, instead of just a way to know when the truth has been reached. Real truth-seekers do not find and settle on a truth and move on. They establish what they can by the available information – and they keep seeking, motivated by a healthy dose of scepticism and a strong aversion to the complacency of “knowing the truth.” When we go to Wikipedia, we must read the sources. When we have a good conversation, we have to remember that its goodness, and not its content, was the only true fact about it. And for every news article we read, we must read three more, from different sources. We must, to be true truth-seekers, settle to be like Moses; we must accept that we will be denied the Promised Land. We are denied pure truth just as much now as we were twenty two years ago, when I was born. The impossibility of truth, and therefore of proper truth-telling, remains a stubborn fact that we must grapple with. What has changed is that our struggle to draw near truth is now a personal struggle. And, like Moses, we must never lose faith that it is out there. As truth-tellers and truth seekers we must be relentlessly tenacious. It is that faith and tenacity which will keep democracy alive.
If this is the necessary truth-seeking for our age, the correct truth-telling will therefore be an understanding of the limits of our ability to attain truth, and a respect for the great power we wield to relay facts and for those facts to be taken as true. In other words, truth-telling is about simultaneously believing we are powerless, while acting as though we have a great and potentially destructive power.
Moral of the Story: Ask Questions, Because You Know Nothing
I remember when we read King Lear in my freshman year of college. All my classmates said that the Duke of Gloucester began to see the truth only after he was blinded. We all agreed that this was the great irony of the play. But what Gloucester really does is what we have to begin doing as truth-tellers in an age of Wiki – his blindness makes him realise the limits of his ability to know the truth of the physical world, so he starts to ask the right questions. The great irony of our time is that the unprecedented wealth of information at our disposal really only shows that we know nothing for certain. And so, in the age of Wiki, we have to ask the right questions, every single day and every hour – not of governments, but of each other and, most importantly, of ourselves.