Why Truth is Foundational for Civil Society
In the previous article of this series I quoted the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who told his disciple, Tzu-kung, that a stable society can only exist when the people trust their rulers. Accordingly, he taught, a ruler’s most necessary resources are weapons, food, and trust. If one must forego one of these, he should first forgo weapons. After that, the ruler should forego food. But never, under any circumstance, must a ruler forego the people’s trust, since “without trust we cannot stand.”
Why can’t a ruler sacrifice trust? Because without trust in the rulers and institutions that create, mediate, and enforce the laws, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled must be renegotiated in terms of mere power. This is because no regime can be sustained over time unless there is self-enforcement of law from a critical mass of citizens. But this requires that a sufficient number of citizens trust their rulers enough to be invested in the survival of the system. This is precisely why rulers and their functionaries must never be willing to sacrifice the people’s trust.
This much seems straight-forward. But what is often missed is the role that truth plays in the type of trust that is necessary for maintaining a stable society.
Truth and Trust
The etymology of our word for “true” hints at its connection with trust. In an article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dr. Iain McGilchrist explained that our word “true” comes from the German “true” (faithful) and “is related to ‘trust,’ and is fundamentally a matter of what one trusts or believes.” McGilchrist added that, “The Latin word verum (true) is cognate with a Sanskrit word meaning to choose or believe: like one’s loved one, the one in whom one chooses to believe and place one’s trust, to whom one is true.”
In short, truth and trust go together. And because no stable society can function when leaders abandon trust, it follows that truth is essential to any nation’s future survival.
Does Truth Matter?
Many of the battles we face today in the “culture wars” are actually battles over the role of truth and are reducible to the question, does truth really matter?
Judging from a cursory scan of the discourse coming from our politicians, pundits, and thought leaders, the implicit answer to the above question seems to usually be no, truth doesn’t matter. Consider how ideas, policies, and positions are routinely touted or condemned based on whether they are relevant, bigoted, profitable, alienating, popular, etc., yet rarely do people ask if such ideas are true. In fact, in many contexts, merely to ask, “is that true?” is sufficient to qualify one as a bigot, racist, or transphobe.
Even Richard Nixon cared enough about the truth to cover up his falsehoods with more deceit; by contrast contemporary rulers frequently affirm mutually exclusive propositions with a cynicism that makes Nixon appears a model of trustworthiness.
This disregard for truth may explain why there are few to no public debates on the great questions of our time. You won’t find symposiums for publicly debating whether men can have periods, or whether inclusion means excluding those who object to ideological uniformity, or whether equality means treating people unequally. Nor are there research grants for finding out if CRT is an accurate theory, if the new transgender biology is scientifically correct, or whether identity politics presents a correct anthropology. Nor are universities sponsoring Lincoln-Douglas style debates on whether “wokeness” is good for society. Even those who care most strongly about these questions tend to focus their attention, not on publicly debating the truth content of their claims, but on organizing Groupthink and punishing those who dissent from ideological purity.
When Survival Depends on Falsehood
The total disregard for truth was predicted by the political philosopher, journalist, and Holocaust survivor, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). She foresaw how the institutionalization of lying could lead to widespread difficulty discerning fact from falsehood, creating a state of affairs in which people ceased to even care what is true anymore until eventually truth disappears from public life.
According to Arendt, the disappearance of truth from public life would reach completion when survival depended on affirming a falsehood:
This point is reached when the audience to which the lies are addressed is forced to disregard altogether the distinguishing line between truth and falsehood in order to be able to survive. Truth or falsehood – it does not matter which anymore, if your life depends on your acting as though you trusted;
Have we reached the situation described by Arendt where survival depends on disregarding the difference between truth and falsehood? I think so. In the modern west, professional success in most disciplines, and especially in the medical and social sciences, is increasingly correlated with willingness to affirm lies. As a case in point, consider the following observation from Simon Black:
Today professors of medicine are afraid to mention when medical conditions are more prevalent in males or females, for fear of being canceled by their woke students.
They cannot discuss how heart attack early warning signs differ between men and women. Or how male and female kidneys process drugs differently, which affects proper dosage.
On some college campuses, you see signs asking if students have been a victim of free speech. Apparently hearing dissenting views is literal violence.
Our Post-Truth Moment
The situation we have entered is one that cultural critics refer to as “post-truth,” while our politics has been described as “post-truth politics.” John Keane, Professor of Politics at University of Sydney, put his finger on the problem when he observed that “talk of ‘Truth’ or ‘truth’ has become philosophically and politically questionable.” To help us make sense of this situation, an ever-expanding corpus of books set out to explain why the very concept of truth has become anachronistic in the twenty-first century. Forbes offers “a college reading list for the post-truth era,” while Barnes and Noble offers “Science Fiction & Fantasy Books for the Post-Truth Era,” while others have produced manuals on how to adapt business to our post-truth world. The very word “post-truth,” won the contest for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016. In announcing the word’s victory, Oxford Dictionaries explained that
Post-truth is an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
But while post-truth is in vogue, truth can never be completely vanquished. At root, all political claims are claims about truth, whether we want to recognize it or not. Behind every law is an implicit truth-claim about what constitutes human flourishing; behind every policy proposal is a truth-claim about what type of society is appropriate given the kind of creatures we are.
To try to construct a political order on the conceit that these truth-claims can be ignored is to invite a situation where implicit truth-claims remain hidden and therefore immune to critical evaluation. Moreover, to ignore the role truth plays in our political order is to invite a situation where the only remaining factors for adjudicating between competing claims are power and desire. This, ultimately, is to condemn us to the level of beasts.
No Truth, No Trust, No Society
Once truth has been replaced by power and desire as the final arbiter for all disputes, then trust between the governed and governing collapses, creating space for the total unravelling of society. Once truth can no longer be appealed to as the basis for our legal system and governing norms, the processes by which order is maintained come to appear merely arbitrary, creating space for the collapse of political legitimacy and the unraveling of society.
This was understood by the African American reformer, Frederick Douglass (1817-1895). In Douglass’s 1869 address, “Our Composite Nationality,” he described the mutually reinforcing role of truth and trust in holding together our civil institutions:
“Trust is the foundation of society. Where there is no truth, there can be no trust, and where there is no trust, there can be no society. Where there is society, there is trust, and where there is trust, there is something upon which it is supported.”
As a nation, we desperately need to recover the urgency of the warnings issued by thinkers like Frederick Douglass, Hannah Arendt, and Confucius. If the United States is to survive at all, it can only do so with a foundation of truth. But that requires more than simply holding our leaders accountable when they lie. Rather, we must come to love the truth, and to recover Christ’s teaching that only truth leads to authentic freedom (John 8:32).Robin Phillips
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/how-to-destroy-a-nation-by-undermining-trust-part-2