Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Is Anything True Anymore?

I come from a country whose president regularly makes the sort of claims that when I was a teenager I might have read in a Mad Magazine parody.  To further date me, it makes me feel as if I am living in an unending episode of the Twilight Zone.  One side threatens ‘fire and fury,’ another threatens to incinerate Guam and melt their southern neighbor off the planet.  Ho hum.  I guess we can derive some comfort from the fact that words have ceased to mean anything.  I hope.

I live in a country where politicians have apparently divorced themselves from verifiable fact, all in a race to see who can whip up the greatest fear.  Fear, of course, can motivate people to vote.  But in our case, fear is more likely to motive people to pack up and leave the mixed slums of Nairobi in their thousands and head for home where you won't have people bringing messages in the middle of the night threatening you and your family if you stick around for election day.  A non-vote is just as good as a vote for, in this terrible math.

I am part of a profession (higher education) where colleagues (in the West) are increasingly more concerned about ideological litmus tests than about the free exchange of ideas, where disagreement is no longer allowed, and where even the suspicion of ‘bigotry’ (read: anything that offends me) can be used to persecute me out of a job.

A recent review of the movie Dunkirk (which I have seen) by a self-styled ‘feminist’ critic came to my attention, in which said critic railed at the movie as being bigoted and sexist and completely insensitive to more than half of the population who aren't male, simply because there were hardly any women cast in major roles.  Evidently this critic believes that the purpose of cinema is to correct perceived (by her) social wrongs rather than to, in this case, attempt to tell the story of what happened in such a way as to bring what happened home to viewers.  But for this critic, truth - history can be dispensed with for the sake of fulfilling her particular quota need.

I regularly have upwards of half of my students turning in papers that turn out to be plagiarized. In other words, their paper is presented as their own work but they have filled it with long unacknowledged quotes, and sometimes even entire articles, which they tidy up, affix their name and turn it in as their own work.  According to students I have talked to about this, our students simply think this is what it means to write a paper.  One masters student submitted a thesis that turned out to have an entire chapter taken word for word from a book that just happened to be published by her examiner (and a friend of mine).  This happened just recently. I was there and watched with fascination at how my colleagues came up with a way to listen cordially to her exam but fail her nonetheless (to their credit).

I have been stopped more than 13 times at a notorious police check point on my way from work by law enforcement officers on the hunt, not for malefactors, but for money.  Should they find the slightest reason to write me a ticket, they will do so in such a way as to let me know that some help with lunch or tea would send me on my way.  But should I protest about the injustice of it all, or even come close to raising the spectre of b-r-i-b-e-r-y, they would arrest me, take me to the police station, charge me with the most expensive offence and make an appointment for me to appear in court and pay the fine.  When law enforcement and the justice system is no longer concerned about truth, there is no recourse.

Societies are held together by fragile contracts.  The capacity to believe what your neighbor, your colleagues, your spouse, your leaders are saying is the glue that holds this social contract together.  But introduce a solvent and that glue begins to dissolve, and the necessary bonds that hold things together begin to come apart.  Our society in the US has never been perfect, which is why we have historically put so much stock in an impartial justice system.  But should ‘justice’ be determined more and more by ideology (again.  We have have seen this sort of ideology tyrannize American justice in terms of African Americans throughout their history in North America), then it ceases to be justice.  It becomes instead another weapon for enforcing the ideology of whoever holds the power.  As such ‘justice’ simply reinforces the prerogatives of the culture tyrants rather than defends the rights of the poor and marginalized.   We see this happening in my country of origin in ways that we could not have even dreamed of twenty or thirty years ago.  And we see it happening in my country of current residents where truth and justice are simply up for sale.  Either way is a dangerous road, for everybody involved.  There always comes a tipping point, where things get so bad or so ridiculous that people feel they have nothing left to lose.  And once a society heads down that road, it is very very hard to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Truth is hard.  And presently it seems to me that prevailing cultural norms are giving people everywhere the notion that we can dispense with having to take truth seriously.  We’ve been in this place before, and it didn’t go well. Marxist-Leninist Russia and National Socialist Party Germany both dispensed with truth for different ends but with appallingly similar consequences.  Similarly in Mao’s China (and the Kims’ Korea)  And even if these are some of the most horrific examples, the tendency reappears with alarming regularity in history, enough so to summon the observation that we human beings are terrible at learning what should be one of the most obvious lessons that our combined histories labor to teach us, namely, that we dispense with truth at our peril.  One would think that we would have gotten it by now.  But evidently here we go again.