As I write, it’s Paul Pierce Day in the NBA, with the Boston Celtics retiring his uniform number 34, alongside a bevy of hall-of-famers. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen live, tearing my heart out at Milwaukee Bucks games with regularity throughout his career. So, yeah. Good for him, right? Nice honor for a guy Shaquille O’Neal nicknamed ‘The Truth.’
This post isn’t about basketball, though. And it’s not even a post about the elusive nature of ‘truth,’ its usefulness or relevance. The notion of whether we can ever know what’s ‘true’ goes back at least to Aristotle, and reached peak ridiculousness with postmodernism (or even, and I guess we’re doing this now, posthumanism). The arguments against our knowing what’s really ‘true’ involve perception, personal experience, context, discipline, neurobiology, investigation, consensus, the possibility we’re living in a computer simulation, faith, belief, and — more than anything else — semantics.
Yeah, so, I’ve done some reading. Pretty much anyone who’s thought about this for a while will tell you (in so many words), ‘truth’ is a myth. I keep putting the word in quotes because it’s not so much the concept that doesn’t hold water so much as the definition of the word we all think we know. And that makes common sense. How do we know things? We saw it! But that’s not always reliable, depending on how our eyes and brains handle it. Or we cite it in the bibliography because someone else said it and put it in a book. Or there’s video or audio. But listen to this Radiolab episode and you’ll learn that’s going to go away, and yikes. Someone puts one hand on a Bible, raises their other hand and swears something is true? Could be.
“Truth’ is, we might never really totally definitely know something happened, or happens. Bummer, huh? But let’s accept it for the purposes of this post, that we live in a post-truth world. Fake news and Russian bots and hypocrisy and double-standards and disinformation. It’s kind of hopeless, definitely confusing, abhorrently frustrating. But this isn’t about that, either.
Recently, I was reading about the 18th century Enlightenment. Turns out it was a reaction to an age of obscuratistism — anti-intellectualism and a consolidation of power so only the upper class really knew what was going on. Gutenberg and his printing press had threatened those few controlling information for a while, putting it in the grubby hands of the masses. Literacy was a thing now, and this revolution was risking the monopoly elites held over the dissemination of information. The leveling of the playing field was untenable in their books. And thankfully, this had positive consequences for folks like you and me.
And here we go again. Today, listen to those in power and they’ll lead you to believe leaking information is just about the worst thing you can do, along with having personal servers that are vulnerable. To take their word for it, secrets are all that stands between the comfy status-quo that keeps them running the world and certain death for everybody everywhere.
But I’m not here to ask you to exonerate Snowden, nor will I insist Hillary totally made all the correct choices pertaining to classified information. I’m writing to implore you: aspire to truth. Or the closest approximation philosophers and linguists will tolerate.
If not the antithesis, perhaps the antidote to unreliable narrators dictating history is the act of making clear our own intentions, sharing what we know, and being incontrovertibly trustworthy above all else. They zig (sowing doubt in our nation’s institutions and fellow citizens), we zag (being, um, unimpeachable in meaning what we say, doing as we promise).
In other words, let’s be and do our best to reward those who trust us. When all seems to be in disarray, let’s handle our business and give our family, friends, and neighbors the tools, information, and knowledge to succeed. Let’s make that normal, from net neutrality to always communicating what we know to be factual to the best of our ken. Hit the rich and powerful where it hurts like that. Maybe it’ll be contagious, and the more of us who set our minds to it, the better.
Too many of us have been living through quite a bit of uncertainty. It’s exhausting. I’m always craving stability, clinging to anything built on solid foundations in the maelstrom (family, friends, spirituality, books, coffee). And at the same time, I’m trying hard to provide stability to those around me — no surprises, meeting expectations I set, delivering on promises.
Turns out, that’s not too hard to do. It even feels good. Helping others win means more people win, meaning less people lose (don’t @ me as to the logic of this metaphor). I keep coming back to Mark Twain, not exactly a bastion of trustworthiness and reliable narration. Ironically, my favorite quote of his is, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” (Got it… [squints] Samuel?) Keeping secrets makes sense in moderation, as you perhaps already know. Let’s be selective about it, and share the slowly eroding wealth of knowledge. And let’s just never, ever lie. Facing up to reality will always be in everyone’s best interest.
Beyond that, dare we give others the benefit of the doubt? Going through life assuming they’re not hiding anything or out to hold you down by not giving you the whole story? I’m not exactly an Ernest Hemingway fan, but he’s quoted as having said, “The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them.” Sure, you might get burned. But if they’re the one who’s untrustworthy, then they’re the jerk, not you. Lao Tzu was on the same page: “He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.” I see Anton Chekhov raising his hand: “You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.”
Finally, being a shining example of realness is all well and good, but let’s also hold others accountable. Question, investigate, reach conclusions, share what we learn. Investigative journalism is more important than ever, and it’s more thankless (and even dangerous) than ever. Support those asking tough questions and spending their days digging for the closest approximation of ‘truth’ possible. And don’t just do it with those that support your own beliefs; question what you think you know yourself. Read what others have learned, listen to the experiences of those around you, and arrive at the most fully formed conclusions and opinions possible. [In my most extremely flawless DJ Khaled voice] “They don’t want us to be informed. So what we’re gonna do is be more informed.”
Because even if you never know for certain whether others are being ‘truthful,’ at least you’ll know you’re being true to yourself. There’s no substantial material ‘truth’ we can all agree on. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t investigate matters and arrive at a consensus, our best most informed educated guess. Truth is a value, an ethos. It’s aspirational, like the speed of light. Experts tell us both are impossible to reach. But let that not prevent us from getting as close as we can. And like Paul Pierce, let’s try to be the embodiment of ‘The Truth.’