Democratic truth — a guide for the perplexed

This is you.

And this is you and truth. This truth is external to you.

Given that the truth is external to you, you have to employ a method to find out the truth. This could be a mathematical method; to understand that 2+2=4. It could be an empirical method; where you use your eyes to count the number of people sat round your dinner table. It could be a scientific method, where you use experimentation to discover the accuracy of a theory.

This version of understanding ‘truth’ is called the correspondence theory of truth. It means that truth corresponds with the facts, or truth agrees with reality.

However, there are problems with this version of truth. Sometimes your method for discovering external truth is flawed. There may be times when your eyesight fails you. Or perhaps your recollection of that event fails. Or where your scientific apparatus is inaccurate, based on an incorrect theory. This is why scientists claim that they have the best approximation of the external world, and that they will change their mind if new evidence comes to light that contradicts their current position.

This does not mean that science is incorrect. There is a reason that we trust modern medicine, and why many people are happy to get in a metal box and fly to another continent.

Internal truth

So now we’ve looked at truths that are external to us. But it’s important to look at our internal truths too. The truths about who we love, what we like to do, what disgusts us, the comfort and discomfort we get from our body, when we are hungry. These are all internal truths, and we have methods for understanding if we need dinner, or when we need to sleep, and most importantly, who we are.

Again, we employ methods to find out these truths. We feel through our nervous system, we gauge our emotional response to events, and we use language to explain who we are and where we place ourselves in the world. We learn that food takes away our hunger, and that fire causes pain. We understand the situations that make us feel comfortable, and potential situations that could produce even more happiness. We desire outcomes that lead to our benefit, and that benefit others.

Community truth

In order to move on to democratic truth, we need to understand how truth is established in communities.

This is a community. It is filled with individuals who have their own individual truths about the world and what makes them happy. In a community as described above, these individual truths combine to make a community truth. So perhaps this is a playground, and parents are sharing different anecdotes about caring for their children, and the playground establishes a tacit understanding of how children should be cared for. Or perhaps this is a sports team, and the players work together on tactics which fit the strengths of each individual. Or perhaps this is a political party or a political movement, and individuals can find out if their experiences match those of others, and come together to strategise about the best way to change all their situations.

Generally, in each of these circumstances, the community builds a nuanced language that everyone understands. The sports team might have a call out like ‘code red’, which means they should perform a particular formation. The parents will have different words to describe meetings, after school activities and reward systems. And a political movement will have their own language too.

In each case, the community may create completely new words, that another person would not recognise at all, OR they might designate a particular meaning to commonly understood words.

For example, in the early 19th century all men paying an annual rental of £10 and all those holding land valued at £10 had the vote. For Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), ‘votes for women’ meant ‘votes for all women who pay an annual rental of £10 and those who hold land valued at £10’. For Charlotte Despard and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) it meant ‘votes for all women without property restrictions’. In these cases ‘votes for women’ means something entirely different, and without making that distinction immediately, it probably won’t be clear to an outsider what the objectives of different groups are.

We end up with a landscape that looks like this:

There are many different communities with different languages and different truths about what these words mean, and what is desirable and undesirable. This could be a city, a country or an international community — there are many groups with different ideas about the future. This is desirable — it could also be called pluralism.

Now in democratic theory, there are two distinct beliefs about the nature of democratic truth between all of these different communities.

Deliberative theory

Deliberationists believe that each of these groups can come together and create another truth over all their individual and smaller community truths. This occurs via deliberating. Each group is given the opportunity to articulate their view and then we can create policies and laws via mutual cooperation and compromise.

It is using these shared values that we can go out and find external truths to us. As we know — scientific progress is a community driven effort, and not one that can be achieved by an individual alone.

Agonistic theory

Agonists have a different conceptualisation of democratic truth. They say that one group becomes so dominant that their truth becomes the societal truth. This crowds out other groups and becomes dominant. Agonists call this the ‘hegemonic discourse’.

For most people, some of your truths will be hegemonic, and others won’t be. We’re usually very conscious when we are outside of the truth, and we tend to take it for granted when we are dominant in specific areas. Of course, there are some groups that overwhelmingly own the hegemony compared to other identities.

This powerful group then dictates how to go out and find external truths, and which truths are important. Democratic truth thus depends not on group collaboration and cooperation, but rather conflict. The powerful group wants to remain dominant, and the less powerful groups want to be involved in truth-setting and truth-making.

The deliberative notion of democratic truth is idealistic and perhaps unrealistic. The agonist notion of democratic truth is closer to what we see in practice, though may be undesirable. Much agonist writing is devoted to understanding how a world that functions in this way can be non-violent and democratic. In each case, there are good ways of behaving in a society and bad ways of interacting with other people.

Holding two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time and accepting both of them — that’s the best of being human.

Yes. No. Good. Bad. Life Death.

- Russian Doll, Season 1

All these ideas of truth may seem incompatible, and yet we can still accept all of them. This is the best of being human, and also part of the beauty of truth. The question is, how can we accept that the truth can be both deliberative and agonistic, in different measures and on different topics?

In October 2019 I was asked to present on ‘what is truth in the 21st century’ at the Wellcome Collection in association with the New Breed Network. I spoke about democratic truth. A week later I gave the same talk to an academic audience in the Centre of Technology & Global Affairs at Oxford University. Both groups responded well to the explanation, and so I thought it would be worth sharing on Medium too.

Alice Thwaite is the founder of The Echo Chamber Club, a philosophical research institute dedicated to understanding how information environments can be healthy and democratic in a digital age. She can be contacted on Twitter via @alicelthwaite.



The philosophy of healthy information environments — a sporadic blog

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