The Quest for Truth in a Polarized World

brighter minds better futures critical thinking Mar 27, 2024
arguing two truths

(🎙️Podcast Blog)

You've probably come across people emphasizing the importance of "speaking their truth" or discussions around how powerful words can be, sometimes even hurtful. It seems we're at a point, particularly noticeable in broader society, where finding common ground on basic realities is challenging, let alone having productive conversations about them. For instance, consider disagreements over widely debated topics that aren't necessarily political but deeply divide opinions. The core issue isn't just about having different perspectives; it's more about a noticeable decline in our collective ability to discuss these differences constructively. This difficulty in dialogue spans various subjects, including personal identity and societal roles, highlighting not just diverse views of reality but a fundamental struggle to engage in meaningful dialogue about these views.

The Fractured Reality: The Erosion of Common Truth

Why has our reality become so utterly fractured? Why do we lack the capacity to talk about these things more constructively and positively? And, how we can go about starting to talk about them better, because if we're not able to talk about things as a society, we're certainly never going to resolve them.  Yet, one of the fundamental aspects of critical thinking on which we all need to devote more effort is how to communicate our thinking better and how to exercise stronger critical thinking throughout discussion. 

I'm going to explain the philosophy that changed our very perception of reality, our very conception of what truth is. I'm going to explain about how it emerged in the latter half of the previous century and how it has come to take roots in just about every aspect of our perception of the world, and that means your perception of the world as well, whether you know it or not. And what's going to be critical to understand, in fact, is that this particular philosophical movement actually accomplished some very important things in advancing our capacity not just to think critically and to converse with one another better, and, in that respect, we actually owe it a great deal. 

But it also went one step too far and, in doing so, also metastasized as an infection that imposed horrible consequences on a great deal of our society, on a great deal of our capacity to interact with one another. It’s the origin of our inability to be able to find more common understandings of the nature of reality and truth with one another. 

Before going any further, however, I'm going to ask that you hold in mind an umbrella idea, and the umbrella idea comes from F Scott Fitzgerald, who famously said that 

“the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” 

Now, I don't actually agree with F Scott Fitzgerald that that is the definitive test of a first rate intelligence, but for the sake of this discussion, it's particularly important.  So, please set aside your personal opinions about some of the issues or ideas that I'm going to raise—set aside whether or not you personally think they are true or good or bad—and instead embrace the idea that we need to be able to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still be able to function. 

And, if it seems at any point within this blog post that I am criticizing liberalism or I'm criticizing conservatism, then please refer back to F. Scott Fitzgerald one more time, because I’m not taking a position on these issues.  What's important is not how I or any of us think individually about any of the issues we're going to discuss. What's important is learning why we're unable to talk about them and how to talk about them better.

The Philosophical Shift: From Modernism to Postmodernism

To grasp why our perception of reality shifted, it's essential to delve into a philosophical trend known as postmodernism. This movement arose in opposition to modernism and positivism, hence the prefix "post" in postmodernism.

Understanding modernism and positivism begins with the essence of positivism itself, a concept that reached its zenith in the 1950s and 1960s. It was founded on the optimism that we could indeed have certainty in our knowledge. This certainty encompassed several aspects:

  1. There is a physical reality.
  2. We can know that physical reality.
  3. Science and logic are our primary tools for knowing that reality. 
  4. (We could also eventually come to be certain about things like ethics and morality.) 
  5. (Science and technology would lead to a happier society.)

By way of generalization, think of modernism and positivism through classic 1950s American culture: what's clearly good is America and democracy and capitalism; and what's clearly bad is the Soviet Union and communism. Or to perhaps be a little more specific, think of the show Father Knows Best

There is a nuclear family. 

The nuclear family is good. 

Father is at the helm.

When father gets home from his diligent 9-5 job, he will have the wisdom to solve All the family problems. 

That is certainly a crude generalization of American culture and the picture that was painted of it on TV, but it nevertheless serves as a useful example. 

Another way to think about the culture of modernism/positivism is that there was certainty, and certainty was valued because it was comforting and safe.

Along Came Postmodernism—No More Certainty

In reaction to the certainty of modernism and positivism, a group of European philosophers—Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, and Francis Leotard—introduced a counter-perspective: 

Truth is relative.

To understand that in more detail, I’m going to break postmodernism down into a series of tenets.  Please know that this is my breakdown of postmodernism, which does not have a literal set of tenets. 

Tenet 1: We can only conceptually understand the world through language. 

Postmodernists would agree that we can experience the world in certain ways without language. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you're going to get burned and you're going to feel pain whether or not you have language for it. You're still going to hurt. That hurting is, in effect, one kind of understanding of the world. It's a feeling, but it’s not conceptually understanding it. 

In order for us to conceptually appreciate what happened to you when you put it on the hot stove, we need a word for it.  You can feel without language, but to understand something as a concept or an idea, we need language.   

To appreciate that, just know the word referent. The word referent is used in linguistics and postmodernism to “refer” to that thing referenced by language. If there were an apple sitting on a table and I used the term “apple,” then the actual red fruit sitting on the table would be the referent for the word “apple.” Thus, a referent is, in effect, the physical thing to which any given word refers. 

Unfortunately, there's the problem with referents. Referents can be relatively easy to identify when they are simple, physical things, such as an apple on a table. But referents become much more difficult as they become more abstract. 

Let me give you an example:

Everyone would agree that what happened with slavery in America was an example of racism, that dehumanizing and owning other people based on their skin color is racism, pure and simple. Thus, slavery is an easily agreed upon referent for racism.

But people across this country do not share the same level of agreement that the present debate about immigration at the U.S. southern border is a referent for racism.  Some people believe that racism is a factor in the call for stronger border policies.  Some people believe that racism is not a factor in the call for better border policies.  And some people fall in between.  

The important point for this discussion is not whether you feel one way or another. The point for this discussion is only the fact that we, as a society, cannot agree that the situation at the border is a referent for the term “racism.”

(Reminder! If, with respect to the border, your brain wants to say that the truth is this or that, then please, just for the remainder of this discussion, remember F. Scott Fitzgerald and the importance of being able to hold two contradictory truths in mind at the same time and still being able to function, because our point right now is not to make any kind of determination about whether or not there's racism at the southern border. The point is only to understand that the border situation is a murkier referent for us as a society than was slavery.) 

So, to sum up this tenet, we can only conceptualize reality through language.  A referent is the real thing to which words refer.  Some referents are clearer than others.

Tenet 2: Any Word is a Reflection, Selection, and Deflection of Reality

The philosopher Kenneth Burke said that: 

“Even if any given word is a reflection of reality, by its very nature it must be a selection of reality and to this extent it must function as a deflection of reality.”

More simply, any given word simultaneously reflects reality, selects reality, and deflects reality. No word gives the entire truth.

Let me give you an example. I say, “there's an apple on the table.” And if there is in fact an apple on the table, then I have to an extent reflected the reality, but I have also to an extent selected the reality. I did not mention that there is an apple on the table that has four chairs around it, I did not mention that it was a honey crisp apple. And so my language, though reflecting reality to an extent, has also selected certain aspects of that reality over others. 

In another sense, by saying there's an apple on the table, I may have deflected you from thinking about the oranges that are available to you in the other room. Perhaps I wanted the oranges, so I mentioned the apple on the table as a deflection of the oranges. 

And so the postmodernists put forth the inescapable truth that any use of language, no matter how comprehensive, can reflect reality to some degree, but also always selects certain aspects of reality in favor of others, and also deflects other aspects of the world at the same time. And so, because the only way that we can conceptualize the world is through language, and because language is a selection and deflection of reality, the entire modernist, positivist perspective on the world is flawed.

Thus, the notion that “father knows best” cannot be true.  What is “best”? At “best,” father could only “know” and reflect some portion of reality, all while he is still selecting and deflecting parts of it. Thus, the postmodernists blew apart the comfort and the certainty of modernism and positivism.

And, rightly so. 

Doing so empowers us to discuss the world in more complex ways; it takes us from the simple idea that father will know best and solve all our problems, and it shows us that there's a richer, more complicated discussion of reality to be had there.  For, how much does father really “know”?

Furthermore,  it taught us that we should be more humble when we communicate.  No matter what we say, though we hope to be reflecting reality to a degree, we are also haplessly selecting reality and deflecting reality, which means that we can’t ever be fully “right.” Rather, we should appreciate the ways somebody else's language holds some capacity to reflect that reality in ways that our language does not. 

In sum, we can only conceptualize the world through language, but language use is always flawed—always selecting and deflecting aspects of reality.

Tenet 3: We Need to be Leery of Dominant Narratives

The third tenet comes from the theorist Francis Leotard, who said that, because of the first two premises, we need to be careful of what he called totalizing metanarratives—a fancy term for the language or narrative that everyone roughly takes to be true—the big dominant narratives that govern our society.

For example, if we take the 1950s dominant narrative that “father knows best,” we should ask ourselves who benefits from the perpetuation of that dominant narrative. It so happens that men and fathers benefited from perpetuating that narrative. If we look at the narrative that capitalism is good and communism is bad, then we also need to recognize that capitalists who own media stations benefit from perpetuating that narrative. 

Leotard’s philosophy actually changed the course of education and,  for most of you listening, depending upon your age, the way you were probably educated. Prior to postmodernism, education was much more modernistic

  • The teacher knows the truth that is to be known. 
  • The teacher's job is to communicate the truth.
  • The learner's job is to learn and memorize what the teacher says is true. 
  • Learners are graded on how well they learn the “narrative” about truth put forth by the teacher.

After postmodernism emerged, educators started to use education to teach students how to push back against dominant narratives. Instead of telling students what Hamlet means, teachers empowered students to think about Hamlet for themselves.

Also, since Hamlet had been taught through a Western, male, and white lens, educators began to ask if there should not also be  feminist interpretations of Hamlet, and then ethnic interpretations, LGBTQ interpretations, environmental interpretations, etc.  

Thus, postmodernism licensed more critical thinking, more critical interrogation of the world because it said that the dominant narrative, the supposed truth that education is trying to purvey about the world, is also selecting and deflecting reality. The postmodernists revealed that we shouldn't try to understand reality through only one dominant narrative. Other marginalized narratives that haven't been given voice also offer a reflection of reality.  In effect, there's no way we can think more complexly and more critically about the world if we're limited to viewing it through just one dominant narrative. To understand the world, we need to appreciate multiple narratives.

In sum, because all language—all narratives about the world—only partially reflects reality while also selecting and deflecting it, then we cannot possibly understand the world through any one narrative.  Furthermore, dominant narratives, such as that father knows best, typically serve people who perpetuate that narrative, so we need to be leery of them.

Tenet 4: Dominant Narratives Oppress Critical Thinking

Leotard then made an assertion that’s true at its core: if you accept any dominant narrative, you cannot possibly be thinking for yourself. In fact, if you accept anybody else's narrative at all, you cannot be thinking for yourself. Why? Because if you accept someone else's language into your brain as a way to represent the world, then you have not created your own language for the world, and therefore you are embracing somebody else's conception of reality. In fact, if you accept anybody else's language for reality, then you are in fact being oppressed.

In the purest sense, he’s absolutely right. Anytime we embrace an existing narrative into our minds, then we are not thinking for ourselves. We are instead embracing the language of someone else's narrative, and that's problematic if we want to be thinking people. 

But on the other hand, Leotard’s point ignores something very important: some people's narratives for the world are better than ours.

Physicists have much more advanced narratives for understanding the universe than the rest of us do. Their narratives are a far greater reflection of reality than our narratives. But, in part because of postmodernism, this is where we see flat earthers emerge.  They reject physicists’ more enlightened narratives and insert their own.  They reject all of the math and science that proves that the world is round because, in their narrative, as far as they can see, the earth looks flat. And, they believe they are justified in doing so because, as Leotard argued, dominant narratives are suspicious.

Thus, Leotard started to ignore the fact that some narratives do a far better job of reflecting reality than others do. And then he takes it entirely a step too far.

Tenet 5: Science is Just Another Oppressive Narrative

In modernism and positivism, of course, science is our primary means for understanding reality, and that's because it works from the premise that there is a reality and the reality can be observed and tested through science. But Leotard rejects that, and he rejects that in a very clever way, which, though clever, ultimately fails.

Leotard says that because science has to be communicated through language, then scientific narratives are no better than any other ones.  Science language is still just selecting and deflecting reality. And there’s some truth to that. Science’s language is imperfect.

But Leotard ignored the fact that scientific narratives have proven themselves to be, in certain respects, particularly effective ways of understanding reality, and we know that because scientists have used that language of previous scientists to advance further. We would not have gone from fire to the wheel, to writing on tablets, to writing on paper, to typing on computers, if science were not reflecting reality well.

Tenet 6 – Language is Reality Itself

This is where Leotard attempts a Jedi mind trick. And I think you're going to find this nothing if not fascinating.

To understand what Leotard does, let's just first understand two important terms: 

  • Ontology: the nature of reality. 
  • Epistemology: the means by which we can know that reality. 

In modernism/positivism, the ontological perspective was that there is a physical reality.  The epistemology was that we could understand that physical reality through observation and science. 

In postmodernism, language is, in effect, the epistemology, and with some sound rationale.  After all, the only way that we can conceptually understand the world is through language.  

But Leotard took it a step too far.  He asserted that there is no reality at all except for language. Language is in fact reality itself. Language is the ontology.  

Though wrong, he made an interesting case for this. What he said in essence is this:

-We don’t need language to represent a non-thing, but anytime to represent something, we need language to create that reality.

To “prove” that, he referred to the American justice system, where someone is innocent until proven guilty. If we bring someone before the court, there is absolutely no reason at all to presume that that individual committed a murder until there is sufficient language that creates a reality where we believe that the person did commit murder. In other words, there would be no reason to think any random person in the world was a murderer.  

Think of it like this: If you're meeting a friend for lunch tomorrow, you would have no reason to sit down at lunch and think that that person had been abducted by aliens. The default position for you is that didn't happen. The only way you might come to think it would be if your friend used enough effective language that you accept as true. 

And so Leotard's point is therefore there's no reality at all until it's constructed by language and therefore language is the only reality. But that's where he tried to pull a Jedi mind trick.  If you recall, Obi-Wan uses the power of the force to trick the Stormtroopers, who are looking right at the droids they need to find, to ignore the droids. He convinces them that “there’s nothing to see here.”  Thus, even though they were looking right at the referents, they effectually didn’t see them.

But Jedi mind tricks only work for Jedis, and Leotard is no Jedi. His point fails in our world. We can see the apple on the table, and if someone calls it an orange, we have a way to talk about why apple is a better term for the thing on the table than orange.

Consequences of Leotard’s Overreach

When we hear someone say that they're going to speak their truth, it, to my argument, emerges a great deal from postmodernism and from Francis Leotard, from the perspective that all narratives for the world are equal, that because we don't want to accept any dominant narrative or anyone else's narrative, every individual narrative is its own truth. But that notion depends on the idea that language can be ontology, that language is reality itself. 

Thus, we need to agree that people shouldn’t just accept dominant narratives, or any narratives, without thinking about them. We also need to agree that people can hold different and differing perspectives.  And, we need to remember that because no one narrative perfectly reflects reality, we therefore need to listen to many different narratives about the world.

But we also need to agree that everyone doesn’t get their own individual reality.  Words are not ontological. Everyone, despite what Leotard would argue, cannot have their own individual, unique ontological reality. 

Similarly, if we look at this notion that words are violence, that notion bases itself on the idea that words are reality itself, because words cannot have a physical impact if they were not reality.

And so, Leotard's overreach really has impaired our capacity to think critically, because if everyone has their individual truth, and all truths/narratives are equal, then we can’t have a  constructive conversation. If we're all equally right about everything all the time, there is no way for us to reach higher understandings than either of us possess, than both of us possess, then our society collectively possesses. 

In fact, the postmodern idea that we must be leery of dominant narratives, has been misunderstood.  Instead of saying that we must think critically about any dominant narrative, people believe that it must be rejected outright because it must inherently be oppressive.  Yes, of course, in theory, any dominant narrative is only reflecting reality to a degree, and to a degree it is also selecting and deflecting reality. But that doesn't mean we should reject it outright as oppressive. So, instead of rightly interrogating narratives, the current trend has become to reject narratives outright, to see any dominant narrative as bad and any suppressed or marginalized narrative as good and righteous. 

Unfortunately, the tragic irony is that it undermines critical thinking in the name of promoting critical thinking. Just as it is unthoughtful to embrace a dominant narrative just because it is a dominant narrative, it’s equally unthoughtful to reject a dominant narrative just because it is a dominant narrative. It is equally unthoughtful to reject a marginalized narrative just because it has been marginalized as it is to embrace as true and righteous a marginalized narrative just because it has been marginalized. We should think critically about all narratives, not reject or embrace any narrative because it has been dominant or because it has been marginalized.

My favorite example of how this has played out is as follows: Almost everyone in the US, and I think in much of the world, has condemnations to make of “the media.” “You can’t trust the media,” they say. I'm sure you've heard someone voice something to that effect. But that’s a Jedi mind trick. 

Media outlets actually vary greatly in terms of their points of view and their integrity.  They are a large and heterogeneous group. But once “the media” is a singular, all-powerful entity that controls a singular dominant narrative, it therefore must warrant nothing but our unthinking condemnation. 

Thus, suggesting that we can't trust the media undermines critical thinking in the guise of critical thinking. On the surface, it seems like the thoughtful argument that, because narratives can be oppressive, we need to reject the big media and think for ourselves. 

But in reality, once multiple, varied media outlets become “the media,” an abstraction that doesn't exist and therefore cannot be interrogated, the potential for critical thinking is undermined. We no longer, as we should do, critically interrogate this particular news story or that particular news outlet. We're instead intellectually flopping about in a puddle of faux intellectualism that rejects the singular and all-powerful media as oppressive just because it exists, even when that singular it does not exist.

I could list so many more examples, but I hope instead that you'll be inspired to look around a little bit, because I am sure you'll start to see many of your own.

In wrapping up, it would be absurd of me to suggest that postmodernism is the only cause behind all of the examples I just listed, but I hope to have made a strong case for the fact that it's a particularly insidious part of the problem.  Ultimately, because it reminds us that no language, including our own, ever fully reflects reality, postmodernism should make us more compassionate and humbler and more open to other perspectives and to other narratives, and we should think critically about all narratives, the dominant and the marginalized. But whenever someone tells you that whatever is Western and European is inherently bad, that “the media” can't be trusted, that everyone gets their own reality, or that they don't need experts because, as far as they can see in their reality, the earth is flat, then remember that what they're really trying to tell you is that “these aren't the droids you're looking for.”

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