The Case for Truth Seeking (No Matter How Messy)

By Robert Jensen

Published in YES! Magazine · June, 2017

“Is Truth Dead?” Time Magazine’s April 3 cover story about Donald Trump, and the interview on which it’s based, doesn’t answer the question so much as make it clear what we’ve long known: The so-called leader of the so-called free world doesn’t think it’s a relevant question.

First, an aside: I never liked that description of U.S. presidents, in part because much of the rest of the free world often doesn’t want to follow our leader (for sensible reasons, such as a concern for international law, which the various “leaders of the free world” in my lifetime have ignored). But these days the moniker seems particularly ill-suited. We have a president better described as leader of the “free, one-time offer, while supplies last, call before midnight so you don’t forget, you won’t believe the quality at this price, an offer like this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal” world.

To infomercial hosts, carnival barkers, and other hustlers, questions about truth just don’t matter much. For them, freedom of expression is all about the hustle, not truth.

For the rest of us, truth is, of course, never alive nor dead. It’s something we struggle to see more clearly, to realize day to day, to make more real in our lives. And that’s always messy business. Truth is always on life support.

Understanding of the world is the product of a complicated interaction between our rational and emotional responses; some honest self-reflection is in order before one can accuse any specific people in any specific age of being post-truth or truth-impaired. In our blundering to find the truth, we are not purely rational computing machines, but complex organic entities. A bit of humility is useful, for all of us.

I suggest an antidote to the clown in charge of our current three-ring political circus: going back to basics with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, widely considered a foundational defense of truth-seeking free speech, published in 1859.

In the most-often quoted passage from the book, Mill makes the case for the collective search for the truth:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner, if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few people or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation—those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity for exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

But Mill is not naive about people’s desire for truth:

“It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either.”

And he reminds us that truth seeking comes with no guarantees of success:

“[I]ndeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries.”

History is certainly teeming, right before our eyes. Like Mill, we can be realistic about our truth-seeking and keep right on seeking it, committed to maximal freedom for our collective effort. Truth matters and freedom of expression to seek the truth matters, even without guarantees.