I have a question for readers and a request for guidance.
My gut feeling is that political power has nothing to do with truth. It doesn’t matter that someone is encouraging me or threatening me to believe that 2 + 2 =5. The truth is that 2 +2 is always 4. Even if someone enacts tax incentives for me to say otherwise. Even if police officers put guns to my head. Even if every other person in my country ostracizes me and calls me immoral.
It seems, though, that there are what seem to be (to many people) strange but unrelenting version of truth that are guided by the exercise of power. This occurs most often in closed systems. For instance, one would be scolded if one stood up and announced that Mary wasn’t a virgin while in a Christian church. If you take a megaphone at a Fourth of July picnic in middle-America, you’d better damn well say that the United States is the world’s greatest democracy, even though our voting rates are pathetically low and even though our political system is thoroughly corrupted thanks to legalized bribes termed “campaign contributions” (see this telling comment, which SHOULD shock us into starting a massive revolution).
Within a closed social system, then, it seems as though political or social power can be used to make many people mouth many blatant untruths. After mouthing them for long periods, many of these people start believing these untruths. For instance, did we invade Iraq to confiscate known weapons of mass destruction? That idea served as truth to many people during the run up to the invasion (some people still cling to that falsehood). Now, with a new power order in place in Washington DC, the prevailing truth is that the Bush Administration intentionally conjured up fake evidence regarding WMD.
This inter-relationship between truth and power reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s suggestion that scientific fields undergo periodic revolutions (“paradigm shifts”), in which the nature of scientific inquiry within a particular field is abruptly transformed. I’m also somewhat acquainted with various “post-modernist” writings that seem to address this general issue. For instance, consider this definition of postmodernism by Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler, which I pulled from Wikipedia:
A worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.”… Truth is “created by the specific culture and exists only in that culture. Therefore, any system or statement that tries to communicate truth is a power play, an effort to dominate other cultures.
I see this power/truth formula at work all the time in at the courthouse. Prior to 1954, if I were advocating to keep black children out of my white school, I would cite to the legal “truth” of Plessy v. Ferguson. After 1954, my opponents would cite to the legal “truth” of Brown v. Board of Education. I’m aware that the Critical Legal Scholars movement also picks up on this power/truth issue.
I’m wondering if any readers or co-authors can direct me to other writers who I should consider in my explorations.
What is driving my questions is this. I would certainly be tempted to “create” truth using the barrel of a gun (or the power to threaten another with hell) whenever one has that power. It would be ever so tempting for someone who was not self-critical to cut off discussion whenever it threatened one’s own sacred cows. Governments and religions excel at this technique, and it seems to be the source of some of the fruitless conversations I see at this site and elsewhere.
Here at DI, of course, we don’t have any power to threaten anyone with anything. If you don’t like what we’re saying, you can quickly go elsewhere on the Internet. But many institutions can threaten people to “Believe X or else,” and it seems to me that, at least on a local level, that technique is quite often successful. I suspect that it drives most of the DI comments where many of our authors and a few readers seem to be eternally condemned to be ships passing in the night, intellectually speaking
That’s my question, then. I’m looking suggestions for a reading list to further explore this relationship between truth and power.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
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- distal muse » Blog Archive » Truth and Power…and Other Stuff | May 13, 2009