On the utility of truth

Over at Goodreports I just posted my thoughts on Timothy Snyder’s little book On Tyranny. While I sympathize with a lot of what Snyder says, I think things are more complex than he makes them out to be (something I think he would agree with, as the book is meant only as a primer). One point in particular has to do with his warning about entering a post-truth era.

10: Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.

We have heard a lot about this in recent years: the rise of “truthiness,” the rejection of the “reality-based community,” the branding of any story one doesn’t agree with as “fake news.” And I agree with Snyder about the dangers of giving up on truth. What I’ve found myself wondering about more recently however is the utilitarian value of the truth for many people. For example: it’s widely accepted that man-made climate change is real. To be a climate-change denier is to reject the truth. But I’ve known such people and whenever I engage with them I come away thinking that believing in climate change is something that is of no use to them. It does them no good at all. I’m not talking about oil company executive or coal miners here either. These are just regular people for whom the truth is of no value. Or, if anything, it’s a negative. This isn’t to deny Snyder’s broader point, but it does highlight the difficulty in doing anything about it.

There’s a saying, I’m not sure of its origin, that when the facts turn against us we turn against the facts. More and more when I find myself talking with people who can’t believe the ignorance or stubborn resistance to “what is actually the case” among those they disagree with I find myself asking them why they think such holdouts would even want to believe the truth. We like to think of the truth as being its own reward, an objective good, something that will set us free. This may be overstating its worth.

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