Today’s guest post is by Brian Leli, an American expat living in Thailand, whose Substack, Symbols & Rituals, you can find here.
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Think for Yourself & Say Something True
"Can there be many truths?" That was the question posed to me by a reader of my Substack recently. She was writing in response to a quote that I'd shared from a Michael Ignatieff essay on thinking for yourself, in which Ignatieff wrote that "the point of thinking is to say something true, not something new.”
It's a great question. The kind that I read and instinctively want to have an answer for already. Because there is comfort in feeling like we know and discomfort in feeling like we don't. But I have learned over time that it is in my interest to move toward the discomfort of not knowing. See what's there. Maybe gather a few clues. Move on to a more informed not knowing. It doesn't mean that I always do it (my inner bullshitter and its cheap tricks are formidable foes). It just means that I've been around the sun enough times to know that I should, and to know that there is a far worse discomfort in feeling like we know while knowing—somewhere deep down—that we don't.
But I'm getting ahead of myself now, when what I should really be doing is taking a brief step back.
My awareness of just how full of shit I can be absent self-scrutiny took not only time to develop but also movement. I was raised in a suburb of Chicago, before the arrival of the internet, where the majority of my friendships grew out of a shared love of music. Our tiny worldviews, insofar as we had them, came largely from our families and each other and within, plus a lot of Slayer and Pantera and other bands of their ilk. I can't recall ever speaking about truth or politics with anyone I knew then. Politics in particular was so far off our radar that I couldn't have told you what any of my friends' (or my) political leanings even were at the time. After moving to Chicago in my twenties, though, falling in with a group of progressive friends whose worldviews I also borrowed from for a while, I feel very confident telling you now that I did not grow up with a bunch of future progressives.
That micro move from the suburbs to the city—only a 30-mile, 40-minute drive—proved to be a formative one for me. Like my parents' divorce, it placed me at the center of two opposing forces, and showed me that there's a lot to learn—about the world and human nature and social groups and truth and myself—by simply looking at things from as many sides and angles as possible, thinking for myself, staying open to new information, embracing uncertainty, and choosing no enemies. That awareness began in earnest in 2011, when I was 31 years old and finally got more than 30 miles out of Dodge. My pins on the map between then and now are as follows: London for a year; back to Chicago for a few months; a couple different towns in Thailand for a year; back to Chicago for a few months; Bogota for six months; back to Chicago for about a year and a half—to recover from the nasty bacterial infection that I'd brought home with me from Colombia—punctuated by month-long stays in both Lisbon and Berlin; Phnom Penh for about six months; Siem Reap for about six more; and then, in 2017, back to the small city in the mountains of northern Thailand where I've been ever since, with one weary eye trained always on the West.
I've been around, is what I'm saying. And as I have, I've looked hard and compulsively at my motherland and myself in search of truth. Occasionally, I have learned, it reveals itself. Sometimes when you're living in-country. Sometimes when you're living thousands of miles away. But only with any real clarity, in my experience, when you've done a lot of both. And if one wants to get to the heart of the madness devouring our present-day, "post-truth" America, there are not many better questions to begin with than the one posed to me.
Can There Be Many Truths?
I took a motorcycle drive through my town’s backroads to consider it. As I recall it now, my initial thought-stream went something like this: There can be only one truth, but we might not know—or agree on—what it is, and even if we think we know, that one truth can change with the arrival of new information, maybe? I should read up on this. But then what does it mean to "say something true"? If I think something's true and I say it, but I'm wrong, would I still be saying something true? I should read up on this. I should also do my taxes and look for cheaper health insurance. If it seems true to me but not to you, and vice versa, and we have all of the same information, then maybe "truth" is the wrong word? Do I need gas? Did I write "brother's" with an apostrophe the other day instead of "brothers" plural? That dog looks funny. Wouldn't I be saying something less true if I said something that I didn't think was true but that was, in fact, true? I should read up on this.
I read up on it. Most of that reading was cursory, so my homework is far from complete (I’m still not an expert on the philosophical theories of truth, I’m afraid). But I did walk away with a greater understanding of a few kinds of truths that seemed more useful to me than some others. Namely, objective truth (the sun exists), subjective truth (the sun is beautiful), and consensus truth (the bright thing in the sky is called the sun).
The question, once again, was "Can there be many truths?" Here's where I landed in response.
I think it depends what kind of truths we're talking about. Objective versus subjective versus consensus, and so on. With objective truths, I think there can be only one. With subjective truths, there can be many. I think this is the source of many problems in the world. People want their subjective truths (or beliefs, small-t truths) to override objective truths and become consensus truths, accepted by all. These kinds of small-t truths are part of what makes a small-l liberal society so important. If we mandate x or ban y to codify subjective truths, we become an illiberal society ensnared in ideological conflict, which, you know, we kind of are now.
I think some examples of what I mean would be helpful. For just a few of those, see the more dogmatic debates being had around gender identity, abortion rights, and Covid everything. There are truths (and, importantly, internal disagreements) on all sides. But some of them (a) are subjective truths, (b) defy objective truths, (c) lack consensus, and (d) are nonetheless presented as though they are incontrovertibly true.
That’s not to say that there aren’t sensible conversations being had on these and other divisive topics. There are, and I see them happening even through my weird window into the West on the internet, where so much is, seemingly by design and default these days, tribal and performative and turned up to 11. If these sensible online conversations are being had, then I think it's reasonable to believe that many more sensible offline ones are being had, too. But since I’m no longer in the West, a belief about it is all I’m allowed to have. Nonetheless, it is my belief that most people have complex views and are open to reason, even though much of the stuff that rises to the top of the internet makes it look otherwise.
In any case, I do take issue with the less sensible, and more audible, conversations. The loud and domineering and intolerant ones. The exhausting ones that stretch their tentacles through raging tweets and bitter op-eds down to the levers and core of society. The ones that sound, to my ears, something like this.
—I believe subjective truth x, despite its inconsistency with consensus truth y and objective truth z. Society should therefore dismiss y and z and accept x. Resistance will not be tolerated.
—I don't believe subjective truth x, due to its inconsistency with consensus truth y and objective truth z. Society should therefore ban or limit all things that exist in support of x (and/or mandate or encourage all things that exist in support of y and z). Resistance will be met with equal and opposite resistance.
—I reject the proposal to ban or limit all things that exist in support of x (and/or mandate or encourage all things that exist in support of y and z). Society should therefore ban or limit all things that exist in support of y and z (and/or mandate or encourage all things that exist in support of x). Resistance will heretofore be considered anti-x and/or be labeled misinformation and/or disinformation and/or conspiracy theory and/or violence, et cetera.
If that’s too abstract, try this:
—I believe that kids who were born males but say they are females are females, and that not affirming this is harmful. Society should therefore dismiss eons of objective and consensus truth and accept/support medical transition for kids. Resistance will not be tolerated.
—I don't believe that kids who were born males but say they are females are females, or that not affirming this is harmful, because this ignores eons of objective and consensus truth to the contrary. Society should therefore reject/ban medical transition for kids. Resistance will be met with equal and opposite resistance.
—I reject the proposal to ban medical transition for kids. Society should therefore teach gender ideology in schools and encourage kids to medically transition if they show any signs of being gender atypical, and this should begin as early as possible. Resistance is anti-trans and irrefutably harmful.
Again, I know that there are far more sensible exchanges being had. The generic positions above are not steel men, but they are also not straw men that I've constructed to distort or weaken the better arguments. Less generic versions of those positions do exist and are annoyingly present in the discourse, but they are not the best of the best. They are, in fact, the worst of the worst. Unfortunately, they are also the ones that seem to have gained the most traction with the powers that be (the media, the government, and so on).
Forced Consensus & Open Inquiry
The beautiful combination of (a) open minds, (b) tolerance, and (c) persuasion seems to have fallen out of style for many in ostensibly liberal societies. I don't know that it ever actually was in style. But wherever it was, it appears to have fallen. In its place has arisen an ugly and opposite combination, one built on certainty (closed minds); illiberality (intolerance); and immovable demands (a disregard for persuasion).
What I see happening too often from my window seat in Thailand is this: a lot of people are working hard, but not smart, to advance their subjective truths as quickly as possible to be accepted as consensus truths. In doing so, they present those subjective truths as already settled consensus or objective truths. In the absence of open minds, tolerance, and persuasion, dissent and non-compliance on a wide range of issues are met with labels like misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theory, bigotry, racism, sexism, transphobia, and so on.
To be clear, those are all real things that persist to varying degrees in societies both liberal and otherwise. That's what makes the cheap trick so effective and frustrating. If you and I disagree on something subjective, and I call your views "misinformation," et cetera, then all I've really done is attempt to achieve consensus via dismissal. Instead of countering your argument with a better one, I can just flag your views as "objectively" wrong and not worth any kind, smart, moral person's time.
How could a kind, smart, and moral person object to kids transitioning? How could a good person choose not to get vaccinated or wear a mask? How could anyone oppose a woman’s right to choose?
From top to bottom, I can think of many ways, and I think we limit ourselves by not giving enough consideration or nuance to those many ways. A better way to begin each of those questions, I think, is to start from the assumption that the people who hold beliefs different to your own are also kind, smart, and moral. From there, the line of questioning might go more like this:
Why might a kind, smart, and moral person object to kids transitioning? What are the most legitimate reasons I can think of that might lead a good person to choose not to get vaccinated or wear a mask? Why might someone support women’s rights yet also oppose abortion? What am I missing and what sort of things might lead me to change my mind?
It’s a subtle shift, but it’s all that’s needed to move us from a place of certainty and judgment to one of open and gentle inquiry.
Take Nobody’s Word for It
In Ignatieff's essay, he wrote this about thinking, persuasion, and truth:
[Thinking] is an exercise in finding reasons to persuade yourself and others that something is true, or at least plausibly true. Thinking has truth as its goal and its organizing discipline. Bullshitters ... are precisely those who do not think: they simply express what comes into their minds, without concerning themselves with whether what they are saying has any relation to reality. Every university is, or should be, properly worried that their classrooms are training generation after generation of accredited bullshitters.
Later in the essay, he wrote this about thinking and liberal society:
If thinking for yourself is the goal of your life, then it pays to maintain a certain distance from the institutions in which you work and live. Distance implies wariness about received opinion, about fashions, about the recurring tides of certainty and urgency that course through the places where we work and soon have us all facing the same way, thinking the same thing. The larger point is about liberal society: if thinking for yourself is your goal, do not go looking for the warm bath of belonging or the certitude of faith. Do not expect a free society to provide these for you. Belonging is not the fondest dream of a serious intellectual. She dreams of other satisfactions first.
Where he says "serious intellectual," I would probably say "open and honest person." But both, I think, are true. He goes on:
Liberal society works best—it is most productive as well as most free—when its members all feel a certain alienation, a certain dividedness about the objectives and the values of the institutions inside which they work. Alienation is another term for distance and detachment; it need not be melodramatic or wounding. It is simply one of the epistemological conditions for a working mind, and for the pleasures of its work. Objectivity is a variety of alienation. Who would trust the views of a thinker who is not to some degree alienated—that is, detached—from her subject? One of the very first scientific societies in the world, the Royal Society, founded in 1661 by the likes of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, took as its motto: Nullius in Verba. Take Nobody’s Word for It. Imagine: the greatest scientists of their time set up an organization to promote scientific thinking, and their working rule was not even to take each other’s word for the truth. That is an ideal of truth that is also an ideal about institutions: to give us a place not to belong and imbibe the pieties of a tribe, but where we take nobody’s word for it.
I concur and am moved nearly to tears when I read those last two sentences. What an aspiration.
I’m not interested in telling anyone that their subjective truths aren’t true. My only point on this is that subjective truths are effectively just beliefs, feelings, and intuitions. And those are all fine. By all means, believe, feel, and intuit. And I will too. Let's just not go demanding that others comply or draw a "warm bath," as Ignatieff put it, for everything that we believe, feel, and intuit. Not if one of our aims is to be open and honest people.
What I am interested in is seeing more of those beautiful combinations I mentioned earlier.
Open Minds, Tolerance, & Persuasion
Personally, I believe that men are men, women are women, trans men are trans men, and trans women are trans women. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement. It is, as I see it, an objective truth. Either way, I believe as well that we are all the same, and we are all different. And I see nothing inherently wrong (or right, for that matter) with being any of us.
I also believe that kids are kids. With few exceptions (people born intersex, for example), I think we can objectively say that boys are boys and girls are girls, and if they feel otherwise then that feeling should probably be met with careful consideration and loads of time—and psychological care, if mental health is an issue—before any lasting or permanent decisions are made. That is not the cue for schools and politicians and gender ideologues to step in and push an agenda. It is neither their business nor their responsibility. The responsibility falls with families and the freethinking individuals within them who grow up to be biological men and women, and who may or may not “identify” or choose to live as something else, and who may or may not decide, as adults, to do something permanent about it. Because first, do no harm. And then, do whatever you want.
I believe, to paraphrase a Louis C.K. bit (and now also a Chris Rock bit), that abortion is sort of killing babies, but that women should be allowed to kill babies (up to a point).
I believe, and always have believed, that Covid may have come from a lab. Like the US Energy Department, I think this is the “most likely” scenario, though I’m unfortunately also like the DOE in only being able to say that with “low confidence.” Sometimes we don’t get to be sure. Those are the breaks.
I believe that there are good reasons to be skeptical about Covid vaccines (of which I've had three), the government’s Covid messaging and influence over related social media content, the media’s Covid reporting and conflicts of interest with Big Pharma, Big Pharma’s conflicts of interest with the government, and so on. I also believe that it’s dismissive to call such beliefs and skepticisms conspiracy theories, or to declare any of these highly debatable issues settled.
If you disagree, that’s great, something to be revered, even. But it's still ultimately an opinion, a belief. And our beliefs don't make us right. We’re not debating the existence of the sun, after all. We can’t just look up at the thing we've agreed to call the sky and see the truth. What we can do is take nobody’s word for it, think for ourselves, try to see the best in each other, and talk it out. We can aim, even in disagreement, to be more rational, respectful, and connected. And we can all strive to be more open-minded, tolerant, and persuasive.
One last thing: It is not lost on me that, while reading everything above, you might have found yourself wondering why someone who's way over here (possibly for good) would care so much about what is happening way over there. It's a fair thing to wonder. And my answer is pretty simple: I had no real clue what America was, or how much of an American I was, until I'd put a bunch of years and miles between us. Now that I've done that, it's clear to me that the US and I are inseparable, indivisible, whether we like it or not, till death do us part.
In fact, I'm far more of an American over here than I ever was or could have become over there. If that doesn't make sense to you, then I encourage you to travel somewhere far away and see for yourself. See how people look at you and how you look at yourself. See if you start to feel less like an American or more like one. Then, stay. Don't go home for a while. See if your absence from your home makes you start caring less about it or more. See if your interest in your country’s complex relationship with things like truth, liberty, and justice for all waxes or wanes. I'm not just saying that, either. I really mean it. Go and see it for yourself. Experience it for yourself. Think about it for yourself. Then write home and tell someone all about it.
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I see the idea of Truth slightly differently, though perhaps the difference is only one of semantics.
1. objectively and demonstrably true
2. opinion (modal logic can be useful here)
3. objectively and demonstrably not true
Problems arise when the second 2 become wedded and present themselves as the first. And the real trick is determining if the purveyor is doing it in bad faith - ego, narcissism, nihilism, financial incentives, etc.
We are all capable of erring, thus Nullius in Verba.
As Richard Feynman said, “I would rather have questions I can’t answer than answers I can’t question.”