Truth is no longer monolithic and we are doomed if we don’t fix it

Since the beginnings of civilisation, men had some cardinal points dominating their concerns. Wars and economic development are some of them, but none of them matches the quest for mankind’s own origins and purpose. Truth, a monolithic, indivisible and undeniable concept was the supreme goal backing all the others. In no other moment in history truth was challenged by so many. We’re facing the cornerstone of a potentially destructive era. Without truth, mankind spirals into chaos and that’s what we’re doing right now.

In the last three years, the word of the year (a selection by the most prestigious dictionaries as the term that defined the precedent period), at least one of the terms challenged the concept of an indivisible reality. ” Post-truth“, “fake news” e “misinformation” became widely accepted concepts revealing that society itself cannot agree on the foundations of any possible debate. It’s not a completely new symptom. In the past, societies went into turmoil because of the lack of references to believe in. Uncertainty is the mother of all evils.

So, truth, as an indivisible or questionable concept, was retained by all thinkers as some kind of elevated goal to be reached and one that could not be contested. This is why we live in extraordinary times. (nor opinion). But it has changed, People are going to the debate with the freedom to state as facts things that find no correspondence in reality (the “alternate facts” as formatted by the Trump Reality Platoon). This is a tectonic rearrangement: everything can be questioned or discarded, so the simple concept of debate is no longer certain. So here comes the question: how can you dispute with someone that is willing to use any resource to prove you wrong, even if these resources are phoney, distorted os simply plain lies with no relationship with a representation in the physical (or conceptual world)?

Technology was the enabler of an environment where ideas and other intellectual products have been re-shaped and fundamentally changed. The way how society debates is completely different of what it was 20 years ago. Once we came out of the amplified agora which democratic societies evolved to, clusters of smaller society samples became possible and instead of the search for the physical reality, people look for the confirmation of their own beliefs, which is far easier to cope with than the everyday life of the massive majority. All our failures can have a more comfortable explanation. We can ditch any responsibility and throw it in the lap of somebody else. The detachment we create from those we don’t agree with separated “us” from “them” and the massive communities and social arrangements we had for a very long time stopped binding us by resemblance and now characterise us for our differences. The generations who have not experienced the insanities of a war don’t have such references in mind, so they irresponsibly shake the foundations of everything we know. “And the call it is answered from the caves to the cities, come the dealers of Salvation on Earth, we’ve seen the restless children at the head of the columns, come to purify the future with the arrogance of youth. Nothing is as cruel as the righteousness of innocents with automatic weapons and a gospel of the truth”, as Justin Sullivan puts it.

History shows us that this kind of decline in the social tissue is not mended without a taste of chaos, but, as we said, we live in extraordinary times. The same technical advances that have put us closer to the abyss also presents possibilities like never before. People can organize themselves and look for answers, check and re-check the pillars of the agreements societies have. This not something we can leave for politicians to sort out. Politicians are moved by priorities not compatible with the ones society has. One may question how can this be if they are chosen by vote, but this is another discussion.

As a whole, all societies in the world must retake the conversation under the safety of preserving references that are no longer disputed in general. We have never lived in a totally truth-based society and great injustices have been made. However, imperfect as it is, the reality agreement we had kept mankind going forward. We need to come back to the stage where we can debate. There is no need to have all the same opinions, but is critical to restore the premises of the discussion so whoever sits in the table sign up to admit that the conversation is legitimate.

In technical terms, having the information environment as a stage, we need desperately to recover the ability to spot misinformation or “fake news” or any other term. This can only be done if we manage to take as many people as possible to see some information sources without any kind of dispute. When people will be able to de-bunk bullshit stories and populist whining by themselves, wherever they prefer to be in the political or social spectrum, it will be fine. Differences are not what defines us – similarities do. Getting this back right is the first step of the journey.

Cassiano Gobbet