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Submitted by Geoffrey Dow on Tue, 2009-01-20 15:47
Spread the word!
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. "It means just what I choose it to mean — neither more or less."
— Lewis Carrol (1832 - 1898)
The kid was a friend of my younger brother's, which means he was a couple of years younger than I. Yet I found myself atop him, holding him down and shouting, "You lie! You lie! You lie!"
And it's true, Sylvain lied constantly, about matters trivial and important — he lied so consistently that I now I wonder if he even understood the difference between truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy.
The precise nature of the lie that set me off is now lost to me, but I still understand my young self's rage; that truth matters is something I have implicitly believed from a very young age. At times I have surprised people because I will (more or less) happily stop an argument or discussion with those too-rare words, "I was wrong."
It has taken me decades to understand on a gut-level that those three simple words are not easy for most people to say, that in an action I find relatively easy others see some kind of humiliation or, at least, a substantial loss of face.
My first conscious lesson in that difference between myself and many others came during my late teens or very early 20s, in conversation with a friend with whom I had shared a very unusual relationship.
We'd met on the first day of Grade seven, when we had both expressed interest in joining (starting? Memory is a hazy affair at the best of times) a chess club. We quickly learned we had a lot more in common than just chess and we soon became fast friends, revelling in intellectual confrontation. He was a Christian, I an atheist; he was a Liberal, I a Socialist. And we argued about it all, enthusiastically and, sometimes, to the point where debate degenerated to fighting.
We once nearly came to blows discussing the nature of the Vietnam War, and in fact he threw me out of his home. But as there was no one else in our school with whom we could engage in such discussions and debates it was almost inevitable that we would kiss and make up.
Indeed, explosions of that sort became a recurring element in our friendship — I believe I was not invited to his wedding because of one such, and the friendship itself finally petered out a few years back, I think because I posted something about religion which too nakedly my disdain for the plausibility of faith in a sky god or, indeed, in any deity at all.
In any event, he did not reply to an email I sent him a little after that and — though I've been tempted from time to time — I never did follow it up to attempt to re-establishment contact. Like love affairs, most friendships have a finite lifespan and, rightly or wrongly, I concluded that particular friendship had run its course.
But I've digressed. Back to that meeting during my late teens or early 20s.
John shocked me by confessing that he had more than once continued to argue with me despite realizing that — well, that I was right about something. His pride, he told me, had not allowed him to back down and so he found himself arguing to win rather than arguing to discover the Truth.
I thought then (and still do) that John's was a courageous confession, though a confusing one. As I said before, my ego is not dependent upon being seen to be right, so conceding a point or even an entire argument comes relatively easy to me. Uncovering the Truth is to me the higher emotional value.
'What is truth?'
|The quickly-crushed Hungarian uprising of 1956 is memorialized by a monument and this plaque in Toronto's Sunnyside Park. Propagandistic lie or a |
Pilate's infamous (and famously unanswered) rhetorical question is one that has echoed down through nearly two millennia. In my experience it is now quoted most often to indicate the speaker believes that "truth" as a concept is over-rated, perhaps even nonsensensical. Usually, they believe in a version of moral or cultural relativism, which — whatever the term's specific anthropological origins — seems now to mean that there is no "good" or "bad" (or even "better" or "worse") when it comes to evaluating the beliefs or practices of others, and that any attempt to pass such a judgement is necessarily a form of cultural imperialism.
At the risk of sounding intemperate, fuck that.
Cultural practices are not value-neutral and I have some strong opinions about what values are "good" ones and what are "bad". To over-simplify, I believe that those values and practices which respect individual autonomy and intellectual inquiry are superior — that is to say, better — than those that do not. If you tell me that a culture which permits or encourages parents to give or sell their pre-pubescent daughters into "marriage" with older men is "only different" from those that insist that (a) marriage is open only to those who have at least reached adulthood and, (b) that the woman in question must actually consent to that marriage, then I will damn you as a fool or worse.
Similarly, I consider slavery and homophobia to be Bad Things and if your society defends defends involuntary servitude or refuses to acknowledge homosexuals as full citizens (whether that means death or imprisonment, or simply the denial of certain rights and privileges) than your society is (at least in those aspects) a morally inferior society to those that have grown beyond such practices.
If that is cultural imperialism, then I am a cultural imperialist.
But perhaps I get ahead of myself; just what do I mean by "truth" anyway, let alone by "good" and "bad"?
In an essay I highly recommend, Jonathan Wallace eloquently defines truth in a manner so consistent with my own view of the matter that I might just as well steal his words rather than write my own. Thus, on this website, and unless otherwise specifically noted, the term truth will be used according to the following set of definitions. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, I prefer that others can easily understand what I mean.
- Data is the raw, unprocessed fruit of observation. It may consist of items which are nonsense, or immaterial to the matter we are analyzing.
- Information is what results when data is evaluated and determined not to be nonsense and to be relevant to a matter under consideration.
- Knowledge is a human arrangement of information modeling a truth.
- Truth, regardless of human ability to perceive or formulate knowledge about it, is an absolute value, based on the premise (pace, Schrodinger) that anything which occurs or exists does so in a specific and detailed way excluding any inconsistent states.
In other words, I believe there is such a thing as objective reality, or truth even if it is, in practice, not necessarily easy (and sometimes, perhaps not even possible) to pin down. Which is why most of us don't bother to question the reality of the coffee-table on which we've barked our shin, but might very well dispute the morality of its existence if we bought it at IKEA.
As Mr. Wallace put it on the page from which I cribbed above,
I was astonished to discover that the world was full of reasonably intelligent and well-educated people whose thinking was fuzzy enough that they were capable of uttering the following sentence: "One thing may be true for me and another may be true for you."
This is one of those sentences which is grammatical, but doesn't mean anything. Or at least does not mean what it purports to say. To save this sentence, we must substitute for "true for" the words "believed by". But truth is not always, or even usually, what we believe.
My favorite rejoinder was: Suppose we are both sailors on one of Christopher Colombus' ships, say the Pinta. I am a fervent flat earth believer who came along for suicidal reasons. You are as committed to the idea of a round planet. What happens to the Pinta? Since we have separate and contradictory beliefs, does the Pinta sail off the edge of the world, or circumnavigate it? Would it matter if I believe more fervently in a flat earth than you do in a round one? Or if more people on board were round earthers than flat earthers? Is reality a democracy?
Perhaps "my" Pinta falls off the world's edge, and "yours" sails to America?
Reality is not a democracy. Which is not to say there is no room for debate about the nature of reality. Though the Pinta clearly did not sail off the edge of the world, most matters worthy of discussion are not nearly so cut-and-dried.
I am not a cultural relativist but neither (I hope) am I a cultural chauvinist. I do not believe that believe that capitalism is the ultimate in the economic evolution of our species any more than I do that liberal democracy is the ultimate expression of our political maturity (and I certainly don't believe we've reached "the end of history"!.
All of which is an admittedly long-winded way of making a few points with regards to Edifice Rex Online.
- This section is entitled "Sorta Fact" because most of the pieces within it are and will be polemical and so, will contain my opinions about this or that aspect of our world;
- nevertheless, I will endeavour to ensure that anything I refer to as a fact will actually be true. I know that I quickly lose confidence in the analyses of those who can't manage to get their facts straight; I expect the same is true for you (if it isn't — in my opinion — it should be (see what I mean?); and so,
- I welcome both argument and correction. If you spot an error of fact, please tell me so (preferably with a reference); if you think my interpretation of a fact or set of facts is wrong-headed, feel free to argue with me — again, preferably with supporting evidence; and finally
- I have a very low tolerance for ad hominem. Have at the argument, but if you start in on my character (or the character of anyone else who might be posting here), I'll feel free to take whatever action I see fit. Hint: Simple assertion is not argument.
Okay, that's it. I think the ground rules are clear, so have at it (or me). But be warned, if you don't convince me, I'll almost certainly argue back.
1. I don't make that claim with any desire or expectation of praise. The ability to admit to being wrong without damage to my ego is one I remember being an element of my personality just as far back as I remember anything it all; for all intents and purposes, it might as well be an innate aspect of my personality. Return.
3. No, I won't argue religion with you, nor will I listen should you try to convert me. I might be willing to answer specific questions about the nature of my atheism, might even ask questions about your faith, if you have one — but I'm too old now to argue the question. So long as you're not trying to impose a theocracy on anyone, we can just agree to disagree (can't we?). Return.