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Perspective

Nearly everyone reveres The Truth. As much as some people today insist that all truth is relative, that your viewpoint and your opinion is as good as (but not more than) mine, truth is given high value. Even those who obviously (to us) bend the truth to suit their own agendas will join with us in worshipping the idea that there exist facts that we need only become aware of—in other words, that exist independently of our awareness. Our entire culture depends upon this agreement. Otherwise, how could we even converse?

The "all truths are relative" proponents conveniently ignore the logical dilemma of their assertion—if all truths, that is, all assertions of truth, are relative and have no objective existence, then the very assertion that truth is relative is itself just as lacking in substance. No, "all truths are relative" is not a statement of how things are, any more than the following one: This statement is false. It’s not just paradoxical; it’s self-contradictory. But of course, logic itself could be considered relative, in which case all discussion becomes essentially meaningless. The statement, "All truths are relative" is then just some sounds in the air or hen-scratchings on the paper.

One response to the relativists is to sympathize with their frustrations in searching for the truth of many of our most perplexing questions. Philosophers have written huge books about the Quest for Certainty, one of humankind’s most enduring endeavors. To be sure, it’s hard to find out what’s true and what’s not in many of our day-to-day questions. Does my wife love me? Do I have enough savings to last through my lifetime? Did the Bush administration exaggerate the Iraqi threat in order to justify the recent war? Is that lump I feel under my arm something to be concerned about or am I worrying about nothing?

None of these questions, like hundreds of others we might ask, has a clear answer. "Yes and no," might well be a response to any of them.

In the July Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Hitchens wrote a review of a book by Sydney Blumenthal titled The Clinton Wars. He contests not only Blumenthal’s interpretations of events during the Clinton presidency, he challenges the writer’s grasp of The Truth about the former president. Indeed, he claims that Blumenthal "sold out" his own integrity for the sake of the administration.

"Why should it be," he asks, "that two parties with few if any essential differences are ready to speak of each other as if a cultural or even a civil war were only a few speeches away?" His conclusion, of course, has to do with money—the money needed to get the good guys elected and the bad guys thrown out. If there’s no difference between them, why bother to contribute to one or the other? (He doesn’t get into the advantages demonstrated by large corporations in contributing large sums to both parties just to make sure that, whoever wins, the big contracts will go to those "who were with us.")

Hitchens makes no bones about the fact that he is not, and was not, a fan of Bill Clinton. The "truth relativists" might point to the differences between Hitchens’s and Blumenthal’s interpretations of certain events as proving that the truth may not in fact exist, being only an illusion in either case. The two men apparently considered themselves friends at one time, but since the publication of the book, at least, seem less enthusiastic about each other. While Hitchens wrote that he had in the past greatly admired Blumenthal—". . . it seemed to me that he was just what the nation’s capital needed," it was early in their acquaintance. By the time of the 1992 election campaign, Blumenthal had lost his objectivity and some of Hitchens’s admiration. While the two men continued their social connections, the difference in their political views only widened, until a well-publicized luncheon in 1998:

In what seem to be the waning days of the Clinton scandal, as senators look for a way to end the trial, Washington has been riveted by journalist . . . Christopher Hitchens' decision to submit an affidavit to Republican trial managers swearing that his old friend, . . . Blumenthal, described Lewinsky as a "stalker" over lunch last March, contrary to Blumenthal's own sworn deposition in the trial last week.

—Salon.com article by Joshua Micah Marshall. February, 1999, "Stalking Sidney Blumenthal: is it possible Christopher Hitchens and his ‘former friend’ are both telling the truth?"

Even this event seems to reinforce the "truth is relative" theory. If we discount, for the moment, the possibility that the two men simply don’t remember the same objective event with equal accuracy, a lot of history depends upon how one understands the meaning of the event. And isn’t the meaning the crucial phrase here? You and I might agree that a certain sequence of English words was spoken during a conversation, but disagree strenuously on what those words meant then—and even might mean now. The elusive meaning depends not only on the context of the conversation but on our respective life histories.

Or as William Gibson wrote, in an Op-Ed piece in NY Times, June 25, 2003:

  I say "truths," however, and not "truth," as the other side of information's new ubiquity can look not so much transparent as outright crazy. Regardless of the number and power of the tools used to extract patterns from information, any sense of meaning depends on context, with interpretation coming along in support of one agenda or another. A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree about it any more readily.

Just this past week, I had an email exchange with a friend about something I had written and posted on my web site. He offered some suggestions for revising the piece, and I protested that I had written it to portray certain meanings, which might be altered if I followed his suggestions. After several back-and-forth replies, we agreed that the issue had become uncomfortably charged for both of us and we ought to drop it.

There seems no end to such misunderstandings in life.

Philosophers often refer to three value aspects of reality: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. If Truth is given the very highest priority of all values, we seem doomed to living in murky uncertainty and alienated from others. Likewise, neither Good nor Beauty is sufficient to define "the best." All three are needed.

Ken Wilber points out that "true" can describe only the exterior of a question, its objective condition. Beautiful exists, as the cliche tells us, "in the eye of the beholder." It is always relative to meaning. And Good has to do with relationships—interpersonal conditions. Everything—every thing—contains these three attributes to some degree. To measure the value of an event, one must measure against these three standards.

That’s perspective. To insist that one or the other value alone is important is to skew one’s vision. The Good, the True and the Beautiful are separate values, but they are not separable from each other when applied to a situation, an event, or even a person. Everything has a moral significance, a factual significance and an individual meaning (using meaning as another word for beauty).

Perspective might be thought of as another word for wisdom, since wisdom implies a broader vision or a higher viewpoint. These visual metaphors suggest exactly that capacity to understand and integrate relationships.

Ever since the beginning of the Modern Era, we have emphasized the importance of facts and reason, which deals most comfortably with facts and objective—even measurable—experience. Morals and meaning—the good and the beautiful—were downgraded to secondary characteristics first in philosophical thinking and then in practical matters. It’s only been in the past couple of centuries that we’ve begun to see the limitations of such one-dimensional seeing.

What’s true for you and what’s true for me might seem different as long as we use the word "true" when we really are talking about meaning. My friend and I finally acknowledged that we assigned different meanings to a bunch of words. Neither point of view was "true." And what made the difference to us was the mutual recognition that our personal relationship was, in this case, the most important thing—the good thing.

 

June 12, 2003

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