The search for truth
And why it’s important to question
"Although I am a typical loner in my life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has preserved me from feeling isolated."
My daughter read a few of my non-fiction posts on this site, and sucked in her breath. “Wow, Mum, you’re not a comfortable read, are you? You don’t hesitate to go where others wouldn’t.”
Well, no, I’m not a comfortable read. Don’t be misled by my amiable grin and my fund of interesting anecdotes. I have been annoying people for over forty years by talking about topics people don’t want to think about, or even worse, asking questions about those topics. There’s no malice in it, from my side. I don’t mean to upset people. Often I am just trying to understand, or I have spotted a problem which I think people might want to hear about. I have discovered that, often, they don’t want to hear about the problem, and in fact, regard my question as an attack. Honestly, it’s not intended as an attack, nor is it intended to offend. I gave up on trying to win arguments in my early twenties. The point is to learn and understand, not to win.
I have been quite depressed lately by the polarised state of public debate on a whole raft of issues, particularly on social media.
I am sick of worrying that I will lose friends, or be attacked, for either asking questions in good faith, or for saying that other people should be allowed to ask questions in good faith, even though I disagree with them.
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When I was a child, I’d regularly get into arguments with my grandfather. So would others in my family. You felt as though you were treading on eggshells. If you expressed doubts about a proposition he made, he would lash out. You would be suspected of disloyalty or, worse, you might be ostracised. He would accuse you of being stupid, bigoted, or ridiculous. He divided people.
My late grandfather has been my mind’s unwelcome guest a lot lately… . Many activist academics display a style of engagement reminiscent of my grandfather’s. I don’t recall learning much from arguments with my grandfather. All I gained was a thick skin, and a resolution not to behave like that if I could possibly help it.
It follows that, just as I got in trouble with my grandfather, and with my Religious Education teacher in Grade 2, for asking questions, I am also likely to get in trouble with activists, regardless of their politics. The fundamental premise of activism is that one must not ask questions, but rather accept that all arguments to further the cause are right, and all actions taken to further the cause are good.
For activists, the ends justify the means. To ask questions of the cause, even well-intentioned or genuine ones, is a sign of immorality and evil, and a sign that you do not support the good end sought. You become the enemy.
I cannot help asking questions. It seems to be an intrinsic quality; I haven’t been able to stop myself. Einstein’s words resonated with me. I am in a lifelong search for truth, beauty and justice. I accept that the truth may never be found, but I strongly believe that we can get closer to it if we ask questions about how the world works. In any authoritarian regime—it doesn’t matter, right, left, theocratic, other, choose your flavour!—I suspect I’d end up dead, for innocently asking an unguarded question, and annoying or offending someone.
A friend recently told me of her father’s saying regarding the ends justifying the means. It was this:
“The ends don’t justify the means, but the means can also corrupt the ends.”
In other words, if activists undertake ruthless means to achieve a good end, they can alienate the general public, and undermine the very interests of the group whom they are purporting to advance. Means are very important, because your ends may never be achieved, but the means themselves have immediate effects on society. Many activists will tend not to realise this, because they live in a bubble where everyone affirms their approach, and those who do not are cast out for disloyalty. Purity spirals are real.
I can’t help recalling the example of the English suffragettes (those who undertook militant action to obtain the vote for women). Between 1910 and 1914, the members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) engaged in violent action as part of their campaign for equal suffrage. Members of the WSPU chained themselves to railings, set fire to post boxes, smashed windows, attacked a portrait of the Duke of Wellington with an axe, and cut telegraph wires. Eventually, they began bombing various venues such as churches (including Westminster Abbey), railway stations and the Bank of England. Emily Davison, a particularly militant suffragette who seems to have been responsible for the Bank of England bombing, died after she attempted to interrupt the Royal Derby on 4 June 1913. Only the outbreak of World War I in 1914 stopped the conflict, with suffragettes devoting themselves to the war effort instead.
Many suffragists (those who sought the vote for women via constitutional change) argued that the actions of the suffragettes in fact hampered the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain. It is notable that Australia and New Zealand obtained women’s suffrage far earlier,1 before militant suffragettes had arisen. Britain, by contrast, lagged behind.2 The means used corrupted the ends sought in the eyes of the public.
If activists achieve their aims by using intimidation and fear, then there is the possibility that, while the majority of society may appear to accept their cause, any acceptance is not genuine, and could suddenly evaporate.
I’ve spoken of Timur Kuran’s work before. Kuran has explained how social pressure may cause some in society to publicly express views they privately do not hold (‘preference falsification’).3 It’s natural for humans to do this, because we are social animals, and in fact, sometimes it’s necessary for civility to conceal our private views. Moreover, if a person suffers adverse consequences as a result of expressing a particular private opinion (such as shunning by friends and colleagues, loss of a job, or even violent retaliation) most people are likely either to stay silent, or to pretend agreement with views they do not hold.
Kuran has argued, however, that if a sufficient number of people hide their secret doubts, it is ultimately deleterious for democratic society. Preference falsification has two effects: social consequences for people’s behaviour, and a wider disruption of societal preferences.4 If everyone publicly states that they support a particular policy, but an increasing number are secretly unhappy, such views can suddenly, unexpectedly collapse, when an opportunity arises for a sufficient number of people admit their private doubts. First, there will be a sudden shift away from the policy, but also potentially, political instability might follow, because the revelation that a majority of private preferences differed to the public preferences is a shock to the political system.
Democracy, of course, relies on private preferences: this is why we have secret ballots (invented in Australia). The ballot box is where preference falsification falls away, and it’s why, for example, surprise results can occur in referenda, most notably the 2016 Brexit Referendum, where, much to the shock of most journalists, pundits and academics, the British public voted to leave the European Union.
Effective government involves bargaining between the people and the government. If the government refuses to bargain, or to shift on public opinion, and continues to try to push through unpopular changes, then you get the rioting we see in France currently. French friends tell me it’s called jouer la rue (“playing the street”): imposing an unpopular reform and seeing how long the riots and street demonstrations continue. If the riots stop before the reform is passed, the leader wins; if the riots stop the reform, the public wins.
I don’t want a society where riots or revolution are necessary to push the government into recognising public discontent. To avoid this, it is necessary to allow people to peacefully question changes to government policy or laws, and for government to understand that some people will ask questions. This is the case no matter that you might personally find their questions annoying, offensive, stupid, or misconceived. It is part of the democratic bargain.
In academia, to an even greater degree, if you can’t question contentious beliefs in good faith, I honestly do not see the point. “Respect” should not mean that you can’t question contentious and strongly-held beliefs. Getting critical feedback on one’s beliefs or work is always painful, but we cannot learn without feedback. If you can’t take constructive feedback, perhaps you need to consider a different career, outside academia. Insulting someone by simply accusing them of being stupid, evil, wrong, or a liar is not proper feedback (unless you back it up with evidence as to why you make that assertion).
I might be about to find out who my friends in academia really are. I hope I’m pleasantly surprised, and that I keep most of you, even if you disagree with me. I won’t cut you off for disagreeing with me. It’s up to you.
All people obtained the vote in New Zealand in 1893. Women and Indigenous people obtained the vote in the Colony of South Australia in 1894, and women obtained the vote in the Colony of Western Australia in 1899. In the remaining Australian states, after Federation, non-Indigenous women were given the vote in 1902, but the right of Indigenous people to vote in South Australia was revoked. Indigenous people only fully obtained the vote in all States of Australia in 1962.
From 1918, women over the age of 30 who had certain property qualifications or were university graduates could vote. At the same time, all men over the age of 21 had suffrage. Equal suffrage was only obtained in Britain in 1928.
Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997).