Is Truth Intractable?

In this week's HSD blog, Glenda Eoyang uses the HSD "Four Truths" model to show how can we understand multiple truths and how we can take action to find clarity in situations of uncertainty.

Perhaps only an “Inner Circle” knows the intended outcomes of the recent decisions in Washington, yet there is amplified volatility in describing unintended or perceived impacts swirling around every statement regarding these decisions. Concerns about or celebrations of these impacts fill news cycles and conversations on all sides of each issue. Sounds like intractability amidst chaos - that happens to be the center of our work at the HSD Institute. Our unique approach helps you see patterns in chaotic situations, understand them in useful ways, and take action to make a difference, here and now.

A month ago, as we explored underlying, systemic patterns of these radical changes, we named three fundamental patterns that set conditions for many others: Propaganda, self-interest, and fatalism. Those continue to influence talk and action across the US, but another has become undeniable. It has to do with truth. 

Alternative facts, post-truth, false news. We have come to expect truth claims and claims of untruth from every news source—traditional media and social media alike. How can we see this pattern in useful ways?  How can we understand it, and take action to find clarity for ourselves and others? We depend on the Four Truths to navigate the uncertain waters of hopes, beliefs, and reality.

We derived the Four Truths from the ontological realms of Habermas, and we have grounded them in real-world practice of Adaptive Action conflict resolution and consulting. They help us distinguish among narratives of reality without getting stuck in trying to prove what cannot be proven. How might you use these categories to influence your understanding, speech, and action? How might the press find support for authentic reporting?  How might public servants, including politicians, bureaucrats, and judges, find guidelines for wise action?

Truth One: Objective

This is the truth that our engineering friends rely on. It is data- and evidence-based. A truth is objective if it cannot be denied—by anyone.. Of course, over time, even scientific truths evolve, but in the meantime, they can be claimed as objective truth.

For example, the yield per acre is an objective truth, when a farmer’s crop fails because of early spring thaws or unusual rain or drought. Climate change or the role of humans in causing climate change cannot serve as objective truths, if anyone disputes it, no matter how much data and how many scientists support the claim. Climate change can be denied, but the farmer’s produce cannot.

How is objective truth influencing political discourse in the US today?

  • Gorsuch, who may sit on the Supreme Court, believes that the intention of the framers of the Constitution is an objective truth. His job, as a judge, is to find that truth and use it to make decisions today.
  • Responsible journalists use photographs and data provided by bureaucrats and scientists to discover and report as close to objective truth as possible.

Ultimately, however, concrete and undeniable data will constitute objective truth of the changes we experience. Like the farmer at the market, we will see undeniable evidence of the consequences of today’s decisions.

Truth Two: Normative

Normative truth is held as agreements or assumptions of everyone in a group. Tenets of faith, social norms, jargon, regulations, and British common law are all examples of normative truths. Sometimes normative truth can be implicit, like taboos or family expectations. Other times they are explicit and well documented, like laws or standards.

Any one individual may engage with multiple normative truths. I support the Dallas Cowboys football team, vote with my party, and celebrate July 4 as Independence Day, like most in the US. All of these are normative truths that may or may not be shared by others I interact with.

How is normative truth influencing public discourse and policy in this time of unpredictable change?

  • The purported divide between “urban and rural” or “elites and the rest of us” claims to capture a normative truth.
  • The conviction that urban and rural perspectives are at the center of our dis-ease has also become a normative truth.
  • Privilege (based on race, economics, gender, and others) is a normative truth. Those who hold it share a view of what is real. Those who recognize others’ privilege have a different truth to claim.
  • Our definitions of core terms—democracy, freedom, equality, justice—are normative. At one time, I assumed they were so widely held that they constituted objective truth across America. I now know they are normative, and I must be conscious of my own choices as well as wondering who else belongs to “my” community of truth.

Our challenge today is to become conscious of our own normative truths, to recognize their power and their limitations. When we are conscious, then we can choose. Sometimes we might choose rest, safety, and relaxation, by engaging only with those who share our truth. But we also have the opportunity to choose generative engagement and step outside our own communities to engage with the normative truths of others.

Truth Three: Subjective

This truth is radically personal. It captures all the things I believe to be true, and no one will prove to me otherwise. Beliefs, personal identity, emotional reactions, and remembered experiences are the roots of subjective truth. Subjective truth can change over time, but not because of evidence or pressure from others. Subjective truth will change only when an internal tension is so great that the belief can no longer be maintained. Religious conversion, falling in love, and extreme personal experiences can shift subjective truth. Dialogue with or coercion from others seldom does.

How is subjective truth influencing public engagement?

  • Fear is palpable. In the news and in day-to-day conversations, patterns of fear are reported and reinforced.
  • Personal relationships and loyalties are influencing what we consider to be true for us and for others.
  • Culture, history, religion, experience, and education all feed into the claims we make for what is true.
  • When someone reminds you that your ancestors were immigrants, they are trying to appeal to your subjective truth.

In our cultures of power, we are not accustomed to seeing and sharing subjective truth, but it is not absent from our traditions and practices. Subjective truth lives in art and experience. Stories of challenge and survival, the experience of creating or enjoying art, physical sensations, personal relationships, sympathy and empathy are all carriers of our subjective truths.

When we become conscious of our subjective truths, we gain the power of choice. We are more prepared to manage our fears and frustrations, and we are better equipped to celebrate joy and hope.

Truth Four: Complex

This is the truth that has the power to transform patterns of decision making and action in these challenging times. Complex truth claims that the other three truths—objective, normative, and subjective—are all true, all the time. We are free to choose to focus on the one that is most useful in particular time or circumstance.

In the domain of complex truth, objective truths, proven and accepted, are true regardless of normative or subjective claims. Normative truths are true, regardless of who holds them and how long they have been held. Subject truths—yours, mine, and ours—remain true, regardless of efforts to cajole or convince.

As our HSD colleague, Royce Holladay says, “Ain’t no naughty or nice.” All the truths are equally true. You only get into trouble if you get mixed up and claim one kind of truth is another. For example, if I make my subjective truth into an objective one for you, then I will generate conflict and confusion. If we impose our normative truth as if it were subjective truth for every member of our group, then we become oppressors. If we demand that objective truth determine subjective truths of all, then we deny voice and choice to individuals and groups. Consider how this logical error of mistaken truth types has locked in so many contemporary conflicts:

  • Freedom to choose vs right to life
  • Retributive vs restorative justice
  • Gun ownership vs gun control
  • Closed vs open borders

In each of these cases, individuals or groups claim their normative truths as objective or fail to accommodate subjective truths different from their own. Until we, as a nation and culture, get clear about our truth claims, we will never get beyond these sticky issues.

Complex truth does not do away with falsehood. Any kind of truth can be falsified. I can lie about my feelings or beliefs. We can claim a normative truth for a group that is not shared. One can promote objective facts that are falsifiable. The key is that the proof or disproof lies within the same domain of truth. You cannot disprove subjective truth with normative or normative with objective.

What difference might this understanding of complex truth make in how we understand and act in our current realities?

  • I could stop expecting everyone in my group to feel the same way I do.
  • We could acknowledge the validity of others’ normative truths, even when they differ from ours.
  • We would stop arguing about which data was more reliable and quit trying to disprove others’ normative or subjective truths.
  • We would be free to focus on finding normative truths for us all, to align collective action toward goals we all share.
  • We could have a conversation about which truth is most useful, rather than frustrating ourselves trying to decide which truths are true.

Ultimately, the benefit of Four Truths reaches beyond any of these. With this more complex understanding of truth, we do not have to waste our precious public discourse on what is fake news and what is real. Instead, we could focus on the hopes of individual subjective truths, on the potential power from shared normative truths, and on the bit of certainty available in objective truth. We could choose, individually and collectively, to create a better life for ourselves and our children. 

This, I admit, is my subjective truth. I invite you into its normative community.

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