‘Nothing is true and everything is possible’. We heard these seven words this week on Nick Robinson’s Politically Speaking podcast. (Can you get BBC podcasts outside the UK? We heartily recommend this one to those who can get it!) The quotation is the title of a 2014 book by Ukranian academic, Peter Pomerantsev. We haven’t read the book but we were much taken by the seven words.
They seem to express an attitude becoming increasingly familiar in public life. It is rare to come across public conversations where people are genuinely listening to each other with a view to learn or change their point of view. Many politicians seem to rely on the repeated assertion of a point of view – often in emotional terms – rather than the giving of evidence to support that viewpoint.
Until recently, people in powerful positions – politicians, commentators or journalists - were expected at least to have a stab at ‘giving the facts’, even if other people disputed the facts or the interpretations. Those who could be expected to know – either because they have spent a lifetime studying a particular specialist subject or practising an exacting discipline or profession – commanded a degree of trust. Now they are being dismissed as ‘experts’. And since most of us are experts in very little, we trust not in experts but in people who share our point of view - people like us. Anything else, as President Trump says, is ‘fake news’. His aide, Kellyanne Conway, in a press conference in 2017 when trying to explain the low numbers attending the president’s inauguration, coined the phrase ‘alternative facts’.
Research has always shown that people read newspapers according to their politics – not to hear alternative values or politics. The increase in the belief that nothing is true may partly be attributed to technology - how easy it has become to live in ‘echo chambers’. The internet bombards us with an infinity of options on every conceivable subject. We learn to cope is by radically limiting our focus. And in so doing we largely reinforce our own prejudices. There are no objective facts or shared values which can be appealed to. No common good. No common life. Other people’s disadvantage or suffering becomes collateral damage while I reinforce my preferred view of the world and exclude all other possibilities.
It’s not surprising that, becoming aware of this moral vacuum at the centre of western society and feeling threatened by it, some espouse extreme moral or ‘religious’ views . Extreme actions may follow. As the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist.’ But Sartre also said that too often people who claim ‘everything is permitted’ are acting in ‘bad faith’. He accuses them of intellectual laziness – of not being bothered to struggle to find truth or meaning in life.
We know only too well that intellectual laziness is tempting, especially as we get older. It’s only too easy in private conversation to appear to listen only in order to spot a cue for ‘saying our piece’. We eagerly await the response to our opinions. After all, we’ve had so much more opportunity to learn wisdom!! But if we stop and think about it, we know that real, serious conversation can be hard work. Asking, ‘What would it take for me to change my opinion?’ is a useful exercise.
And then, maybe it’s time to stand up for the view that some things ARE true and NOT everything is permitted. But we don't expect it to make us popular!