The old certainties are gone. So are the old grand narratives. We find it harder and harder to agree on things of common interest. Although committed to sharing (our age’s mantra is ‘sharing is good’), we are more and more picky as to who we are willing to break bread with. We’ve unlearned how to agree to disagree. And we are all close to agreeing, ironically, that one should always start from a position of disagreeing and work their way towards assent, which is increasingly rare to find, having been eclipsed by an insistence that the small print is more important than the headline. That perfect alignment, which almost never exists, is the sole guarantee of endorsement.
And then there’s truth. It must be said that our age exhibits symptoms of truth-anxiety and a certain ambivalence with regard to the epistemological state of truth. Our culture, unlike previous cultures in recorded history, is willing to make truth a private affair. My truth, your truth, our truth, distinct, irreconcilable and irreducible to your truth, her truth, their truth. ‘All is relative’, admittedly we’re not quite there yet, but it is widely understood that words don’t mean much beyond themselves, that one’s mind is the sole guarantor of one’s truth claims and the self exclusively entitled to make them.
But our culture, like all other cultures in recorded history, maintains its commitment to a shared idea of truth and, what is more remarkable still, it cracks down on perceived threats to the integrity of that idea. Consider fake news. We might feel that we cannot reach agreement in areas affected by the privatisation of truth, but we are dead-serious about safeguarding a narrow aspect of truthfulness, which is factual, empirical truth. And we double down on it, policing it and setting up structures, like fact checking resources, to protect it.
Is this a distant effect of the Enlightenment or the rallying cry of a culture in fear of losing an important part of its historical identity?