This very question drove me to university in my mid-twenties and still consumes my thoughts. In fact, I went to university because I believed it was where I would find the truth. I was relentless and hungry. When it came to researching, I was second to none; I would dig through books, journals, web-essays, never leaving a stone unturned, determined to find out why the world was the way it was, and most of all, where did I fit in the grand scheme of things.
But ironically, in the vast sea of knowledge that university offers, I came out thinking that there was no truth. What I thought to be true was based on my subjective experience and that everyone has their own version of the truth. The natural corollary of this type of thinking was that everything is subjective and that there is no such thing as a greater truth.
I didn't know it at the time but this way of looking at the world would render me impotent. I would become someone who distrusts her own reality. Someone who distrusts her own voice. The belief that there are no ultimate truths would send me on a downward spiral that would take years to dig my way out of.
My initial hunger for knowledge led me to the dead end of postmodernism. (Also known as poststructuralism). This theoretical paradigm dominated the field of Education throughout the 2000s, and has prevailed since the 1960s in the Humanities. Its ideas can be traced right back through Western thought but, like all ideas, once they are born, they never die - they simply get labelled under a different name. In all the fields I studied: Sociology, History, Political Science, Anthropology, Law and English, postmodernism had become the most influential epistemological lens, particularly in the field of English teaching.
I was initially seduced by the conceptual framework. It was terribly rigorous in its critique of culture and language and seemed impossible to refute. When compared to earlier theories, postmodernism had the greatest explanatory force: everything we think we know and believe is a social construction. We only see the world the way it is because we have been socialised to see it that way. If we grew up in another culture, time and place, we would see things completely differently.
At first, the idea that everything I believed was a product of my upbringing was incredibly liberating. It felt like the shackles of my past had broken down and I was finally free to live on my own terms, or at least free of the archaic ideas that kept so many of my family members shackled to the past.
I believed this so fervently that I taught the deconstruction mode of analysis to my sons and students. Deconstruction, the primary tool of any poststructuralist, is the foundation of the entire English curriculum in Australian schools. The objective of deconstruction is to equip students with the tools to help them deconstruct texts. Language is an instrument of power, the theorist's assert, and through critical analysis (i.e. taking apart the ideas in a text to reveal the author's race, sex, or class interests), the student can identify how they are being manipulated or oppressed. What they are going to do after they learn this was not so important. But as long as learners know how they or others are being positioned by dominant power structures, they are able to situate themselves better in the world.
And it is the ideas around culture and language that makes postmodernism's critique so convincing. A lot of what we say, see and do in the world is culturally determined. How we dress, what we eat and what we do in our work and leisure time is shaped by social mores that are unique to the culture we grow up in. The very words we use are unique to our culture's history. It only follows that how we think and behave is also determined by our social environment. There is no point in seeking out the truth when everything we say or do is a result of our cultural conditioning. It is futile, as every culture (society, family and individual) will have their own version of reality, and therefore, truth.
This negation of truth stems back to David Hume's radical skepticism. Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, posited that we can never know more than what we have experienced. All our knowledge (what we believe is true) is derived from what he refers to as our "sense impressions:" any thoughts or ideas that we come up with as human beings are copies of impressions of the outside world on our senses. In other words, we are unable to think of anything that we have not experienced before. We are like the hard drive in a computer, merely making copies of information we have received through our senses. And just like a hard drive is the same as every other hard drive, we have no intrinsic nature. We can never know what is true about the world or ourselves.
When encountering these ideas for the very first time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century educator, also found Hume's claims impossible to refute. They appeared to negate Emerson's central thesis: that human beings have an innate nature and it is each individual's responsibility to seek the truth and then once discerned, act on that truth to renew society. But, according to Hume, we are forever blocked from knowing the truth because of our senses. Our senses are a life-long barrier to seeing reality - we will only ever see representations of reality. Therefore, acting on universal truths is impossible.
This idea is so devastating that it caused Emerson, for at least a few months, to be unable to see properly. Some say that Emerson was suffering nothing more than an eye infection but it is more than coincidence that at the very time he was reading Hume's essay: "On the Idea of Necessary Causation," he stopped writing and abandoned his studies (for a time). Robert Richardson Jr., a biographer of Emerson, points out that it was Hume's extreme skepticism, including the skepticism of similar writers at the time, that contributed to Emerson's condition. Emerson was suffering from the blinding rationalism and doubt that is a side-effect of Hume's eviscerating logic. Immanuel Kant would also follow this line of thought.
Kant, another 18th century Scottish philosopher influenced by Hume, re-asserted that seemingly objective phenomena that are studied through the scientific method exist "only in our brain." The process of reason and rationality can never arrive at truth or objective knowledge. The individual has their own version of reality and that is all. This is known as a subjectivist epistemology.
To Emerson, the idea that our thoughts and behaviour are only formed by our experience made humans appear like automatons, merely making sense of the outside world. We don't have an inner knowing of reality or truth because according to Hume, to think this way was "sophistry and illusion." The problem, for Emerson and many thinkers critical of Hume and Kant is that when an individual believes he or she is nothing but a "bundle of sensations" he or she becomes a "pure sensualist," a person who believes only what they can feel through their senses. Thus, they don't speak or act on their conscience because within this materialist framework, the conscience is completely subjective.
This is a huge problem. Individuals who don't believe in their mind's capacity to discern the truth will not inject truth into the existing culture. Their silence and inactivity will cause their society to stagnate, go backward, and if gone on for long enough, to die.
The core reason a culture makes any progress, as correctly identified by 19th century Enlightenment philosophers and Liberal thinkers, is because of the individual. It is the individual, who acts on the truth that is responsible for the progress of society. If the individual believes that they cannot know the truth, they have nothing that will drive them forward. Their truth is their force, their inner knowing, and without it, they won't act or create.
Emerson and his contemporaries of the time recognised the potential for relativism and nihilism in Hume and Kant's way of thinking. If the individual, following Humean or Kantian logic don't believe they can ever reach the truth, they won't contribute to society, an essential element to helping society more forward. A society that does not move forward dies.
To distrust your own truth is paralysing and ultimately devastating.
When you believe there are no truths, you eviscerate your ability to act in the world. To act on something implies that something has more value than other things. But a postmodern perspective asserts that all values are subjective and that none have special standing. And when you believe that all values are socially subjective products, you won't believe in anything with strong enough conviction to do something about it.
You won't fight; for to fight for something is predicated on the fact that what you are fighting for has inherent value.
And here lies the dilemma.
A value-less person won't stand up, let alone fight for what they believe in. They will mostly just let things happen, as though they are victim of circumstances and are powerless to do anything about the unfortunate events that have embroiled them.
And this is why postmodernism can be so deadly. These ideas, if absorbed fully, lead to exhaustion, cynicism and even nihilism. Not right away but eventually. For the natural conclusion to claiming everything is subjective is to render yourself without a voice. And I'm not talking about just saying things out aloud. I'm talking about speaking in a voice that tells the truth.
When you don't speak the truth as you see it, you open the possibility for all sorts of injustices to occur. Through impotence, you can barely stand. You can't project new life into the world. You're down and are threatened with the prospect that you will stay down for the rest of your life. Never to bring force into the world. Never fighting for anything meaningful and worthwhile. You keep your thoughts and experiences to your self, hiding them away because you are afraid of the consequences of standing up.
This is what enabled Nazi Germany to come into being (but more on this later).
Perhaps you know someone who has absorbed this relativist way of thinking - they may or may not be aware of it on a conscious level but the ideas of postmodernism have permeated their very being. You can recognise these individuals because they are extraordinarily passive. Male or female. This person cannot stand up for themselves. They allow everything to happen to them and are terribly frightened of the world. Like a grey worm. They long to hide away in the deep dark soil, desperate for safety and not realising that their yearning for safety will ultimately render them incapable of breathing. In this state of mind, they stand for nothing. And when they stand for nothing, those with tenacity and less scruples, will claim power over them and enforce their own agenda. (These individuals may kick and scream about inconsequential things or rail at the world for how unfair their life is but not do anything to change it.) Slowly, but surely, they've succumbed to their flaccid condition, and in some cases, have grown bitter. Very bitter. Their resentment towards others causes them to inflict cruelty on the world because that is what happened to them.* This is how devastating not telling the truth can be.
It was Michel Montaigne's essays that lifted Emerson out of the abyss. Montaigne was a skeptic like Hume but nowhere near as corrosive. He wrote a series of essays that reflected his innermost thoughts about life and the world around him. These first-hand observations mirrored Emerson's own life. Montaigne's truths were Emerson's truths. In "The Skeptic," Emerson writes of his experience reading Montaigne: "It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience."
It was Emerson's essays, along with many other thinkers that guided me out of the postmodernist pit of despair.
Why telling the truth is a life and death matter?
Time after time, I would notice a common thread in the writings or speeches of many great thinkers. They would say, often repeatedly and adamantly, if you don't tell the truth, you won't express who you are. And to not express who you are is terrible for not only you but for society. It is this idea that took me a long time to really understand. Why was it so important to tell the truth? And if it was so important, why do so many people choose not to.
They choose not to because to live as you are is incredibly difficult to do. It is bloody hard. It involves facing your fears and taking responsibility for the outcome of your words and actions, come what may. For to say what you know to be the truth comes with consequences, some favourable but very (most) often, unfavourable. Even downright nasty, at least in the short term. This means that to say and do what is true, you need courage and fortitude, a willingness to face ugly realities that call on you for your attention. To avoid facing this terror, more often than not, we very much prefer someone to protect us from life's realities and just tell us what to do. Someone who will save us, or relieve us of the burden of our individual responsibility. The burden of telling the truth.
But, terribly, this avoidance tactic is what enables authoritarian leaders to come to power. Individuals who believe that their truth is subjective and of relative importance, will seek someone who will give them absolute truths. For, when you take the truth away from people, they will secretly yearn for it. The truth-seeking desire doesn't go away. Human beings, by our very nature, want something to believe in, even if we won't admit it to ourselves. It is this desperate desire for something to believe in that enabled Adolf Hitler to become dictator of Germany.
The relativism of Hume and Kant (as well as many other nihilists like Hegel and Nietzsche) had permeated the entire German intellectual scene in the 1920s and 30s. The subjective truth of the individual convinced many German intellectuals, including Joseph Goebbels, that the individual does not exist separate from the group, and because of this, the individual cannot use their moral intuition. In fact, the individual's conscience was the obstacle to the group's collective efforts, and more importantly, to the creation of a Greater Germany. Without the individual's ability to discern fact from fiction, the Nazi leaders surmised, the State, in its "god-like" role will assume absolute authority of what is the truth.
Passively swallowing Nazi propaganda, most German people stopped seeing themselves as having seperate, valuable identities. Through state-led campaigns and most of all, education, they were taught that their individuality, particularly their conscience didn't matter and was harmful to the interests of the nation. As a result, they no longer exercised their moral intuition and discovered truths for themselves. They were only members of a group (the volk). And as members, their ability to discern the truth as they know it didn't exist. With the German people's ability to discern fact from fiction negated, the Nazi party were in full control They were free to implement "The Big Lie" - a lie that proclaimed the Jewish people, as well as other "social undesirables" as not worthy of belonging to the state. Demoralised from the Great War and Great Depression from 1929, the German people, no longer seeing themselves as individuals, were finally relieved of the burden to make decisions for themselves. They were willing to do whatever was demanded from them for the promise of safety and security. Even it was all based on horrible lies. Many saw this trade as a worthy sacrifice but what it meant was ultimately the annihilation of their soul. They were making a deal with the devil.
What happened in Nazi Germany and other authoritarian countries reveals what happens when individuals distrust their truth. But most of all, it reveals what happens when people succumb to the relativist epistemology that is postmodernism: they feel hopeless and are ready to submit their will to someone who claims to have the absolute truth. And when individuals no longer play an active role in expressing their truth, they create a society that descends into chaos. Individuals stop telling the truth and allow all sorts of injustices to carry on around them, even to the point of witnessing their neighbours forcibly removed from their homes and saying nothing.
Professor Jordan Peterson, a prominent voice on telling the truth in the 21st century, says that saying and acting on what we know to be true will always be hard and fraught with challenges, mostly rejection, but it is a price we have to pay for acting in the world. To not tell the truth means we are not acting on what we see as most important. And when you don't act, you allow other people's agendas to be forced upon you, for good or evil.
And this is why you must learn to tell the truth. When you do, you will breathe life into the dead world. In effect, you will act and create what is important not only to you but to others too. These others will share your truth. This is how you will reinvigorate the dead world: what you create will disrupt archaic ways of thinking and behaving. Think of how truth-tellers are currently disrupting every industry, breathing life into practices that are no longer sustainable or desirable (i.e. urban and organic farms, plant-based foods, electric cars, etc.)
How do you know when you are telling the truth?
You will know because you will stand up. You will feel strong. Peterson outlines how when you tell the truth, you feel that your words or actions are in alignment with who you are at your core. When you say and do things that are as true as you understand at that very moment, you become a real actor in the world. Someone who speaks their "latent conviction" and finds that what is true for you, is also true for others.
"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you don't express what you believe to be true, you feel weak, like you are falling apart. Continued for long enough, you become impotent. Ineffectual in the world.
Peterson, echoing Emerson's truths, says that the key to finding what is true is to stop saying and doing things that make you feel weak. It may mean that 95% of what you are currently saying and doing needs to stop. "You are mostly dead wood," says Peterson. You need to burn off all that dead wood to make way for new growth, akin to how the burning away of dead branches and debris in a forest makes way for new life. If the forest doesn't go through this process of renewal, the result would be its eventual decay. When human beings don't go through this process, the result is emotional suffering, commonly referred to as mental illness. Peterson concludes that a little bit of fire at the right time can stop everything burning to the ground. In other words, it is far better to move forward into conflict, after telling the truth, then not tell the truth and be taken down by the blazing inferno that swallows everything in its path, perhaps leaving you unable to ever recover.
And here is one of Emerson and Peterson's greatest nuggets of truth:
Individuality is absolutely necessary as the revitalising force in society.
To both Emerson and Peterson, the individual is divine. Something sacred and worthy of protection. For it is the individual who breathes life into society. A society does not and cannot by its very nature. A society is full of old ways of thinking and doing things, and some of these practices may have worked for a time but have become archaic and even regressive. The individual, such as the artist, entrepreneur, creator, etc., breathes life back into society. Through acting on their conscience and telling the truth, they moves things forward, disrupting patterns of behaviour that are no longer serving the interest of themselves and others. Groups or organisations cannot do this, for they do not have an individual conscience. Groups and organisations, by their very "group think" nature, will stick to old patterns of thought and production. It is only the individual that will disrupt this pattern, creating something new and better than what was there before. Only the individual can see the truth and act on the truth.
But isn't telling the truth terribly risky?
Telling the truth is far from easy, for "nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure," reveals Emerson. And whip you it will. To tell the truth means that you must be prepared to suffer the slings and arrows that will come your way. Emerson learned through many first hand experiences that there is a ferocity in life that you must confront. No matter how terrible. And this is one of life's truths: without engaging in conflict and turmoil, there can be no new growth. There is merely dead wood, collecting and waiting idle until a spark ignites it into a blazing inferno.
The act of truth-telling and risk-taking is not encouraged by our schooling system. I was in the high school system for over 10 years. Teachers are terribly silenced and afraid to tell the truth to themselves, let alone nurture this ability in their students. They have absorbed the relativist epistemology of postmodernism, whether they know it on a visceral level or not. They don't trust their own voice because most are convinced that their way of seeing the world is only subjective and it is better (or safer) to just to put up and shut up. The diatribe is: "Everyone has their own opinion" and "It doesn't matter what I think, it is only my experience." But, horribly, there is nowhere to go from these suppositions. To believe what we see and know to be true as only subjective experience and opinion renders the individual speechless, and thus, nothing ever changes. They won't act. In fact, things begin to revert backwards.
As a result, our current schooling system is perpetuating old ways of doing things. It has become increasingly mechanised and sterilised and very much a factory-model of operation. Assessment is the dominant focus and there is barely, if anything at all, that encourages individual truth-telling and creativity. Politically correct language, as has occurred through decades of poststructuralist theory in the English curriculum has silenced both teachers and students. Words have been neutralised in an attempt to "de-politicise education." In effect, the curriculum has neutralised the voice of individuals. Teachers and students don't speak or act in fear of causing offence and engaging in conflict.
In the 21st century, where we need creative and innovative people to propel us forward and create new life, we are instead creating a generation of young people who are impotent. Not because they choose to be that way, but because they don't know who they are and how terribly important it is to listen to their own voice. Their own truth. Their teachers don't either. It is a tragedy for both learner and teacher. Both behave in ways that are not in accordance with their natural inclinations. It is no wonder that they begin to withdraw and choose to do nothing.
What individuals need if they are going to thrive and reinvigorate the dead world are educational experiences that enable them to follow their natural inclinations, to do what makes them come alive. If we are forced to follow what others are doing, our society risks stagnating and regressing, and the misery that will be inflicted on each of us is a world of suffering. It is in no doubt that this fact is what underlies the escalation of anxiety and depression in the 21st century. When we don't tell the truth, we don't express who we are. And the opposite of self-expression is depression. The death of self and in time, the death of society.
"The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. ... The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius; not the privilege of here or there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence, it is progressive. ... [it] looks forward." Ralph Waldo Emerson
*When teaching in schools, some staff who had felt betrayed by their colleagues and the system could be terribly cruel. They had suffered immensely and their only form of action was to take revenge. After all, they would share with me, they had suffered and others should suffer too.