The popular murder of truth

Is popular opinion important to you? Are you keen to appease it, to ride on the back of it?

I know the temptation.

Though Socrates didn’t feel bound by what everyone else was saying. He didn’t feel popular opinion was a guide for anything of value.

‘Ordinary people just act at random,’ he says – not a line much in currency today among our political leaders.

‘I absolutely believe in the good sense of the British people etc etc’

Socrates then adds that opinions in popular circulation cannot demand respect merely because of their popularity. Popularity has no relation to either quality or wisdom.

To illustrate this, he says that an athlete who trains according to a programme dictated by popular opinion is liable to damage himself. It would be better if they trained according to an athletic coach.

These days, we appear to know better. We enthuse about the democracy as if there is some inherent wisdom in the popular view; though most dummies and tyrants have ridden to power on the back of the popular view, Jair Bolsonara in Brazil the latest.

‘Eat shit – a million flies can’t be wrong.’

But there’s a more fundamental issue, as Macarius, the 19th century Russian startsy, notes.

People travelled miles for his advice. But the truth of his advice was always personal, non-transferable. As he wrote to one visitor:

‘What I write for you I write for you alone and I must ask that you refrain from passing it on to others as a general rule of conduct for all. It is nothing of the kind. My advice to you is fashioned according to your inner and outward circumstances. Hence it can be only for you.’

Perhaps to one person he said leave your husband. Perhaps to another he said stay. He fashioned truth ‘according to your inner and outward circumstances.’ It wasn’t for general use.

And yet we love making it general…which makes it a lie.

The more people you are speaking to, the more reference points there are to appease, the more compulsions to win over in some sort of communication deal – then the more you must dumb down, and the more stupid you must become… if you wish them to follow you.

All nuance must go, all subtle shades, these things cannot live in the mass market; they must be abandoned for strong colours and clean lines.

You hear it in both political and religious oratory…strong colours, clean lines, savage put-downs of ‘the enemy’.

In the end, the communication deal is about a truth, not the truth.

Most communicators don’t set out to lie; they don’t see themselves as liars, this is not their self-image. They probably see themselves as saviours. 

But while they don’t perceive themselves as liars, they will lie freely to protect their little bit of the truth…and later, rationalise their lies to themselves, and believe, (perhaps with a smirk and a wink) the lie to be virtue in its way.

In the end, the deal becomes the most important thing…the communication deal. And if truth must be sacrificed in some manner, then so be it, it’s worth it – a truth is better than no truth, politicians and evangelists at least agree on this.

But is it? Is it really?

For a truth is an idiot outside its own front room.

Take a well-known recent example.

‘£350 million to the NHS’ on the side of a bus. It’s a truth, in that it could happen… aspirational but possible.

But when put in the context of the whole Brexit narrative, it’s an idiot.

In terms of the communication deal, however, it was worth it; it got the Brexiteers over the line…wink, wink.

And obviously the same practice is not unknown in the Remain camp, or in churches, mosques and synagogues…or indeed in ‘Strictly’ contestants talking about their journey on the programme so far, an exercise in mass-market hysteria rather than the truth of their experience.

On offer from them all: A truth for mass consumption, strong colours, clean lines.

I prefer speaking with one person. Only there, as Macarius reminds us, is there real accuracy of diagnosis and prescription.

In a group, I am tempted to become hysterical, to over-claim in order to ‘lead us all forward, to give the troops a fire to gather round!’

And to over-claim is to lie.

With a crowd, I exchange accuracy for hysteria. Strong colours, straight lines, savage put-downs…

when truth is a water colour of spilling light and shade; a savage beauty beyond words.

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