May 292008

Chris Cork

The unlamented Donald Rumsfeld once spoke of “known unknowns and unknown unknowns.” – which was at the time ridiculed as being yet another example of Orwellian double-speak; yet Rumsfeld may have hit the nail on the head, albeit unwittingly. He was speaking of those things that we know we do not know and the things beyond that that are the things we do not know that we do not know – but will in time come to recognise as known unknowns. As knowledge and understanding advance, so does the event horizon that separates known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and as time passes the unknown unknowns pass through time to become the known in the here-and-now and then move into the past to become a version of known history. One of the things that he was probably thinking about was the concept of truth and how it fitted into the complex and multilayered structure of geopolitics – he was probably not thinking of Pakistan as an individual example of known unknowns within which there were unknown unknowns, but in the months since the election his words have become evermore locally applicable.

There is any number of yet-unknown truths in the world of Pakistani politics – as there are in just about every sphere of life worldwide – with “Who killed Benazir Bhutto” being but one of the larger unknowings. We hear daily and from all sides calls for “the truth” about everything from what is “the truth” behind the recent release of a certain ambassador who was held by the Taliban to who really killed John F Kennedy. We may never know either and the truth is that the truth itself is empirically unknowable outside the realm of mathematics.

Truth, absolute truth, is about universally known and -accepted proofs that have only a single meaning, are irrefutable by argument and logic. “One and one are two” is undeniably and transparently provable everywhere in the known cosmos. But we can only say that it is true here in this dimension, as the unknown unknown dimension may have a different truth of the sum, or indeed not recognise the numbers in the first place — because our own dimension is an unknown unknown elsewhere. That which is not empirically proven or provable is, ergo, not a truth in absolute terms, and “truth” becomes endlessly elastic.

The matter of “truth” has exercised the philosophical mind from Plato onwards and in the modern world Wittgenstein (1889-1951) has given us a model for understanding “truth” in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) – a tome unlikely to grace the bookshelves of any of the leading political players hereabouts. Wittgenstein tried to solve the enigma “can we know the truth?” and used the language of mathematics, free of human passions, to conclude that it was – outside of mathematics – impossible to find an irrefutable argument, leading him to the conclusion…”Whereof we cannot speak there must we be silent.” This has done nothing to stem the flow of philosophical ideas or political follies ever since.

Few politicians are philosophically inclined, even fewer inclined to philosophical truthfulness, abstract or otherwise, and Wittgenstein has little to offer the common man in terms of a template for truths. We need a more accessible way of understanding “truth” – particularly political truth; an understanding that fits and works, however inexactly, in the world of the ordinary man and woman. An understanding that truth, and specifically political truth, is never “truth” in absolute terms but will be viewed and understood in a way that makes sense and allows some form of judgement – perhaps inexact in literal terms relative to absolute truth.

Seeing, they say, is believing. We see a two-dimensional drawing of a cube and recognise it as a cube. It isn’t but we “know” it is because we recognise it as a representation of an irrefutable mathematical truth – but how we are to interpret and understand those things presented as “truths” now being laid before us by three-dimensional politicians offering two-dimensional answers? We need a different understanding, a different word, even, to “truth”; and thus it is that “truthiness” comes amongst us in recent years. It does nothing to solve our problems – indeed, it probably adds to them – but goes a long way towards giving us something a little easier to digest conceptually than that offered by Herr Wittgenstein.

“Truthiness” is a new word, born on an American talk show by its host Stephen Colbert in 2005. It has rapidly entered the realms of political commentary and several dictionaries and looks like being around for a long time to come. Truthiness has a natural home in the world of Pakistani politics as it defines the quality of stating concepts that one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts. Truthiness is the truth that will not be held back or obstructed by mere “facts” and truthiness is the quality by which one purports to know something emotionally or instinctively, without regard for empirical evidence or intellectual examination. Truthiness is, in truth, whatever you want it to be. And if you tell truthiness and say it is the truth, then it is irrespective of that not being so – depending on who is doing the telling and who the listening. Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, rather than what the facts are. It is what feels like the right answer as opposed to what reality and the blindingly obvious tell you. Colbert, originator of the word, offered this example…”If you talk about the war in Iraq, maybe there are a few missing pieces in the rationale for war, but doesn’t ‘taking Saddam out’ feel like the right thing?” Truthiness may be an opinion about what is true, or a comment on an event, but it is unencumbered by inconveniences such as facts.

In a country where half-truth and fiction, gossip and intrigue, conspiracy and deceit are part and parcel of a reality wrought by political practitioners, it is only a small step to bring truthiness to the common man. It is the common man who consumes truthiness and is its principal target; moreover, he consumes it both willingly and happily, it does not have to be forced down his throat because it is what he wants to hear. Calls for the truth are nothing of the sort; they are instead calls for truthiness, because truthiness brings a kind of comfort and ease, a sense of certainty in a truth that can be believed, no matter that it is a fiction.

Truthiness has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth and is not intended to. Poor Wittgenstein probably spins in his grave these days; but it catches the Zeitgeist well and tellers of truthiness sniff the wind to catch the popular mood the better to spin their magic. And the unknown unknowns? …Well, they can safely be left in the hands of Messrs Zardari and Sharif, who have clearly been attending the Rumsfeld master-classes so completely are the unknown unknowns unknown to us all.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email:
sOURCE: tHE nEWS, 29/5/2008

 Posted by at 7:31 am

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