[i]The only way that society can work is for there to be some common experience. This typically starts with language but it does not end there. Every culture has a bundle of accepted truths and by virtue of the common understanding that is implied, members of the culture and their actions appear reasonable to one another and equilibrium is reached.
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Cultures are dynamic, in constant turmoil. At any point in time, a given member of a culture can be said to accept the prevailing myths thus be on the "inside" or to believe that, on the average, the culture has veered away from that which is true and be on the "outside".
What can be said of the processes and forces by which nations, cultures, or societies evolve and maintain some sustainable equilibrium? How do cultural sub-groups integrate and are there any insights that can be gained from observation of cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium?[/i]
I once jokingly asked a friend to give me the entire truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to which he replied “Which version of the truth do you want?” So this got me thinking. I hear you, “Uh-oh, not again, that could be dangerous.” While I’ll readily admit that I have really stepped in it on a number of occasions, warnings like these never stopped me before.
Harold Pinter British playwright and Nobel laureate said noted in his Nobel acceptance lecture that:
“Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.”
This is not by chance for art, and consequently drama, do truly mimic life.
Consider American culture for a moment. As with any culture we learn certain things in school, starting at an early age, about our founding fathers and the principles on which America was founded. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways a variety of formative “truths” work their way into our collective myth, constituting a bundle of fact and assumption under which we all operate and appear reasonable to one another.
For example, we know that George Washington was a general in our war of independence and that he chopped down his father’s cherry tree but later confessed this mischief to his father. Or do we? As it turns out Washington never chopped down a cherry tree. This story was a fable supplied generations after the act was supposed to have occurred.
There is a seemingly endless list of facts, stories, anecdotes, fables, characterizations of the virtuous, justifications for war and campaign slogans that have more or less come to be regarded as truth. It is not always important whether they really are true as much as that they are internalized by all and facilitate easy communication. Someone from another country might know our language but stumble badly as they try to follow conversation as they encounter references to these implicit “truths”.
The Austin Powers movies, despite including British actors and being filmed largely in the UK, was not well received in the UK precisely due to the American colloquial aspects of humor and language.
According to Eugene Garver:
“Most of the time communities get along by looking for agreement and consensus instead of truth. They reasonably assume that ‘what everybody knows’ is true, and to take agreement as a sure sign of truth.”
We don’t have to reach far back in history for examples which, despite being beyond debate today, show prevailing of the period to be “false”. Women were incapable of voting and blacks were inferior in almost every way. We have come a long way and in the next century we probably have a long way to go.
Philosopher Richard Rorty characterizes the search for truth as “a search for the widest possible intersubjective agreement." The idea of community in agreement is warm and palatable but occurs to the extent that there can be trusting relationships between cultural sub-groups with one another and with government institutions.
But sometimes truth can represent a shock to the political system and it is not the same as agreement at all. Just think of how many times there is a status quo holding a set of common beliefs that subjugate those in another group. This can be all-at-once stealthy, clever, and self-serving. We are all familiar enough with the histories of sufferance and civil rights to conjure up our own examples.
Garver characterizes truth and agreement as often being at odds with one another adding that “Truth is disruptive”. He explains that:
“Periodically, however, there are “revolutionary movements”, in which disruptive truths destroy the existing community. Since normal communities define what counts as rational, these injections of truth cannot be rational....After the revolution these new truths are assimilated. They become domesticated, civilized, and rationalized. Truth becomes commonplace. There is a new consensus. The community returns to a new stable existence founded in a new set of agreements. On this account, revolution is the antithesis of community. There are no communities of truth, only of agreement.”
Typically this sort of truth is introduced by an outsider who is stepped upon or offended by the prevailing community agreement. History shows that this can be tumultuous.
What does this say about the present time? Are we in a state of relative equilibrium or one of disequilibrium? What are the specific truths in question and which proponent groups are involved?