On 2020 - Trust and Truth
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
The world after lock-down. Where people turn out to be such fascinating creatures. Some spread conspiracies, while others believe love or meditation can actually stop viruses. And between all the heart ache of patients and economies, dolphins returning to their (not our...) coasts and some brilliant gallows humor from our comedians, we all rushed to get toilet paper. This begs the question; what will really change?
The theory goes that it takes around 21 days to change a habit, and about 90 days to change a lifestyle (love to Marianna Kocsány for this tip!). With the exception of Antarctica and possibly some jungle tribes, the entire world has now experienced some sort of lock-down, that has been longer than 21 and close or over 90 days in total, with partial lock-downs sure to follow still. If the theory is correct, change - for better or worse - should be in the air everywhere. Let's look at two big emotional changes for the better.
Trust and the monopoly on information
The most significant change of all might be that in the past few months, and despite some very vocal and visible groups, on a worldwide scale we have started to trust our most important institutions government, education, media, business and NGO's a little bit better again. In the past few decades - parallel to the rise of the Internet - trust had eroded almost completely in all our leading institutions (The Age of Distrust, Edelman). The shift we've witnessed with the coming of the World Wide Web is similar to the immense social shift the invention of the book press gave us, and the subsequent first print of the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450's.
Back then, the monopoly on information was taken away from the Church because we could now print, spread and read the Bible and other books for ourselves. Essentially, we could make up our own minds on religion, science, art and politics, as opposed to priests interpreting the Bible for us and Kings telling us what the law was. This ushered in The Renaissance, full of invention and hard-fought social change that ultimately led to the introduction of democracy in the 18th and 19th century, and in the 20th and 21st century, a slow, hardfought but steady movement towards equality.
In today's world, the monopoly of information has recently been taken away from our main institutions by the Internet. Information is now available to all, not just in a top down manner (see my Dutch book The Outerweb), a stark difference to a few decades ago. Similar to The Renaissance, the masses are now re-inventing many things. And from spreading science to business to conspiracies to art, through fast growing tech-startups and open source tools, we, the people, have started to create our own, highly individualized realities through our own (choice of) ever-growing media channels. For that reason, many thinkers are calling today's world 'post-truth'.
Back to one truth
A global disaster however, quickly reminds us that we are all interconnected and dependent on one another, despite our different reality-constructs. This means we have to rely on business, government, NGO's, journalists and science for our information and our economic and health survival. In other words the 'old' institutions. And although our individual reality-constructs will probably never go away again, the context is so strong now that we have again connected to a global, singular truth: nature has struck us.
And through this, we've not only grown to - very reluctantly - trust our institutions a little more, but also our neighbors, many of them deemed essential workers. In essence, we've been forced to trust each other more than we had done in these past few decades of distrust. It was only a relatively brief period of time. We probably did not like it. But we had no choice. So, trust, happened.
Truth in the new age
Part of these post-modern, individual reality-constructs has been the idea that truth is fluid and in the eye of the beholder. This is also called New Age thinking, which I'm saying without prejudice, knowing that every reader here will have its own positive or negative responses to the words 'New Age'. The concept of New Age is that as a human race we will reach a more enlightened, conscious or mindful state - in the highest bracket of the Maslow pyramid if you will - that means we are more open and loving to each others reality-constructs and its differences. In essence, it asks us to accept that truth is not solid, but dependent on your point of view.
This fluid concept is arguably beneficial to our well being. In the past 50 years or so, it has lead to more global acceptance of those who were first seen as 'different', based on demographics such as race, gender, income, culture, religion and such. This means the 'enlightened' thinking, where truth is more fluid and has more space to exist in a cultural and personal context, has led to obvious improvements in our society.
And even if you yourself are still reluctant to accept minorities or resist other points of view, there is even for you an undeniable advantage to a more mindful embrace of differences; embracing diversity is an excellent survival technique, because from farmland to city streets, it speeds up biological, economical, societal and last but not least, business evolution. The argument for this fluid, New Age thinking, is strong.
There is however, a very big catch.
The pitfall of post-truth
The 'eye of the beholder' concept has one pitfall: when applied to scientific fact, it falls apart. In a science context, fluid thinking goes against accepting real, simple, undeniable truths. Such as 'birds fly' or 'fish swim'. Of course, in theory, the concept of fluidity works in science too. Just think of quantum mechanics, the theory that says that in the quantum world, a fish can fly, dance, juggle and sing too.
On a quantum level, that fish is a cat called Schrödinger, that can be dead, alive, or perform a freaking opera if it so wishes. As long as the lit on that box stays closed, everything is always possible. But in real life, and in the context of truth, this principle becomes extraordinary unhelpful when we need to accept scientific fact. Let me put in another way; that fish of ours really isn't singing La Traviata now is he?
To give you a more practical example: in our post-modern, new age world, the idea that 'the Earth is flat' has resurfaced after centuries of laying dormant. Why would anyone believe that in this day and age? Here's the kicker: the base argument to do so, is actually 'everything is possible'. And when confronted with say, a picture of our round globe, the argument becomes: 'it must be a conspiracy'. Why? "Because truth was in the eye of the beholder wasn't it? Truth is fluid, isn't it? So by that logic, my truth, that the world is flat, must be true too..."
You're catching my drift. The 'truth is fluid' argument now all of a sudden starts to work against us, especially in a threatening situation when we need to rely on hard scientific fact and individual 'truth' is completely irrelevant. We can become so open to the idea that everybody has a different definition of say, an apple, that we cannot accept anymore that an apple sometimes really is just an apple. In this case, a virus, really is just a virus.
In other words, the mindset of 'everything is possible and acceptable' may work well in many other contexts, but is highly counterproductive when we project it on cold hard science. A global disaster forces us to now suddenly (and again, very, very reluctantly) again agree that this 'apple' is the only, singular, undeniable truth. It just leaves no room for another apple. Truth, in this case, becomes solid.
Is there one apple?
Of course, on the surface many people seem to have a huge problem with that. Just look at your social media feed. Everybody's opinion is 'better than the doctors'. We are still seeing claims such as "It's all a hoax", the "left/right wing radicals want you to... " (fill in blank), or "they are lying", whoever 'they' may be this time. On the face of it, there is no solid truth to be seen anywhere.
People are constantly projecting their own truth, exasperated by societal unrest and some dodgy government behavior concerning our privacy rights. Again we can point to the vastness of (good and bad) opinions, coming from that concept of fluidity. From the looks of it, even in crisis we have not been able to agree on that one, singular apple. It seems in 2020 we are still firmly in 'post-truth' territory.
But appearances are very misleading in this case. In essence, we are duped into thinking everything is divided, because we are faced with relatively small groups of very visible and very vocal people who share divisive messages. When we zoom out and take into account all those people who are silent, a very different picture surfaces. Research shows incredibly high numbers of agreement (in the 70's, 80's and sometimes '90s percentiles) on how we should deal with the virus, including on wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.
It goes to show that when emotions calm down and the initial anxiety of the lock-down wears off, even those who scream loudest, cannot escape the scientific truth that a virus is what it is, and does what it has been doing (for a few billion years now...). As human beings we make mistakes, or hurt each other over differences of opinions, especially now. But despite that the virus has remained global fact.
As scientific truth goes, this one is as solid as it comes. Simply because a fluid approach to truth will not stop you from being infected by a potentially deadly virus, nor stop it from spreading to others. A virus is what a virus is...
So, below the surface, we might be witnessing more acceptance than we thought. Even the most adamant deniers of the virus, knew instinctively that they needed to stay home. We scream and yell that we shouldn't be such lemmings and shouldn't accept everything that is thrown at us. Some of us even act on that notion. And our minds may have formed a new individual reality-construct, that we projected on social media... yet done so safely from behind closed doors.
The best example is Fox News. On this channel, for months its reporters and hosts had been screaming from the top of their lungs that the virus wasn't to be feared. But they have done so, like the rest of us, safely from home.
Behavior in this case, speaks louder than words. Even if those words are spoken very, very loudly. We protest and project, we scream and stamp, but we stay cautious anyway. Why? Probably because scientific fact in this case also confirms our animal instinct. Whatever your emotions, they don't change the danger that a virus poses. So your subconscious takes over, to help you survive.
And while we are still seeing many strong divisions in points of view - mine may even not resonate with you right now -, there is a very strong argument to be made that for the first time in decades, the many sides of the divide reluctantly agreed on one 'apple' at least for a few weeks or months; to wash our hands and keep distance.
This can be seen as our first truly unified behavior in a very, very long time. Although the laws of both sarcasm and irony compel me to point out we needed a global disaster to get there...
Hoping it's enough
Yes of course, you'd be very right to point out that at the end of the lock-down, people are already divided in their behavior again. Just look at the recent protests. And in some parts of the world, most visibly in the USA, the virus is overflowing hospitals again. Yet, despite our differences, we humans are what science has deemed part of the 'social animals' in the animal kingdom. The one characteristic of social animals is that they mirror each others emotions.
So, when enough time has passed in a strong enough context, despite what the news might make you think, and despite the screams of some very loud individuals, and despite many of us hitting the streets in outrage over other issues, almost all of us have, very reluctantly, and for a very brief time - only a few weeks tops - started to mirror two things that had been missing for quite a while: trust and truth in each other.
It's not much, I know. But compared to what it was before, it still is progress.
Plant trees people. Plant trees.
Rogier van Kralingen