Essay: Programming the soul of truth

Truth Be Told

We live in an age of carefully crafted untruths – but it’s not just newspapers that seek to ‘recalibrate’ our perceptions

By Mark Cantrell

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TRUTH might be objective but that doesn’t mean that it stands aloof and unbiased – truth takes sides. But here’s the thing: truth – the real truth – is bitterly contested territory.

There’s a very good reason for this; since it’s anything but neutral, it can’t be allowed to stand naked before us, but must have its virtues obscured, masked, even replaced by a mannequin crafted to stand in its stead.

Nor is the truth a simple assemblage of facts; it isn’t coldly empirical. For sure, truth is lost without the facts of the matter, but by the self-same measure, many a falsehood is fabricated from a careful assemblage of factual points.

Facts alone are not enough to build the truth, but somewhere along the line, there comes the quantitative and – crucially – qualitative shift that gives us the truth of the matter.

Reason, such as it is, logic, argument; these all come into play in sifting and identifying truth; language is one of the primary weapons in the struggle to determine truth, for in essence it exists as a narrative.

The truth is the underlying causality of human existence, brought to light as a story, from the multiplicity of small tales that are everyday life, to the overarching narratives of the grandiose themes of history.

That’s why language has power, it is the stuff of thought, the medium of discourse; it is the primary means by which we shape and convey everyday experience and existence. That’s why language is a battleground, where truth is not the first casualty; first to fall is language itself, when words become twisted out of shape, even ripped inside out, until truth is lost in a choking miasma of adulterated meaning.

We come to terms with the world around us by experience, but beyond the immediacy of our daily lives, we are reliant on the channelling of information from far sources to calibrate our wider perception of the world; language is the primary medium, of course, and there comes into play the battle for meaning to shape our understanding of the world around us.

Far from the clarity understanding demands, language becomes a fog of ever-shifting half-truths and outright deceit, through which we must wander in search of a little true light; far from a plural society of honest but competing narratives, we are lost in a labyrinth of lies spun by vested interests.

“All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer,” said George Orwell.

But not everything is lost; the truth is out there, somewhere. The sheer effort expended in constructing false narratives demonstrates the fact that those who would shape our perception lack the means to enforce the totality of their vision. It creates the space for dissenting voices, counter-narratives in this raging maelstrom to confront or deny the truths of our existence.

The struggle may be unequal and uneven, but then that reflects the nature of our society. There is a plurality to the way our society is ordered, even if the ‘debating chamber’ isn’t open to all, if the voice of many cannot be heard above the clamour of the powerful, there remains scope for the voice of dissent to make itself heard all the same.

We must be inoculated against them, these competing narratives, if we cannot be entirely shielded from them; language turned against us, to fertilise our minds with a meaning more favourable to the dominant forces that seek to recalibrate our perception to a view favourable to their dominance.

This goes beyond the realm of politics though, of course, it is one of the primary arenas where our perceptions are battled out and shaped. Our minds may well be our own, but we don’t have them entirely to ourselves; they are busy places, where the conflict rages to shape how we see ourselves and, indeed, those around us. We may – in fact, must – think for ourselves, but the means by which we think must be carefully shaped to guide us to the pre-ordained conclusions.

Our society, far from being equal, is one top-heavy in terms of concentrations of power and wealth. Those at the top must be protected from those below; those below must be insulated from narratives that call into question the legitimacy of the pyramid. Language is the means by which the justifying narrative is conveyed, of course; we are minds of words, and words are our meaning. The stories we tell each other and ourselves underwrite the pyramid, or indeed seek to provoke action that will rock the pinnacle.

The pinnacle is far from monolithic, however; the visual metaphor gives little indication of the divisions and conflicts that prevail among those rich and powerful elites, be they wealthy oligarchs or traditional aristocrats, institutionalised corporates or state bureaucracies. They may unify against a common threat, but otherwise remain at loggerheads.

The powerful have their narratives too; strong narratives generations in the making and the re-telling, to construct a powerful counter-argument against the narratives that might emerge out of the wider social discourse. But for all that, they remain far from impregnable, which is why the battle for ‘truth’ rages on, renewed each and every day.

Traditionally, newspapers – in our secular society – have played this role of manufacturing and disseminating the conventional narratives, while inoculating against the counter-narratives. They didn’t do so alone, however; school and church, arts and culture, television and now the digital realm, all play their part.

If anything, the plethora of voices emerging out of the Internet make it both all the harder and all the easier to maintain the dominant narratives. A paradox of the technology, and the multiplicity of voices and narratives, all shouting out to be heard, but in this arena, as of old, the basis of the struggle is in language – in the meaning of the words assembled to convey the narrative. Truth remains hard to find, but for all that, it has become ever harder to suppress.

Stalin once noted: “Writers must become the engineers of souls.” If anything, writing – the use of language in literature, journalism, political discourse, business and more – has moved beyond engineering: now it’s about programming our perception of reality. Perhaps it was ever thus, constructing the algorithms of our lives, but until the advent of the digital age, we but lacked the metaphor.

Regardless, the nature of the programme remains the same – to insulate against narratives inconvenient to the power structure. Language remains ever at the heart of the struggle to control the parameters of our minds.

Truth has never been easy, and now more than ever a fractious and fractured humanity is battling to capture the truth for their faction, and deny it to their opponents. But as before, somewhere in this maelstrom, the real deal lurks, looking for the liberty to tell its own narrative.

As Orwell said: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

MC

 


This article was originally published on one of the author’s earlier blog platforms.

Mark Cantrell, Stoke-on-Trent, 7 April 2013

Copyright © April 2013. All Rights Reserved.

 

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