Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Trusting more but knowing less
News that the Queen will sue over the Annie Leibovitz segment of the Beeb’s fly-on-the-wall monarch-watching doco sharpens the focus on the place of truth in our public and cultural lives. We may never know exactly what the film contained. But the trailer, shown “accidentally” to journalists, re-ordered the majesty’s walking-then-sitting into sitting-then-walking (out), thus casting her as more of a bad-tempered old queen than she actually was. In truth, she did have a grizzle, about both putting the regalia on and taking it off for the famously eccentric Leibovitz lens, but there was no tantie, no storm-out. Thus, say palace lawyers, was the contract’s truth clause breached.
With anyone but the Queen, we’d barely register. Our tolerance of public falsity is remarkable and the larger the deception, it seems, the more accommodating we are. Trivia like royal tantrums and novelists’ identities make us boil. The idea that a BBC quiz show was won by a BBC employee sparks outrage. But when the issues are huge – like pulverising someone else’s country, not to mention lives – we recognise the fraud, shrug, move on.
Between the two extremes are the middle-sized, run-of-the-mill deceptions of daily life. These are increasingly commonplace, due largely to the post-modern belief that truth itself is a “construct”, making all documentary fiction.
This is patently untrue. “French theory”, so called, that underpins post-modernism, mistook the unverifiability of truth for its non-existence. That we can’t know the truth, it argued, makes truth illusory. This is not only hubristic, but wrong. There are facts. Not just practical assumptions essential to daily life, but facts. They exist. There is a fact about what the Queen did, even if we never know what it is. There are truths about the nature of matter, or consciousness. There is a tree in the forest, even unwatched. Knowability is separate, although we are knowledge-seeking creatures, doomed to chase truth even if it’s uncatchable.
And yet we foster the idiot notion that truth is a manufactured item. Not only do we tolerate the ceaseless blurring of the fact-fiction line that has made unmarked advertorial respectable. That has standard fare of docu-fictions like Michael Moore’s Sicko blending truth and fable into emotive puree. We also teach this nonsense to our children, shaping high school and even tertiary curriculums around the idea of truth as construct.
It’s well meant. But one outcome is what the Oxford philosopher Onora O’Neill has dubbed the “crisis of trust”. O’Neill’s argument, outlined in her 2002 Reith lectures, is that trust is diminishing and, paradoxically, that this shrinkage directly parallels the transparency fad that is meant to deliver public truth.
O’Neill’s point is that trust and exposure don’t necessarily go together. This is partly down to information blindness, where our knowingness traps us in the sludge between self-congratulation on seeing through the bastards and confusion at the hopelessness of making sense or action out of it. It’s also because trust, like faith, is closer to not-knowing than knowing. O’Neill cites the typical family, where trust levels are usually high although there is much that parents do not and should not share with children, or teenagers with parents.
This directly contradicts the fashion for helicopter parenting, where parents who would have died before informing their own parents of their sexual or intoxicant exploits feel bound to track their children’s internet and social wanderings. (Bring on microchipping, I say.)
But what about causality? Does distrust generate openness? Or has openness, conversely, destroyed trust? We all know, sadly, how deregulating the telecoms has produced “providers” that court you for months with energetic first-name endearments from some Mumbai call centre only to break all troths from the very first invoice, in a manner calculated to preclude analysis, much less complaint. We all know how opening up medical insurance has produced a lather of products that the average human has neither the time nor the capacity to compare. Same with government.
We trust government. Have to, really. However Daniel Boone your private life, however Henry Thoreau your philosophy, governments make the rules that convert raw morality into culture. Despite 20 years of “need to know”, despite 30 of plausible deniability, yet we trust. Iraq happened because we – enough of us – trusted that “they” had both evidence and end-game in hand. Otherwise, we figured, there’s no way they’d be so stupid, marching goalless into bloody mayhem. (This overlooks the possibility that mayhem was itself the goal, making evidence superfluous.)
Ironically, our distrust – that is, our grasp of just how deeply our trust is betrayed – depends on the information culture in which the war is embedded. Even 50 years ago, the mayhem would have been shrouded in distance and abstraction. The truth would have been as bleak, but our “truths” would have been cheerier.
Then again, 50 years ago that selfsame grumpy monarch was nobility personified. Perhaps O’Neill is right: trusting more involves knowing less. But trusting more despite knowing less means either demolishing the entire truth-making assembly line or redressing our post-modern pandemic of liars in public places.