In a recent piece for The Asheboro Courier-Tribune, College of Charleston student, KimberMarie Faircloth asks the question: “What is truth?” In a move that is no longer surprising in the so-called post-truth world we inhabit, Faircloth declares truth to be subjective: “Your truth is not your neighbor’s truth. Your reality is not my reality.”
To justify this claim, she points to two distinct issues often discussed in humanities courses: the observer-expectancy effect and the argument that to describe something is to limit it and so to change it. As we’ll see, neither of these issues suggest that truth is impossible to acquire or even subjective.
The observer-expectancy effect is a real problem that researchers encounter when collecting data. Suppose that you want to answer a very simple research question: do diners in public restaurants observe the rules of etiquette? To answer the question, you walk around a restaurant at lunch wearing a lab coat and making marks on a clipboard. The observer-expectancy effect suggests that if the diners discover that you are observing them and why, they may decide not to cram their mouths full of food or eat with their knives.
Because the presence of the observer alters the behavior of the diners from our example, Faircloth supposes that no one can enter any situation as an observer without altering the behavior of the people around them. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that every time a new person walks into the restaurant, the scene changes a little bit.
And indeed, it often happens in real life that people do change their behavior based on the presence of others such as parents, teachers or cardboard cutouts of policemen. But this change in behavior does not mean that our respective observations of the world are inherently subjective. Indeed, it confirms the opposite.
The kind of change that happens because of the observer-expectancy effect involves two states of behavior that everyone can perceive. The first state would be the state before you started observing–the diners at their most natural, slurping their soup and chewing with their mouths open. The second would be the increased formality of the diners after they realized they were being observed.
The only way you can know that your observations had an effect is if you were able to witness both states of behavior or if you observed a notable improvement in etiquette as you continued to observe. But if you did—which Faircloth assumes you can—that means there were states to observe and a mind (your own) to observe them. Far from making truth impossible by stepping into that diner, your mind’s presence makes possible what you’ll come to know about the diners.
And more than this, through analytical thought you might also learn something about the diners that you didn’t set out to discover. You might reason that their change in behavior is caused by a respect for authority, or a preference for privacy and so on.
The point is, your mind isn’t a hindrance to acquiring knowledge about other people—it’s your crucial tool for doing so. The major takeaway from Faircloth’s point about the observer-expectancy effect isn’t that your mind is inherently limited, but that it takes real mental work to make sense of what you perceive. That’s not a wrecking-ball to knowledge, it’s just a fact about the world.
More controversially, Faircloth also claims that truth must be subjective because the world around us is constantly changing. It changes, she claims, as a result of our descriptions, which bias it and so change it.
This line of reasoning is particularly deceptive, because it’s true that descriptions are inherently biased. We do limit things when describing them–we select certain features to focus on and leave others out.
By way of example, let me paraphrase a review of the restaurant from which I am writing this piece: The restaurant is a cafe–the kind with no waiters; available food includes soup, salad and sandwiches; the service is quick; there is free wi-fi; and it is relatively quiet.
The writer of the paraphrased review engages in a process of selection: he or she does not mention every feature of the restaurant, only those relevant to most customers. This process of purposefully selecting the features of the restaurant to describe something for an audience is known as essentialization.
Done well, essentialization tells you much of what you need to know. In this case, the reviewer’s essentialization tells you that this is probably not a place where you can get a four-course meal, it tells you that it’s probably not a place to go on a fancy date, it also tells you that it might be a good place to bury yourself in a corner and study.
It doesn’t tell you whether the food is vegan, gluten-free or vegetarian. It doesn’t tell you whether the diners are all wearing business attire or yoga pants. If either of these types of information matters to you, you might think the reviewer did not do a good job of essentializing the restaurant.
But even when a reader legitimately seeks different information from that available in the review–when the essentialization is unhelpful–there is a check on the power of the reviewer of the restaurant: the restaurant itself still exists to be observed and there are often other reviewers who observe it.
Certainly, a restaurant reviewer could distort your understanding of a restaurant and could make you think that a coffee shop was a two-star Michelin restaurant. Or someone could repeat vicious lies about a restaurant that would ruin the reputation of its owner and encourage vigilantism directed at the restaurant. But even then, if you went to the restaurant, you would still find out the truth for yourself. And if you were honest with yourself, you would have to admit it.
Though it is potent, the power to distort the understanding of your listeners or readers does not amount the power to change the world your audience inhabits.
Listeners or readers may have an incorrect understanding as a result of evil or incompetent communicators, but the fact that people hold error-ridden views as a result doesn’t make truth subjective. Rather, the whole issue illustrates the difficulty of communicating the truth to others and the ease with which lies can be spread.
Faircloth’s arguments do not illustrate the subjectivity of truth; taken together they both illustrate how difficult it can sometimes be to discover the truth. We must often compensate for how our own presence influences the behavior of others, just as we must also be conscious of how second-hand information has the potential to distort our understanding.
While her conclusion and supporting arguments are wrong, it’s understandable how anyone who has been through our education system could come to the conclusion that truth is subjective. Ours is an education system in which students acquire what they presume to be truth by passively listening to authority figures dole it out.
After years of learning by passively listening, it’s understandable for someone who suddenly realizes that truth is difficult to acquire to decide in frustration that it must be difficult because it is subjective.
Instead of surrendering to the difficulties in frustration, Faircloth and others like her should learn a bigger lesson: that truth cannot be acquired passively by simply listening or seeing. By contrast, acquiring truth requires an active mind–a mind that both seeks out information and is committed to evaluating it. Acquiring truth also requires a disciplined mind–a mind that is not content with contradictions and which analyzes old assumptions when they conflict with new information.
Only with an active, disciplined mind will you find truth, which you need to act effectively and live happily. It’s encouraging that Faircloth attaches value to finding truth, and we can only hope that she comes to understand that truth is as objective as it is important.