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How the truth fell into disrepute A fear of sounding authoritarian haunts society

Recollections may vary: Harry and Meghan (Samir Hussein/WireImage)

Recollections may vary: Harry and Meghan (Samir Hussein/WireImage)


July 10, 2023   5 mins

Truth is harder to dispose of than some people think. To say that there is no truth is already to have stated one, or at least what you take to be one. Yet the idea of truth is a lot less in fashion than it used to be, and there are social and political reasons for this unpopularity.

One of them is individualism. In a society which lacks any strong bonds between its members, everyone is likely to have their own interpretation of the world, just as everyone is likely to have their own toothbrush. You wouldn’t want to borrow someone else’s version of the truth, any more than you would want to borrow their toothbrush. Truth becomes privatised. It’s a matter of my personal experience, and surely no one can challenge that. 

In fact, personal experience is as open to debate and dissent as the existence of God. There’s nothing absolute about it. One of the key insights of the late modern period, before the birth of postmodernism, is the recognition that human beings are constitutively opaque to themselves. “Constitutively”, because this lack of self-transparency is built into the kind of animals we are, not just some lamentable self-blindness which we could put right with a little more self-reflection.

When Oedipus in Sophocles’s drama finally comes to know who he is, he recognises that he is a stranger to himself. It has taken incest, parricide, pollution, self-blinding and self-exile to arrive at the conclusion that he has no certain grasp of his own identity, and that this is the condition of us all. There must be easier ways of learning this lesson. 

There was a time when we thought that we were transparent to ourselves and that it was others who were indecipherable to us. Nowadays, we tend to accept that we aren’t always in entire possession of our own experience, and that others can sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. Among other things, this is because other people are frequently well-placed to see what we do, and what we do is a surer guide to who we are than what we say or think we are. If someone insists that he’s a passionate lover of animals and spends his spare time dissecting live frogs, then he is self-deluded. It’s the beliefs implicit in our behaviour, not those recorded in our memoirs, that really count. If the truth is what we feel, there can be no place for self-deception in human affairs. It simply wouldn’t be possible for a prime minister to declare himself a pretty straight sort of guy, and probably believe it, yet seek to deceive the public about the invasion of Iraq. 

So I am no infallible guide to the meaning of my own experience. I thought at the time I was furious, but looking back I realise that I was afraid. It’s true that my experience is beyond doubt in the sense that I really am in agony, and no mistake; but to know that what I’m feeling is agony rather than ecstasy, I must have the concepts of agony and ecstasy, and this isn’t something I can achieve all by myself. I can know this only by belonging to a community whose language includes these notions.

In this sense, even the most private of experiences is public. Toddlers don’t spontaneously come up with the concept of unfairness. Rather, they take part in a form of social life in which the idea of unfairness has a function, they watch how their elders behave and listen to how words are used as forces in these contexts. If they have the misfortune to be brought up in Conservative Party headquarters, they will never get the hang of the idea.

Another insight of late modernity is that experience and reality are in some ways out of sync. It looks as though the sun circles the earth, but this is because the Earth revolves on its axis. (“The sun’s coming up — or as the new theory has it, the Earth’s going down,” as a 17th-century character remarks in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern are Dead). One purpose of science is to close the gap between reality and our experience of it, as well as explaining how the gap comes about. 

Like all concepts, truth is inherently social. There must be public criteria by which we can determine what counts as true or false, and these criteria are nobody’s private possession. The philosopher Wittgenstein imagines someone exclaiming “But I know how tall I am!” and placing his hand on top of his head. He hasn’t grasped the fact that tallness is a comparative notion, one that involves socially agreed modes of measurement. There must also be public criteria for conflicts over truth. Disagreement is only possible if you can agree on what you are disagreeing over. We aren’t conflicting over the value of the pound if you are thinking of sterling and I am thinking of the American poet of that name. 

A certain degree of consensus must underlie the most vehement of altercations. People who cry “Well, it’s true for me” (the #MeToo generation is also the “Me-Me-Me” generation) haven’t grasped this point, either. Rather than making the coldly impersonal idea of truth more warmly experiential, they end up abolishing it altogether. If truth is just what anyone happens to think is true, then the word drops out of use. It becomes impossible to distinguish between what I feel and the way the world actually is. There are people who insist that slavery is one of the most outrageous episodes in Western history, yet put the word “truth” in scare quotes. They tend to do the same with the word “fact”, while maintaining that it’s a fact that women are equal to men. 

Does all this mean that truth is beyond dispute? Certainly not for science. The fact that truth isn’t just subjective doesn’t mean that it must be absolute. The one is just the flipside of the other. Relativists and subjectivists fear that unless they are right, truth becomes dogmatic, infallible and authoritarian. But this is to be afraid of a bogeyman. To say that a proposition is scientific is to say among other things that it could be wrong. It’s the kind of thing that someone might always come along and falsify. It differs in this way from “Put that tiger down!” or “Sorry, make that two tuna sandwiches”.

Science is a never-ending argument, in which one’s conclusions are perpetually open to revision, and argument is fundamentally a political affair. You must make sure that everyone gets a chance to participate in the debate, that they do so on equal terms, that nobody is allowed to impose their own partisan interests on the discussion and so on. None of this guarantees the emergence of truth, but it’s an essential pre-condition of it. People who claim “It’s true for me” tend not to be interested in any of this. What is there to argue about? It is they who are the absolutists, since there would seem no way of disproving what they assert. Anyway, someone can always protest that the “it’s true for me” claim isn’t true for them.

“It’s true for me” springs from a false egalitarianism. If everyone is to be included in political society, then everyone’s views must be respected as well. So what about the view that everyone isn’t to be included? Is that to be respected as well? And what of the so-called law of contradiction? If you think that reading Agatha Christie gives you prostate cancer and I disagree, then one of us has to be wrong. But postmodernists are reluctant to admit that anyone is wrong. It offends against the law of inclusivity, as well as making some people sound inferior to others. Anyway, from what Olympian vantage point can one make such a judgement? How can I possibly judge that there are some sexist police officers in Britain? Isn’t any such claim a sign of moral superiority or intellectual elitism on my part? 

Such is the addled thinking that passes for genuine argument in certain circles. A fear of sounding authoritarian, when all you’re trying to do is tell the truth, haunts contemporary culture. This is why it’s fashionable to qualify what one says with the word “necessarily” — as in “It’s not necessarily that people are passing themselves off as Tom Cruise, it’s just that there’s a crisis of identity”, where what you mean is that people aren’t passing themselves as Tom Cruise at all. But it sounds offensively dogmatic to say so. Similarly, to say “It’s nine o’clock” sounds unpleasantly absolute, so it’s advisable to throw in a “like”. “It’s like nine o’clock” sounds far more agreeably uncertain. A pervasive sense of uncertainty is one reason why truth has come into disrepute. But there are other reasons, which i’ll return to in my next essay.  


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

My only suggestion would be that truth has only fallen into disrepute within certain self-regarding sections of society, especially those associated with universities and the media.
Most of us might be wobbly on the truths of literary criticism, but we have a sound grasp on the perfectly reputable, though often uncomfortable, truth of our domestic budget, the rate of inflation, the number of sexes that exist, and real life in general.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yeah. It’s not clear from Eagleton’s “essay” whether there is, or is not, objective reality that can be comprehended through reason.

Yes people live in families and tribes etc, but we know there is geometry and principles from which men build bridges that do not fall down.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yeah. It’s not clear from Eagleton’s “essay” whether there is, or is not, objective reality that can be comprehended through reason.

Yes people live in families and tribes etc, but we know there is geometry and principles from which men build bridges that do not fall down.

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

My only suggestion would be that truth has only fallen into disrepute within certain self-regarding sections of society, especially those associated with universities and the media.
Most of us might be wobbly on the truths of literary criticism, but we have a sound grasp on the perfectly reputable, though often uncomfortable, truth of our domestic budget, the rate of inflation, the number of sexes that exist, and real life in general.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
10 months ago

The problem nowadays seems to be the refusal to accept the validity of an “uncomfortable truth”. If a correct statement offends someone’s sensibilities then it’s not allowed to be true.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
10 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I attribute this phenomenon to the dominance of women’s sensibilities, where lying to get along with the group is more important than being ostracized for speaking the truth. I wonder if it’s an evolutionary survival tactic.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Hmmm, interesting thought


Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I have said this before, so I apologise. When I am sitting having a coffee with my wife and a huge, fat woman walks into the establishment we comment to each other, something like, “Look at the size of this one.”
But we would never say those words about someone in the family or about friends. We would probably say nothing at all.
The point is that to use the ‘f’ word is thought to be offensive. I don’t agree with this. In my wife’s family there was a woman, divorced with one child, who was huge (f*t) and drank a couple of bottles of wine a day. She died at 40 after a massive heart attack. Nobody in their family, including her parents, said anything at all. Where was the blame? IMO the blame was with the family – this is what families are for, surely. To be older and not to advise the young, not to pass on your experience, is just avoiding responsibility. The worry is not about causing offence but that ‘she won’t talk to me again if I say anything’. To use the idea of ‘causing offence’ is just selfishness.

Last edited 10 months ago by Caradog Wiliams
Paul Rodolf
Paul Rodolf
10 months ago

Just yesterday I was chastised by my wife for pointing out that someone was clearly at an “unhealthy” size. Definitely a woman thing as one of my male friends would have added a “fat joke” to reinforce my observation.

Paul Rodolf
Paul Rodolf
10 months ago

Just yesterday I was chastised by my wife for pointing out that someone was clearly at an “unhealthy” size. Definitely a woman thing as one of my male friends would have added a “fat joke” to reinforce my observation.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Hmmm, interesting thought


Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I have said this before, so I apologise. When I am sitting having a coffee with my wife and a huge, fat woman walks into the establishment we comment to each other, something like, “Look at the size of this one.”
But we would never say those words about someone in the family or about friends. We would probably say nothing at all.
The point is that to use the ‘f’ word is thought to be offensive. I don’t agree with this. In my wife’s family there was a woman, divorced with one child, who was huge (f*t) and drank a couple of bottles of wine a day. She died at 40 after a massive heart attack. Nobody in their family, including her parents, said anything at all. Where was the blame? IMO the blame was with the family – this is what families are for, surely. To be older and not to advise the young, not to pass on your experience, is just avoiding responsibility. The worry is not about causing offence but that ‘she won’t talk to me again if I say anything’. To use the idea of ‘causing offence’ is just selfishness.

Last edited 10 months ago by Caradog Wiliams
Michael James
Michael James
10 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Hence the current attack on free speech, which threatens to demonstrate that uncomfortable claims may be true.

Last edited 10 months ago by Michael James
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
10 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I attribute this phenomenon to the dominance of women’s sensibilities, where lying to get along with the group is more important than being ostracized for speaking the truth. I wonder if it’s an evolutionary survival tactic.

Michael James
Michael James
10 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Hence the current attack on free speech, which threatens to demonstrate that uncomfortable claims may be true.

Last edited 10 months ago by Michael James
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
10 months ago

The problem nowadays seems to be the refusal to accept the validity of an “uncomfortable truth”. If a correct statement offends someone’s sensibilities then it’s not allowed to be true.

AC Harper
AC Harper
10 months ago

Like all concepts, truth is inherently social. 

Not quite so fast…social truth is inherently social but raw facts that exist without needing society (e.g. the charge on the electron) are objectively true.
The real difficulty with authoritarianism (Left, Right, religious or philosophical) is asserting social truths to be raw facts.

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
10 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Yes, although as the OP notes, our understanding of the truth of raw facts changes as science falsifies yesterday’s truth about them. And science proceeds by socially constructed rules, that have also changed over time. I’ll defer to others about the extent this applies to pure maths.

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
10 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Yes, although as the OP notes, our understanding of the truth of raw facts changes as science falsifies yesterday’s truth about them. And science proceeds by socially constructed rules, that have also changed over time. I’ll defer to others about the extent this applies to pure maths.

AC Harper
AC Harper
10 months ago

Like all concepts, truth is inherently social. 

Not quite so fast…social truth is inherently social but raw facts that exist without needing society (e.g. the charge on the electron) are objectively true.
The real difficulty with authoritarianism (Left, Right, religious or philosophical) is asserting social truths to be raw facts.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
10 months ago

Truth has certain properties such as consistency and coherence. Prince Harry objects to the media for invasion of privacy but has invaded his family’s privacy ‘because he needed the money’. Prince Harry is a hypocrite, he believes it’s ok for him to make money to support his marital family out of revealing his birth family’s personal details but not for reporters to make money out of revealing his personal details to support their families.
A sense of fairness is innate. Those who treat others unfairly generally object strongly if they believe they themselves are being treated unfairly. A human weakness (an essential asymmetry of human nature) is the tendency to believe it’s ok for me but not for you, hence the biblical edict: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There is such a thing as human nature and it is universal which is why Shakespeare’s plays are performed and understood all over the world and are as relevant today as when written.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
10 months ago

To say Harry is immature and emotionally undeveloped is an understatement
and then to marry a wily woman
it’s a tragedy.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
10 months ago

To say Harry is immature and emotionally undeveloped is an understatement
and then to marry a wily woman
it’s a tragedy.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
10 months ago

Truth has certain properties such as consistency and coherence. Prince Harry objects to the media for invasion of privacy but has invaded his family’s privacy ‘because he needed the money’. Prince Harry is a hypocrite, he believes it’s ok for him to make money to support his marital family out of revealing his birth family’s personal details but not for reporters to make money out of revealing his personal details to support their families.
A sense of fairness is innate. Those who treat others unfairly generally object strongly if they believe they themselves are being treated unfairly. A human weakness (an essential asymmetry of human nature) is the tendency to believe it’s ok for me but not for you, hence the biblical edict: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There is such a thing as human nature and it is universal which is why Shakespeare’s plays are performed and understood all over the world and are as relevant today as when written.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Judy Englander
Judy Englander
10 months ago

C S Lewis (among others, I’m sure) made the point that ‘there’s no truth’ is itself a truth statement. All ultra-subjectivists should be challenged to explain why their claim should not be treated and tested like any other truth statement. Maybe the pitfalls of this is why Stonewall insists on #nodebate.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
10 months ago

C S Lewis (among others, I’m sure) made the point that ‘there’s no truth’ is itself a truth statement. All ultra-subjectivists should be challenged to explain why their claim should not be treated and tested like any other truth statement. Maybe the pitfalls of this is why Stonewall insists on #nodebate.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago

Okay, so we can’t know absolute truth and maybe not much even about relative truths. This is hardly a postmodernist discovery (although the postmodernists have exploited this idea, hypocritically or even cynically, to deconstruct ideologies that they themselves oppose and create an intellectual umbrella to protect ideologies that they themselves support). For millennia, Hindu and Buddhist philosophers have debated notions such as truth, ignorance, reality and illusion, concluding that no one could know anything that matters without following a process of meditation that can continue through many lifetimes and then emerging in a state of being (excuse a word that is technically wrong in Buddhist philosophy) that’s beyond both subjectivity and objectivity. In the West, St. Paul referred to everyone “looking through a glass darkly” (in this world). Even Pontius Pilate, that renowned Western philosopher, asked “What is truth?” More recently, computer scientists and neuroscientists have theorized that we can know nothing whatsoever about the world around us (which bears no more resemblance to reality than the icons on a computer screen) except what we must know, though our limited sense organs and finite brains, in order to survive.
In some ways, though, these debates are distractions–at least, they are for those of us who still want to live in this confusing and dangerous but also beautiful and wondrous world. The big question is not, never has been and never can be: “How can we know anything?” Rather, it is how can we lead good lives in spite of everything? This is ultimately a moral question (although it can encompass psychological, aesthetic and other questions), not an epistemological one.
By the way, do scientists all agree with Eagleton that the sense of fairness, or unfairness, is entirely a “social construct”? I’m not a psychologist, but I do know that the professionals have debated this question, some arguing that all young children pass naturally through a stage during which they recognize and distinguish between fairness and unfairness. This is a window of opportunity, however, that soon closes despite cultural attempts to reopen it.

Last edited 10 months ago by Paul Nathanson
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

At what age is the “fairness discernment window” said to close? I see the validity in the claim that it is more wide open at a certain young age, but to say it gets shut sounds a bit like the doctrinaire Freudianism asserting that our personalities are fixed by age 4.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I seldom read, or read about, Freudian psychoanalysis. I was referring to the work of clinical psychologists, AJ, who at least try to present empirical evidence. The general topic is why some people become sociopaths or psychopaths–which is to say, people who lack the ability to experience empathy (a condition known technically as “antisocial personality disorder). If I remember correctly, the success rate of treating them as adults is very low. This doesn’t mean that their “personalities” are fixed. They’re not all obviously monsters who scream or foam at the mouth or run around with pitchforks. Many develop social skills, often demonstrating these skillfully enough to get what they want and rise in the ranks. Some resort to crime nonetheless, an obvious example being Ted Bundy, but others don’t. Instead, they play by the rules (especially if those rules reward callous aggression) and sometimes even earn public esteem by disguising their underlying indifference to other people.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

Ok. Thanks for the clarification, Paul. There’s often an ominous level of young-manifesting (inborn?) malice or amorality in the history of many diagnosed adult psychopaths. I agree that a level of change is possible. Still, Jeffrey Dahmer is said to have come from a normal enough family and Ted Kaczynski’s own brother David, who sounds extremely kind and empathetic in interviews, turned Ted in to the authorities. So what nurture or therapy can be applied to good effect? A real question, but meant in a rhetorical or speculative way here.

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

Ok. Thanks for the clarification, Paul. There’s often an ominous level of young-manifesting (inborn?) malice or amorality in the history of many diagnosed adult psychopaths. I agree that a level of change is possible. Still, Jeffrey Dahmer is said to have come from a normal enough family and Ted Kaczynski’s own brother David, who sounds extremely kind and empathetic in interviews, turned Ted in to the authorities. So what nurture or therapy can be applied to good effect? A real question, but meant in a rhetorical or speculative way here.

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I seldom read, or read about, Freudian psychoanalysis. I was referring to the work of clinical psychologists, AJ, who at least try to present empirical evidence. The general topic is why some people become sociopaths or psychopaths–which is to say, people who lack the ability to experience empathy (a condition known technically as “antisocial personality disorder). If I remember correctly, the success rate of treating them as adults is very low. This doesn’t mean that their “personalities” are fixed. They’re not all obviously monsters who scream or foam at the mouth or run around with pitchforks. Many develop social skills, often demonstrating these skillfully enough to get what they want and rise in the ranks. Some resort to crime nonetheless, an obvious example being Ted Bundy, but others don’t. Instead, they play by the rules (especially if those rules reward callous aggression) and sometimes even earn public esteem by disguising their underlying indifference to other people.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

At what age is the “fairness discernment window” said to close? I see the validity in the claim that it is more wide open at a certain young age, but to say it gets shut sounds a bit like the doctrinaire Freudianism asserting that our personalities are fixed by age 4.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago

Okay, so we can’t know absolute truth and maybe not much even about relative truths. This is hardly a postmodernist discovery (although the postmodernists have exploited this idea, hypocritically or even cynically, to deconstruct ideologies that they themselves oppose and create an intellectual umbrella to protect ideologies that they themselves support). For millennia, Hindu and Buddhist philosophers have debated notions such as truth, ignorance, reality and illusion, concluding that no one could know anything that matters without following a process of meditation that can continue through many lifetimes and then emerging in a state of being (excuse a word that is technically wrong in Buddhist philosophy) that’s beyond both subjectivity and objectivity. In the West, St. Paul referred to everyone “looking through a glass darkly” (in this world). Even Pontius Pilate, that renowned Western philosopher, asked “What is truth?” More recently, computer scientists and neuroscientists have theorized that we can know nothing whatsoever about the world around us (which bears no more resemblance to reality than the icons on a computer screen) except what we must know, though our limited sense organs and finite brains, in order to survive.
In some ways, though, these debates are distractions–at least, they are for those of us who still want to live in this confusing and dangerous but also beautiful and wondrous world. The big question is not, never has been and never can be: “How can we know anything?” Rather, it is how can we lead good lives in spite of everything? This is ultimately a moral question (although it can encompass psychological, aesthetic and other questions), not an epistemological one.
By the way, do scientists all agree with Eagleton that the sense of fairness, or unfairness, is entirely a “social construct”? I’m not a psychologist, but I do know that the professionals have debated this question, some arguing that all young children pass naturally through a stage during which they recognize and distinguish between fairness and unfairness. This is a window of opportunity, however, that soon closes despite cultural attempts to reopen it.

Last edited 10 months ago by Paul Nathanson
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago

…“It’s true for me” springs from a false egalitarianism…

And “How the truth fell into disrepute” springs from a false EagletonTerryinsm.

Sorry, I tried but couldn’t resist. I’ll get my coat.

Last edited 10 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago

…“It’s true for me” springs from a false egalitarianism…

And “How the truth fell into disrepute” springs from a false EagletonTerryinsm.

Sorry, I tried but couldn’t resist. I’ll get my coat.

Last edited 10 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
10 months ago

This reminds me of the “fact or opinion” exercises I used to do in middle school. “1+1=2” or “the Earth is round” are facts, “blue is a beautiful color” or “Joe is a moron” are opinions.
“1+1=3” or “the Earth is flat” are not facts, but falsehoods, (and, clearly, there are infinitely more falsehoods than facts, e.g. 1+1=0, the earth is triangular, and all other possible permutations). Are they opinions? They could be and some are.
It is very hard for something to be a “fact”, it has to be multiply and redundantly verified so that there can be absolutely no doubt about the veracity of the statement for a typical educated adult. Facts are necessarily truths. Anything that can not (or so far has not gotten) multiply and redundantly verified can only be stated as an opinion, and that is when it can becomes privatized as “truth”.
Alas, things are not that simple. Societal pressure can turn facts into falsehoods. Remember in Orwell’s 1984 the state declaring “2+2=5” to be true, and from our real and current life “men and women are the same”.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
10 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

Societal lies – a man can become a woman and vice versa. Dissent punished by exclusion from society: To live amongst the savages, those who are not civilised by society.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago

Notable people have lost jobs (for example Kathleen Stock) or faced harassment for expressing that “dissenting view”, held by a majority of people in the wording you’ve used: harsh and disquieting consequences. But who has been “excluded from society” for that? And are you setting up those with traditional or common sense views as some ironical version of “savages”, whilst militant wokesters are “civilized”?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago

Notable people have lost jobs (for example Kathleen Stock) or faced harassment for expressing that “dissenting view”, held by a majority of people in the wording you’ve used: harsh and disquieting consequences. But who has been “excluded from society” for that? And are you setting up those with traditional or common sense views as some ironical version of “savages”, whilst militant wokesters are “civilized”?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

Also, factual statements that are motivated by cruelty or have no good purpose–“everyone thinks you are ugly” or “your parents are poor drunks”–are not truths in any real sense. Mere facticity or non-falsehood doesn’t reach the level of truth, certainly not in a deep or virtuous way.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
10 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

Societal lies – a man can become a woman and vice versa. Dissent punished by exclusion from society: To live amongst the savages, those who are not civilised by society.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

Also, factual statements that are motivated by cruelty or have no good purpose–“everyone thinks you are ugly” or “your parents are poor drunks”–are not truths in any real sense. Mere facticity or non-falsehood doesn’t reach the level of truth, certainly not in a deep or virtuous way.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
10 months ago

This reminds me of the “fact or opinion” exercises I used to do in middle school. “1+1=2” or “the Earth is round” are facts, “blue is a beautiful color” or “Joe is a moron” are opinions.
“1+1=3” or “the Earth is flat” are not facts, but falsehoods, (and, clearly, there are infinitely more falsehoods than facts, e.g. 1+1=0, the earth is triangular, and all other possible permutations). Are they opinions? They could be and some are.
It is very hard for something to be a “fact”, it has to be multiply and redundantly verified so that there can be absolutely no doubt about the veracity of the statement for a typical educated adult. Facts are necessarily truths. Anything that can not (or so far has not gotten) multiply and redundantly verified can only be stated as an opinion, and that is when it can becomes privatized as “truth”.
Alas, things are not that simple. Societal pressure can turn facts into falsehoods. Remember in Orwell’s 1984 the state declaring “2+2=5” to be true, and from our real and current life “men and women are the same”.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago

Eageleton was caught cavorting in a silly sweater at the Conservative Covid Christmas Party.

I can’t wait for Eagleton’s “next essay”.

These are not true statements, but what makes them untrue? The question is pertinent, since neither can be disproven.

The latter one, however, can be understood in a ‘tongue-in-cheek” way as “my truth”, so it’s both true and untrue.

Ayer dealt with all this a century ago in “Language, Truth and Logic”. Eagleton’s attempts are the equivalent of pub chatter, and he’s drunk on his own hype.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I continue to expect more from Eagleton, though mounting facts suggest it may never come. “Though I have ventured and concluded little here, I shall in my next effort” sounds a bit like “give me one more ‘second’ chance and I will get it right”: not a definite untruth, but quite unlikely. Yet I think his chatter provides better food for thought than the average pub-goer, not just empty calories. Less than high praise, innit?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I continue to expect more from Eagleton, though mounting facts suggest it may never come. “Though I have ventured and concluded little here, I shall in my next effort” sounds a bit like “give me one more ‘second’ chance and I will get it right”: not a definite untruth, but quite unlikely. Yet I think his chatter provides better food for thought than the average pub-goer, not just empty calories. Less than high praise, innit?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago

Eageleton was caught cavorting in a silly sweater at the Conservative Covid Christmas Party.

I can’t wait for Eagleton’s “next essay”.

These are not true statements, but what makes them untrue? The question is pertinent, since neither can be disproven.

The latter one, however, can be understood in a ‘tongue-in-cheek” way as “my truth”, so it’s both true and untrue.

Ayer dealt with all this a century ago in “Language, Truth and Logic”. Eagleton’s attempts are the equivalent of pub chatter, and he’s drunk on his own hype.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago

I think Mr. Eagleton makes a valid point about the “de-centralization” of truth. Most of us, here in this so-called hemisphere, even many with a more traditional bent, are less willing than in former times to subordinate our private sense of truth to that of the Church or Society or Crown. Inner doubts are not some recent development, but the forces of conformity were stronger, for example, in medieval times, often with a level of coercion that few face in the West today, despite alarming recent trends.
This analogy isn’t very strong though (not sure it’s meant to be): “You wouldn’t want to borrow someone else’s version of the truth, any more than you would want to borrow their toothbrush” I doubt many people fear the germs or “gross out” factor of other truths in some dentally-comparable way. It is more like a combination of sounds that with effort, patience, and grace becomes less screechy, more in harmony more of the time–or so I’ve read somewhere.
Expressions like “quest for truth” are very old. It was never some easy pattern to discern, though in ages past many tended more toward superstition and credulity than the radical skepticism that can become a stupidity of its own. It is good not to believe (in reflexive default) everything we think as if each thought that passes through our individual minds is accurate, let alone “in the key of truth”.
Eagleton’s argument is muddied by the conflation of plain facts–“it is such-and-such o’clock locally”–with truth itself. I agree that we have inherited an epistemological whirlwind and that language such as “I feel that you might be committing theft by taking that money without permission” is not helping our group cause. I do look forward to reading what truths Eagleton commits to in his follow-up essay. I hope it’s something more potent than his thin comparison between the uncertainties of personal experience and the question of God’s existence. For one thing, multitudinous idiosyncratic personal thoughts (in countless human minds) point quite reliably to a belief in a Creator of some kind–especially before we grow old and clever enough to start disputing conscience, and likelier to treat our rational super-impositions as something superior to the simpler truths of the heart.

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

“We are less willing than in former times to subordinate our private sense of truth to that of the Church or Society or Crown. Inner doubts are not some recent development, but the forces of conformity were stronger.”
I agree, AJ, with almost everything that you say except for your historical references to conformity. Even though outward non-conformity was punished harshly in earlier centuries, inward non-conformity was (and always is) another matter. Besides, the historical record indicates that more than a few people rebelled outwardly anyway and risked their lives by doing so. Even before the Protestant Reformation, for instance, there were countless sectarian (a.k.a. heretical) movements.
More important in the context of this discussion, though, is the current reversal. In theory, the 1960s ushered in an age of non-conformity–that is rebellion against prevailing sexual, sartorial, musical, political and other standards. In fact, though, it was an age of hyper-conformity, not non-conformity. I grew up in the midst of all that, and I remember well the fashions among my peers: advocating Marxism, Maoism or some other ism, supporting the Viet Cong, prominently displaying copies of the I Ching (having read it or not), doing drugs, joining formal or informal communes, jumping in and out of bed with casual acquaintances, wearing what amounted to immediately identifiable uniforms and so on). These customs were enforced by social exclusion–that is, by ridicule, contempt or avoidance–not by institutional policies or laws. By default, I was at best an eccentric.
Decades of ideological conformity led directly, however, to the rise of woke censoriousness and intimidation. It seems to me that the cost of non-conformity is much higher now than it was in my youth. Worse, it’s more difficult than it ever was to cultivate even inward non-conformity. Try to enter a university or get a job at a bank these days without specifying evidence of your active participation in efforts to promote DIE (no, that’s not a typo).

Last edited 10 months ago by Paul Nathanson
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

Perhaps so. I never said everyone conformed, not even outwardly, and the freedom of conscience cannot be utterly removed from all people, not even with the most intense dogma or indoctrination. Impossible really to measure the level of inward conformity although my opinion is that post full-Christianization and solid adoption of the faith among “heathens” (by 1000 AD in much of northern Europe), medieval people were considerably more willing to conform to large institutions and to obey Agents of such Authority (teachers, priests, scholars) than folks of today, and that people around the time of your mid-20th birth were too. (Still, there were beatniks then and bohemians before them, as you know).
Even so, there were always people such as Meister Eckhart, John Wycliffe, and Joan of Arc. In centuries past most people would have had less actual contact with the State or Crown, outside of the Sheriff or tax-collector let’s say. Yet soldiers were conscripted when Kings and Lords went to war and the medieval or even 19th century Church(es) had a huge, often coercive reach.
Of course the non-conformist attitudes of the sixties also had a narrowminded or condemnatory dimension with many: “Don’t trust anyone over 30” or “don’t be a square, man!”. However, as you know, not everyone was onboard with the wholesale disruptions of the flower children, let alone left-wing revolutionaries like the Weather Underground. But “an age of hyper-conformity” sounds like an overcorrection to me. More so than the 1950s?
I’m concerned about the rise of Woke ideology too, but it is not metastasizing unopposed and I do not think it can win a plurality of any nation’s soul–not even Canada! (Bit of a cheap shot at my birth country). I also see extreme Wokeness as part of a larger societal move toward ideological entrenchment and condemnation of outsiders in our midst that is not confined to the left.
I respect your determined and focused opposition to left-wing groupthink. I do think that the general unpopularity of the Woke movement and the robust pushback against it allows room for hope that needn’t fall into the sentimental swamps of Optimism. “Cautious good cheer” perhaps?

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

It seems to me that mass conformity is more characteristic of modern industrial societies than earlier ones. No ancient or medieval state had either the technological or the bureaucratic means of enforcing it. Non-conformists, at least individuals, could often simply run away without leaving paper trails. It took the Church and the state centuries to enforce anything like stability, let alone unity, in medieval Europe. And the first modern armies (beginning with that of, say, Fredrick the Great) took years to beat conscripts into submission or even to catch conscripts in the first place.
But I see your point, AJ, about “cautious good cheer” even though I don’t do good cheer. My personality is not optimistic. That’s not, unfortunately, who I am. And I can’t help noticing that our very title, UnHerd, indicates a continuing need to mobilize against the herd. Moreover, I live in Canada, which, unlike the United States, shows few institutional signs of waking up from the complacent slumber of conformity to ideological demagogues. After all, Canadians are usually ten or fifteen years behind Americans. You guys come up with the big ideas, and often pay heavily for your mistakes; we watch anxiously and sometimes learn–or not–to avoid the mistakes.
Never mind. I’m grateful to hear from you that wokism might turn out to be merely another moral panic–albeit one in a long series with decreasing intervals–and therefore transient, not the apocalypse. But how many more of these profoundly destructive episodes must we endure before there’s nothing left to save?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

Not merely a moral panic, nor one that is likely to be safely consigned to our historical rear view without ongoing danger. But not one that will take long term, prevailing hold either. A somewhat informed opinion.
I see your point concerning earlier times but what would one do, not just think, in a medieval village as a non-conformist or total freethinker, one who didn’t want to start a family or follow in father’s trade? There were a few pathways, sure: troubadour, band of thieves initiate, monk or nun (extreme inner freedom), pilgrim, mad itinerant? However, small communities of earlier humans, even those with a less hierarchical structure, like nomadic cave-dwellers, would seem to have been rather conformist in certain major ways. Persistent lunatics or very sickly members were probably killed or left to die. (The violent “normative” practices of some recently contacted peoples like the Yanomami show this long-standing human social quality too; functioning societies are, in some measure, cooperative–usually with some conformist, and warlike elements).
And the number of offenses that earned death in the Hebrew Law (such dishonoring one’s mother or father) or Code of Hammurabi (such as injuring someone who was not a social inferior) show us that hardcore “cancellation” of a sort is not new, but at least as old as ancient practices like stoning to death, crucifixion, witch burning, or whatever. I don’t pretend that any of this is “news” to you, Paul; I am just offering my own emphasis and making a makeshift, general case.
Do you contend that Western universities were less conformist in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries than they are today? Being openly non-Christian was often a major risk, and only the most brilliant or charismatic (Erasmus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin) were likely to gain traction with innovative views (perhaps that’s still quite true, but not more so than in centuries past). Many goodish U.S. colleges (which began to exist in 1636, with Harvard) were for a long time little more than seminary prep schools or finishing schools for country gentlemen.
I don’t how many times the collapse of the sky must be announced before it comes to pass. Settled science tells us the Earth and all its inhabitants will pass into oblivion eventually, even without any anthropogenic or socially-engineered hastening of the process. Some future doomsayer(s) will, at last, get to take the predictive honors, if somewhat undeservedly. But perhaps a small contingent of the “future Us” will re-locate to another planet by then–if only to be treated as intergalactic trash by the “indigenous aliens”.
There is still plenty left to save, Paul. I think we can agree on that.

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Well, AJ, it’s just we two again. And that’s fine with me. I enjoy your company.
As you know, the need for conformity and cooperation is surely hard-wired in humans and other social species. But I’ll bet that very few societies, if any, go the extreme of either preventing any individuality or personal creativity at all (even though totalitarian societies get pretty close to that extreme) or allowing anarchy (which would mean the dissolution of society). So every society tries to establish some kind of balance, no matter how weird that might seem to outsiders, between collective needs and personal needs. (Japan, for instance, is far less individualistic than any Western society.) But modern societies, as I say, are better equipped, technologically and bureaucratically, than earlier ones to keep tight control over personal life. And the most influential political ideologies of our time (notably wokism, which combines the collectivism of both Marxism and racism, require much more conformity than others do.
The medieval Church, which you often mention, is somewhat surprising in this respect. Partly because it functioned as an arm of the state, it insisted on enough conformity to maintain both doctrinal and political order. At various times and places, however, it tolerated some “diversity” (you should pardon that word, which I can’t stand). Long before the High Middle Ages, for example, missionaries converted entire populations throughout Europe–but allowed them to retain many of their customs and to “baptize” others. The result was a surprising degree of syncretism, which is still visible in the folklore of festivals such as Christmas.
Now, consider the Jews under Catholic rule. They did not assimilate or disappear–and were not supposed to do so, according to Christian theology, before the Second Coming of Christ. Despite sporadic persecutions, however, they (and other infidels) were generally tolerated as semi-autonomous communities within the larger community. (In 1492, Spain gave Jews a choice between conversion and expulsion. Only the Nazis, however, refused even that much.) Jews found economic niches, moreover, which filled the needs of both Jewish and Christian communities (especially Christian rulers, who relied on Jews to support the economy by doing business with Jewish traders in foreign countries). When mobs attacked Jews, the local bishop or king often provided protection (albeit out of self-interest more often than compassion).
Since the Reformation, moreover, the Roman Catholic Church has offered some level of support for marginal or even eccentric individuals or groups. In exchange for allegiance to the papacy, they could organize as monastic orders with very specific vocations and devotional practices. Catholic missionaries in the New World, moreover, were (and still are) prepared to adopt many customs from their tribal converts (such as identifying their gods and goddesses with Christian saints and incorporating them, renamed, into the liturgical calendar.) The Protestants preferred purity and therefore had to accept fragmentation.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

We do tend to make these into our own little discussion boards, even or especially after others have moved on.
Valid points. To an extent, you seem to be re-iterating Foucault’s notion (borrowed from Jeremy Bentham, but extended) of a panopticon, or society-wide eye of monitoring and control which had been growing in scope, he argued, for about two centuries, an idea he articulated in Discipline and Punish (1975). I know you’re not a big fan of the French theorists and neither am I, but I think Foucault was on to something there, if overstated in his typical fashion.
I certainly agree that societies lie or move along (for the sake of alliterative pairs) a conformity continuum or self-expression spectrum of sorts. We are social creatures, but not only so. There are many exceptions and you may have noticed that I like to highlight exceptions to seeming absolutes, though they be rare or even hypothetical.
I know what you mean concerning syncretism: how else do we get Christmas trees and “holy-day” revels like those around Yuletide or Hallows’ Eve?
But from my gentile perspective, the 1492 Inquisitorial policy deserves no real credit for tolerance. Granted, it was not a Hitlerian extermination or work-until-death campaign.
I accept your qualifications/exceptions to the reach and severity of the Church in former centuries. Even so, I know that Church attendance in England, post-Reformation, was required for everyone (at least mostly) until well after Shakespeare’s time. (Not if you were infirm or had the plague or were raving mad, etc.). This doesn’t get to the Catholic Church in particular, of course, but I think this was true in the Middle Ages too, although my uneven, general reader’s & English major’s knowledge does not extend throughout Christendom or even Europe.
European laborers in earlier times (in general terms) had to attend church on their one day off each week. That’s a lot to demand. Though they could not, cannot be forced to believe, they had to go through the motions, rather like (in kind, not degree) those who were forcibly converted or given the “option” to go into self-exile.
Despite our fractured and self-fascinated zeitgeist, our weird pluralities are clearly preferably to the de facto theocracies or enforced conformities of places like Afghanistan and North Korea. However, it would be better if we could return to some version of “from many to one”, the e pluribus unum or melting pot oft discredited as oppressive (or whatever) by some of today’s over-credentialed fools. Voluntary civicmindedness, encouraged not required. 1776 or 1867 project anyone?
I understand that Truth and Conformity are complex topics that cannot be conclusively resolved, but thank you for another interesting exchange, Paul.

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Tom More
Tom More
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

One of the founding myths of modern culture is the imagined horror of the terrible “Inquisition” where blood and fire spurting monks supposedly instilled the fear of God in hapless victims.
In fact.. in Spain.. it was the royal family resisting the Muslim attempt to take over again, and any related persecution of the Jews was because of their alignment with the Muslim plan.
The pope in Rome, one of whose special concerns was the wellbeing of the Jewish people spoke out against this usurpation of church powers by the state for secular purposes.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

We do tend to make these into our own little discussion boards, even or especially after others have moved on.
Valid points. To an extent, you seem to be re-iterating Foucault’s notion (borrowed from Jeremy Bentham, but extended) of a panopticon, or society-wide eye of monitoring and control which had been growing in scope, he argued, for about two centuries, an idea he articulated in Discipline and Punish (1975). I know you’re not a big fan of the French theorists and neither am I, but I think Foucault was on to something there, if overstated in his typical fashion.
I certainly agree that societies lie or move along (for the sake of alliterative pairs) a conformity continuum or self-expression spectrum of sorts. We are social creatures, but not only so. There are many exceptions and you may have noticed that I like to highlight exceptions to seeming absolutes, though they be rare or even hypothetical.
I know what you mean concerning syncretism: how else do we get Christmas trees and “holy-day” revels like those around Yuletide or Hallows’ Eve?
But from my gentile perspective, the 1492 Inquisitorial policy deserves no real credit for tolerance. Granted, it was not a Hitlerian extermination or work-until-death campaign.
I accept your qualifications/exceptions to the reach and severity of the Church in former centuries. Even so, I know that Church attendance in England, post-Reformation, was required for everyone (at least mostly) until well after Shakespeare’s time. (Not if you were infirm or had the plague or were raving mad, etc.). This doesn’t get to the Catholic Church in particular, of course, but I think this was true in the Middle Ages too, although my uneven, general reader’s & English major’s knowledge does not extend throughout Christendom or even Europe.
European laborers in earlier times (in general terms) had to attend church on their one day off each week. That’s a lot to demand. Though they could not, cannot be forced to believe, they had to go through the motions, rather like (in kind, not degree) those who were forcibly converted or given the “option” to go into self-exile.
Despite our fractured and self-fascinated zeitgeist, our weird pluralities are clearly preferably to the de facto theocracies or enforced conformities of places like Afghanistan and North Korea. However, it would be better if we could return to some version of “from many to one”, the e pluribus unum or melting pot oft discredited as oppressive (or whatever) by some of today’s over-credentialed fools. Voluntary civicmindedness, encouraged not required. 1776 or 1867 project anyone?
I understand that Truth and Conformity are complex topics that cannot be conclusively resolved, but thank you for another interesting exchange, Paul.

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Tom More
Tom More
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

One of the founding myths of modern culture is the imagined horror of the terrible “Inquisition” where blood and fire spurting monks supposedly instilled the fear of God in hapless victims.
In fact.. in Spain.. it was the royal family resisting the Muslim attempt to take over again, and any related persecution of the Jews was because of their alignment with the Muslim plan.
The pope in Rome, one of whose special concerns was the wellbeing of the Jewish people spoke out against this usurpation of church powers by the state for secular purposes.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Well, AJ, it’s just we two again. And that’s fine with me. I enjoy your company.
As you know, the need for conformity and cooperation is surely hard-wired in humans and other social species. But I’ll bet that very few societies, if any, go the extreme of either preventing any individuality or personal creativity at all (even though totalitarian societies get pretty close to that extreme) or allowing anarchy (which would mean the dissolution of society). So every society tries to establish some kind of balance, no matter how weird that might seem to outsiders, between collective needs and personal needs. (Japan, for instance, is far less individualistic than any Western society.) But modern societies, as I say, are better equipped, technologically and bureaucratically, than earlier ones to keep tight control over personal life. And the most influential political ideologies of our time (notably wokism, which combines the collectivism of both Marxism and racism, require much more conformity than others do.
The medieval Church, which you often mention, is somewhat surprising in this respect. Partly because it functioned as an arm of the state, it insisted on enough conformity to maintain both doctrinal and political order. At various times and places, however, it tolerated some “diversity” (you should pardon that word, which I can’t stand). Long before the High Middle Ages, for example, missionaries converted entire populations throughout Europe–but allowed them to retain many of their customs and to “baptize” others. The result was a surprising degree of syncretism, which is still visible in the folklore of festivals such as Christmas.
Now, consider the Jews under Catholic rule. They did not assimilate or disappear–and were not supposed to do so, according to Christian theology, before the Second Coming of Christ. Despite sporadic persecutions, however, they (and other infidels) were generally tolerated as semi-autonomous communities within the larger community. (In 1492, Spain gave Jews a choice between conversion and expulsion. Only the Nazis, however, refused even that much.) Jews found economic niches, moreover, which filled the needs of both Jewish and Christian communities (especially Christian rulers, who relied on Jews to support the economy by doing business with Jewish traders in foreign countries). When mobs attacked Jews, the local bishop or king often provided protection (albeit out of self-interest more often than compassion).
Since the Reformation, moreover, the Roman Catholic Church has offered some level of support for marginal or even eccentric individuals or groups. In exchange for allegiance to the papacy, they could organize as monastic orders with very specific vocations and devotional practices. Catholic missionaries in the New World, moreover, were (and still are) prepared to adopt many customs from their tribal converts (such as identifying their gods and goddesses with Christian saints and incorporating them, renamed, into the liturgical calendar.) The Protestants preferred purity and therefore had to accept fragmentation.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

Not merely a moral panic, nor one that is likely to be safely consigned to our historical rear view without ongoing danger. But not one that will take long term, prevailing hold either. A somewhat informed opinion.
I see your point concerning earlier times but what would one do, not just think, in a medieval village as a non-conformist or total freethinker, one who didn’t want to start a family or follow in father’s trade? There were a few pathways, sure: troubadour, band of thieves initiate, monk or nun (extreme inner freedom), pilgrim, mad itinerant? However, small communities of earlier humans, even those with a less hierarchical structure, like nomadic cave-dwellers, would seem to have been rather conformist in certain major ways. Persistent lunatics or very sickly members were probably killed or left to die. (The violent “normative” practices of some recently contacted peoples like the Yanomami show this long-standing human social quality too; functioning societies are, in some measure, cooperative–usually with some conformist, and warlike elements).
And the number of offenses that earned death in the Hebrew Law (such dishonoring one’s mother or father) or Code of Hammurabi (such as injuring someone who was not a social inferior) show us that hardcore “cancellation” of a sort is not new, but at least as old as ancient practices like stoning to death, crucifixion, witch burning, or whatever. I don’t pretend that any of this is “news” to you, Paul; I am just offering my own emphasis and making a makeshift, general case.
Do you contend that Western universities were less conformist in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries than they are today? Being openly non-Christian was often a major risk, and only the most brilliant or charismatic (Erasmus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin) were likely to gain traction with innovative views (perhaps that’s still quite true, but not more so than in centuries past). Many goodish U.S. colleges (which began to exist in 1636, with Harvard) were for a long time little more than seminary prep schools or finishing schools for country gentlemen.
I don’t how many times the collapse of the sky must be announced before it comes to pass. Settled science tells us the Earth and all its inhabitants will pass into oblivion eventually, even without any anthropogenic or socially-engineered hastening of the process. Some future doomsayer(s) will, at last, get to take the predictive honors, if somewhat undeservedly. But perhaps a small contingent of the “future Us” will re-locate to another planet by then–if only to be treated as intergalactic trash by the “indigenous aliens”.
There is still plenty left to save, Paul. I think we can agree on that.

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

It seems to me that mass conformity is more characteristic of modern industrial societies than earlier ones. No ancient or medieval state had either the technological or the bureaucratic means of enforcing it. Non-conformists, at least individuals, could often simply run away without leaving paper trails. It took the Church and the state centuries to enforce anything like stability, let alone unity, in medieval Europe. And the first modern armies (beginning with that of, say, Fredrick the Great) took years to beat conscripts into submission or even to catch conscripts in the first place.
But I see your point, AJ, about “cautious good cheer” even though I don’t do good cheer. My personality is not optimistic. That’s not, unfortunately, who I am. And I can’t help noticing that our very title, UnHerd, indicates a continuing need to mobilize against the herd. Moreover, I live in Canada, which, unlike the United States, shows few institutional signs of waking up from the complacent slumber of conformity to ideological demagogues. After all, Canadians are usually ten or fifteen years behind Americans. You guys come up with the big ideas, and often pay heavily for your mistakes; we watch anxiously and sometimes learn–or not–to avoid the mistakes.
Never mind. I’m grateful to hear from you that wokism might turn out to be merely another moral panic–albeit one in a long series with decreasing intervals–and therefore transient, not the apocalypse. But how many more of these profoundly destructive episodes must we endure before there’s nothing left to save?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

Perhaps so. I never said everyone conformed, not even outwardly, and the freedom of conscience cannot be utterly removed from all people, not even with the most intense dogma or indoctrination. Impossible really to measure the level of inward conformity although my opinion is that post full-Christianization and solid adoption of the faith among “heathens” (by 1000 AD in much of northern Europe), medieval people were considerably more willing to conform to large institutions and to obey Agents of such Authority (teachers, priests, scholars) than folks of today, and that people around the time of your mid-20th birth were too. (Still, there were beatniks then and bohemians before them, as you know).
Even so, there were always people such as Meister Eckhart, John Wycliffe, and Joan of Arc. In centuries past most people would have had less actual contact with the State or Crown, outside of the Sheriff or tax-collector let’s say. Yet soldiers were conscripted when Kings and Lords went to war and the medieval or even 19th century Church(es) had a huge, often coercive reach.
Of course the non-conformist attitudes of the sixties also had a narrowminded or condemnatory dimension with many: “Don’t trust anyone over 30” or “don’t be a square, man!”. However, as you know, not everyone was onboard with the wholesale disruptions of the flower children, let alone left-wing revolutionaries like the Weather Underground. But “an age of hyper-conformity” sounds like an overcorrection to me. More so than the 1950s?
I’m concerned about the rise of Woke ideology too, but it is not metastasizing unopposed and I do not think it can win a plurality of any nation’s soul–not even Canada! (Bit of a cheap shot at my birth country). I also see extreme Wokeness as part of a larger societal move toward ideological entrenchment and condemnation of outsiders in our midst that is not confined to the left.
I respect your determined and focused opposition to left-wing groupthink. I do think that the general unpopularity of the Woke movement and the robust pushback against it allows room for hope that needn’t fall into the sentimental swamps of Optimism. “Cautious good cheer” perhaps?

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
10 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

“We are less willing than in former times to subordinate our private sense of truth to that of the Church or Society or Crown. Inner doubts are not some recent development, but the forces of conformity were stronger.”
I agree, AJ, with almost everything that you say except for your historical references to conformity. Even though outward non-conformity was punished harshly in earlier centuries, inward non-conformity was (and always is) another matter. Besides, the historical record indicates that more than a few people rebelled outwardly anyway and risked their lives by doing so. Even before the Protestant Reformation, for instance, there were countless sectarian (a.k.a. heretical) movements.
More important in the context of this discussion, though, is the current reversal. In theory, the 1960s ushered in an age of non-conformity–that is rebellion against prevailing sexual, sartorial, musical, political and other standards. In fact, though, it was an age of hyper-conformity, not non-conformity. I grew up in the midst of all that, and I remember well the fashions among my peers: advocating Marxism, Maoism or some other ism, supporting the Viet Cong, prominently displaying copies of the I Ching (having read it or not), doing drugs, joining formal or informal communes, jumping in and out of bed with casual acquaintances, wearing what amounted to immediately identifiable uniforms and so on). These customs were enforced by social exclusion–that is, by ridicule, contempt or avoidance–not by institutional policies or laws. By default, I was at best an eccentric.
Decades of ideological conformity led directly, however, to the rise of woke censoriousness and intimidation. It seems to me that the cost of non-conformity is much higher now than it was in my youth. Worse, it’s more difficult than it ever was to cultivate even inward non-conformity. Try to enter a university or get a job at a bank these days without specifying evidence of your active participation in efforts to promote DIE (no, that’s not a typo).

Last edited 10 months ago by Paul Nathanson
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago

I think Mr. Eagleton makes a valid point about the “de-centralization” of truth. Most of us, here in this so-called hemisphere, even many with a more traditional bent, are less willing than in former times to subordinate our private sense of truth to that of the Church or Society or Crown. Inner doubts are not some recent development, but the forces of conformity were stronger, for example, in medieval times, often with a level of coercion that few face in the West today, despite alarming recent trends.
This analogy isn’t very strong though (not sure it’s meant to be): “You wouldn’t want to borrow someone else’s version of the truth, any more than you would want to borrow their toothbrush” I doubt many people fear the germs or “gross out” factor of other truths in some dentally-comparable way. It is more like a combination of sounds that with effort, patience, and grace becomes less screechy, more in harmony more of the time–or so I’ve read somewhere.
Expressions like “quest for truth” are very old. It was never some easy pattern to discern, though in ages past many tended more toward superstition and credulity than the radical skepticism that can become a stupidity of its own. It is good not to believe (in reflexive default) everything we think as if each thought that passes through our individual minds is accurate, let alone “in the key of truth”.
Eagleton’s argument is muddied by the conflation of plain facts–“it is such-and-such o’clock locally”–with truth itself. I agree that we have inherited an epistemological whirlwind and that language such as “I feel that you might be committing theft by taking that money without permission” is not helping our group cause. I do look forward to reading what truths Eagleton commits to in his follow-up essay. I hope it’s something more potent than his thin comparison between the uncertainties of personal experience and the question of God’s existence. For one thing, multitudinous idiosyncratic personal thoughts (in countless human minds) point quite reliably to a belief in a Creator of some kind–especially before we grow old and clever enough to start disputing conscience, and likelier to treat our rational super-impositions as something superior to the simpler truths of the heart.

Last edited 10 months ago by AJ Mac
Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
10 months ago

I always feel that finding/seeking truth is like playing an old manual pinball machine. One has to be a wizard at it.

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
10 months ago

I always feel that finding/seeking truth is like playing an old manual pinball machine. One has to be a wizard at it.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
10 months ago

We can always fall back on the half truth.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
10 months ago

We can always fall back on the half truth.

Saul D
Saul D
10 months ago

We are creatures of belief, driven by learnt heuristics, where the heuristics we use are those that we find useful or predictive. Because bad heuristics tend to be abandoned, long-term learning tends to drive out false and inefficient heuristics (not always but mostly…).
This is quite a different framework from the positivist classic philosophical one of truths linked together by rational thought, and the idea that we can understand the world just by thinking about it, with the implicit sense of seeking an ideal or perfect truth, and one side right, one side wrong.
In practice, we hypothesise (invent new potential heuristics) and experiment (see if they work), all the while looking for optimisation points where things balance out, rather than terminal points with one grand solution. In this context, abstract logical theories are always simplifications that will slowly decay in the face of realities and emergent phenomena – there is no single right answer for many complex issues.
So what we think is true now, derives from the years and decades and centuries of social learning behind us. It is fixed by the past, but continues to evolve into the future – neither relativist nor absolute, but dependent on where we have come from, and what we have learnt, mostly by trial and error, and the tests and edge cases we will run into in the future. Being wrong is an important part of the process, because learning why we are wrong improves our hypotheses…

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

I appreciate your balanced framing: “neither relativist nor absolute”. Some among us are using “factual statements” as an exact synonym for truth, but I think truth is something that intersects with fact but goes well beyond it, to a place we can never fully reach. It exists, but we don’t have unfettered access to it.
Our glimpses and snatches of a deeper or less contingent reality point to this truth too: We are limited but derived from something limitless–or at least well beyond our complete understanding. I know that’s not some dispositive, established fact, but I hold it to be a self-evident glimpse of what is real beneath our surface experience. Like Reality, Truth cannot be monopolized by individuals, nor contained by the most universal human truths as we understand them. Or perhaps someone can prove me wrong on that.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
10 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

I appreciate your balanced framing: “neither relativist nor absolute”. Some among us are using “factual statements” as an exact synonym for truth, but I think truth is something that intersects with fact but goes well beyond it, to a place we can never fully reach. It exists, but we don’t have unfettered access to it.
Our glimpses and snatches of a deeper or less contingent reality point to this truth too: We are limited but derived from something limitless–or at least well beyond our complete understanding. I know that’s not some dispositive, established fact, but I hold it to be a self-evident glimpse of what is real beneath our surface experience. Like Reality, Truth cannot be monopolized by individuals, nor contained by the most universal human truths as we understand them. Or perhaps someone can prove me wrong on that.

Saul D
Saul D
10 months ago

We are creatures of belief, driven by learnt heuristics, where the heuristics we use are those that we find useful or predictive. Because bad heuristics tend to be abandoned, long-term learning tends to drive out false and inefficient heuristics (not always but mostly…).
This is quite a different framework from the positivist classic philosophical one of truths linked together by rational thought, and the idea that we can understand the world just by thinking about it, with the implicit sense of seeking an ideal or perfect truth, and one side right, one side wrong.
In practice, we hypothesise (invent new potential heuristics) and experiment (see if they work), all the while looking for optimisation points where things balance out, rather than terminal points with one grand solution. In this context, abstract logical theories are always simplifications that will slowly decay in the face of realities and emergent phenomena – there is no single right answer for many complex issues.
So what we think is true now, derives from the years and decades and centuries of social learning behind us. It is fixed by the past, but continues to evolve into the future – neither relativist nor absolute, but dependent on where we have come from, and what we have learnt, mostly by trial and error, and the tests and edge cases we will run into in the future. Being wrong is an important part of the process, because learning why we are wrong improves our hypotheses…

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
10 months ago

“A fear of sounding authoritarian, when all you’re trying to do is tell the truth, haunts contemporary culture.”
Really? Is it not the exact opposite? Wokery, cancelling, “my truth” or the highway … I perceive a modern culture where brain-dead ideological authoritarianism seems in the ascendant to a near-mediaeval extent.
Doubt has long since fallen out of fashion.
Of course, this tendency to priggish absolutism (on all sides, right and left are as bad as each other – always amusing when you read hard left and hard right viewpoints, each wholly convinced of how reasonable they are and how dogmatic and unreasonable the other lot are lol) exists uneasily alongside an inconsistent and hypocritical tendency to assert the primacy of individual experience while dismissing / denigrating the individual experience of anyone whose ideas you disapprove of.

Last edited 10 months ago by Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
10 months ago

“A fear of sounding authoritarian, when all you’re trying to do is tell the truth, haunts contemporary culture.”
Really? Is it not the exact opposite? Wokery, cancelling, “my truth” or the highway … I perceive a modern culture where brain-dead ideological authoritarianism seems in the ascendant to a near-mediaeval extent.
Doubt has long since fallen out of fashion.
Of course, this tendency to priggish absolutism (on all sides, right and left are as bad as each other – always amusing when you read hard left and hard right viewpoints, each wholly convinced of how reasonable they are and how dogmatic and unreasonable the other lot are lol) exists uneasily alongside an inconsistent and hypocritical tendency to assert the primacy of individual experience while dismissing / denigrating the individual experience of anyone whose ideas you disapprove of.

Last edited 10 months ago by Frank McCusker
Tom More
Tom More
10 months ago

As Pontius Pilate said to Christ… “What is truth?”. The truth is self evidently a Person. The Alpha and the Omega in whom we live and move and have our being.
Truth is the intelligible, transcendent BEING. God
How is it that after 14 billion years we arrive at person. The answer must be an incoherent, self refuting mindless matter in meaningless motion, or PERSON.
The basic principle of reasoning… causality attests that we cannot get in resultant thing, what is not in the cause.
And what is it that we reference when we name something… and no.. I’m not talking about sound and sight signs we call words.. but what the intellect abstracts from sense experience… the form.. as Aristotle and Aquinas sanely saw…as in our word “in-form-ation”.
And which .. sorry Ockham… necessarily finds the intellect becoming the object known… as we wisely assert from about the age of four.
It is what Aquinas named ‘Final Cause” ..the ends natural and spiritual that literally define… find the intelligible borders of limits of the given reality.
Thus no material element of a car is part of the intelligibility… the car-ness of a car. It is definable by its purpose.. its ends…its Final Cause.
And so is the universe, most manifest in living things .. ensouled.. or “anima-ted” being as the genius Aristotle, father of western realism and science affirmed.
And so too we are literally moved by beauty, love, truth and goodness.. we love these things .. our final causes.. and ultimately and necessarily transcendently truth reveals Himself.. as LOVE.. our Final Cause and choose-able (as free willed finite beings) reason’s ground… Love, in whom we live and move and have our being.
These are the not so cold facts of being. The truth. Truth.

Michael James
Michael James
10 months ago

Except climate change, where ‘the science is settled’.

Michael James
Michael James
10 months ago

Do we so enjoy Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale about the Emperor’s New Clothes because we never learn the lesson it teaches?

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
10 months ago

Regarding the capacity to perceive injustice and unfairness: it ain’t just a human thing. https://phys.org/news/2017-02-animals-unfairly-dont.html

Terry Raby
Terry Raby
10 months ago

“Toddlers don’t spontaneously come up with the concept of unfairness.” Wrong. They don’t “come up with it” at all. It is built in. Paul Bloom – “Just Babies”.