Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When journalists say there's no such thing as truth the world is in big trouble

By Barry Rubin

A reporter just wrote me a letter that contains a single sentence which I think reflects on why the Western world is in such trouble today. After understandably discussing such real problems of reporting as short deadlines, complex issues, and the duty of the reporter to report what people say, the letter concludes with this sentence:

“And when it comes to the Middle East, one man’s [obscenity deleted] is another man’s truth.”

Woe to us that a journalist thinks this way. Of course, this is very similar to the older version that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Recently, I heard that latter one from the Danish ambassador to the Council of Europe who said that Hamas and Hizballah were like the Danish resistance in World War Two. I replied, among other things, that I don’t remember the Danish or other World War Two European resistance movements bombing German kindergartens and glorying in getting Danish civilians killed as human shields.

I also don't think that the Danes and other European resistance movements were attempting to commit genocide on the Germans. I do believe it was the other way around.

(PS: More Danes fought in the German army than in the Resistance, and that was true of other countries as well. Forgive me for remembering who was the main victim of terrorism and "freedom fighter" terrorists then and today. But I digress)

That a European country—and one of the more astute ones, to make matters worse--is represented by someone like that says something pretty sad about the state of the world today.

Regarding that dangerous kind of claim:

People who murder civilians on purpose and organizations which have a strategy of mass murder are terrorists. The fact that these same organizations seek to put into power repressive dictatorships makes them even less like anything that might be called freedom fighters.

People who try their best not to murder civilians or to inflict suffering on them as an end in itself and who seek to create democratic governments with liberty are freedom fighters.

Those responsible for the Terror in the French Revolution, Nazis, Stalinists, Hamas, al-Qaida, etc., can be called terrorists. That list was not meant to be exhaustive.

Individuals can act in a terrorist manner but if the movements in which they participate are freedom fighter movements, they will limit, restrain, and punish such people. In terrorist groups—like say the PLO historically—such acts were glorified and rewarded.

Moreover, this concept is equally dangerous in implying that popularity is a rationale for crime. The government of the Third Reich was genuinely popular among its citizenry. When genocide was committed recently in Rwanda, it enjoyed broad support. Many such examples of such behavior can be offered. This, too, is a terrible and even criminal assumption.

Now obviously if one wants to try to come up with complex situations regarding the issues discussed briefly above where the answers aren’t so easy, this can be done without difficulty. But this does not prove such distinctions don’t exist, just that they are not always simple ones.

Democratic countries have rogue individuals, they make mistakes, and governments may have to be reined in by the rule of law. But that doesn’t make them the same as those for whom terrorism is their basic philosophy and strategy.

Regarding the newer version of this concept as voiced by the reporter in his letter, it is even worse. No, truth is not just a matter of opinion, even in the Middle East. And the belief that it is so has been one of the diseases so damaging contemporary intellectual life, politics, and international affairs.

There is something accurately to be called truth and even if we cannot quite reach it, the aspiration to try and the determination to attain the closest possible approximation should be the basis of academic and intellectual and professional life.

All civilizations have been working for a long time to come up with ways to do this. Western civilization has tried especially hard and succeeded—I’m tempted to add, up until recently?—in doing so.

What are these methods? Here are a few. For any statement, claim, or argument:

--Examining the internal consistency.

--Its compatibility with known facts and accepted postulates.

--Occam’s razor, the idea that excessive complexity can indicate an inaccurate explanation (thus, distrust in conspiracy theories)

--Usefulness in predictability, if it accurately describes the workings of some mechanism it should be able to tell us something about what has happened in the past and in the future.

--Replicability, can the result from the hypothesis be duplicated.

--The reliability of sources used.

--The accumulation of very specific evidence which all can pass the tests mentioned above.

--The construction and testing of hypotheses to see if they fit the facts and work.

--Extremely high standards of personal integrity including constant self-examination to see if one's personal viewpoint was getting in the way of being accurate.

--A willingness to change one's mind in light of additional facts.

--A refusal to hide relevant facts even if they contradict one's thesis

--Discussion and exchanges of ideas with others in the context of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and other things to ensure that ideas can battle it out and the truth emerge to the best possible extent.

[I’d be happy to hear your additions and, of course, a great deal more could be written about each of the points above.]

We call these things: logic, reason, the scientific method, the product of the Enlightenment; the Greek philosophical, Talmudic analytical, and the Scholastic methods; and many other names.

But recently, these have been shoved aside by the idea that truth is relative, there is no truth, and everyone’s opinion (narrative) is of the same value.

So it’s no accident that someone who thinks this way would give equal time to what my correspondent referred to as (expletive deleted). Actually, the (expletive deleted) usually gets the upper hand. Nowhere do we see this more than in the Middle East and the “scholarship” and “journalism” applied to this part of the world.

Let me suggest an experiment. Take an apple or other handy piece of fruit or vegetable. Hold it in one hand. Then take a very sharp knife. Hold it in your other hand.

Then, say out loud: One man’s [expletive deleted] is another man’s truth.

Next, assuming that the location of the piece of fruit is a matter of personal opinion which has no relationship to spatial dimensions, slash out with the knife until you fall to the floor bleeding profusely.

Congratulations, you now understand the effect of such a doctrine on the Middle East.

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