My all time favorite movie is Cloud Atlas. I know, others have not reacted to this movie quite as powerfully as I have, but for whatever reason, the movie “got me”. (The fact that I first saw it during my first ever visit to the Middle East, in an Abu Dhabi hotel room, just a few days after flying over the war-torn Iraq-Iran border region while enjoying British Airways’ business class hospitality, may have had something to do with it.)
The movie has many memorable quotes. Banal, you might say, but even banalities sometimes reflect profoundly on our reality.
On particular quote echoes in my mind today as I witness, day after day, even in my relatively close circle of friends, the “relativization” of facts in our post-truth era. A key character in the movie is interviewed by an archivist just before her scheduled execution. To put her at ease, the archivist reassures her: “Remember, this isn’t an interrogation or trial. Your version of the truth is all that matters.” The protagonist, looking deeply in the eyes of the archivist, responds: “Truth is singular. Its versions are mis-truths.”
Yes, it should be that self-evident. Truth is singular. A and ¬A cannot simultaneously be true: A ∧ ¬A = 0 always. It is elementary formal logic.
But in our increasingly Göbbelsian 21st century, formal logic no longer matters. Instead, we have “alternative facts”. Instead, everyone feels entitled to question, even deny, facts that conflict with their Weltanschauung.
Yes, I said Göbbelsian. No, I am not trying to serve as an example of Godwin’s law by needless comparisons to Nazis. Rather, it is a recognition that the legacy of Göbbels, the evil genius of modern communication, continues to reverberate nearly a century later, as various actors push their versions of the truth. Göbbels taught us how to “sell” alternative facts: blatant lies are easy to falsify, lies by omission are much harder to catch.
A pluralistic society thrives on differences of opinion. Good people whose priorities differ may come to different conclusions based on the same set of facts. But when there is disagreement over the facts themselves, society breaks down. And that’s what we face today. The facts have now become matters of opinion.
I could name a number of issues from climate change to gender roles where the facts should be indisputable but they aren’t. But my concern transcends any specific topic. I simply worry that if we all retreat into our alternative facts bubbles, consensus or compromise become impossible. Where that leads, I don’t know but it is deeply worrying.