Truth and tribalism  

Lately I’ve been reading Hobbes and Locke, along with – you guessed it – John Dewey and Paulo Freire. All four philosophers provide the average reader with food for thought on all sorts of topics, including:

Philosophers as a general rule explore epistemological concerns (that is, concerns about the source and construction of knowledge) and address topics such as politics and power, objectivity and subjectivity, and truth. While not originally part of my Applied Linguistics degree at UMass, these points deserve more attention than my master’s coursework originally gave them.

I wonder, especially, about the notion of truth in both philosophical and pragmatic, everyday terms. I’ve found that as an ESL teacher, I have to assume a position of relative uncertainty; when students tell me that Americans are cold and don’t prioritize family, I have to concede that relative to their own cultural traditions, my students are right. We see similar relativistic lines drawn around anything that contains a degree of negotiable space; think about traffic patterns, flavors of food, shades of color, cleanliness in the home, and so on. If we go to the extreme and consider even the most important and seemingly empirically provable things, like the existence of the moon or our dependence on oxygen to survive, truth can be problematic; that true knowledge about the universe must be founded on empirically-supported certainty, a perspective argued by epistemic foundationalists starting with Aristotle and championed by Descartes, has been challenged in the development of string theory in the latter half of the 20th century.

But I’m not really going that deep as far as truth is concerned. My thought is this: Does it really matter what Truth I select to live my life by, so long as it accords with the salient Truths of those in my tribe? And I suppose I should backtrack and state that I don’t think I truly select the Truths that symbolize the value set of my tribe, but rather I accord with or deviate from the center of this value set based on the degree to which I accept these Truths as the truth. Even a full rejection of the Truths of my tribe can confer a certain alternative status; think about how the social identity of a recently-out gay person could be constructed in part by the rejection of a tribal Truth of his/her family (i.e., that being gay is wrong, etc.), thus creating a bridge to a new tribe.

So then I ask, what is Truth, really? I’ve ended up capitalizing this because I suppose I’m giving it a normative, powerful status which in even its smallest form can confer tribal membership. If, say, my husband tells me that women are bad drivers, this Truth reveals a lot about him and about me in social, tribal terms. This reminds me of Althusser’s concept of interpellation in which ideologies – Truths? – are mutually accepted in social space by the subjects that are positioned within them…but that would be a whole other blog post.

The point is, Truth (with or without the capital letter) is, at least for me, hard to accept, yet I witlessly admire people who can be black-and-white about things. “The truth is this way!” they say, and set off in that direction. It just doesn’t seem to work for me, in most cases. Too many other possible Truths to consider.

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