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Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Power speaks to truth

The English language evolved over centuries in response to many social changes, but who had the most influence on how we speak and write?

The church?
The rich and powerful?
Everyone?
Some other influence?

The obvious answer is the rich and powerful because for centuries that included the church. Nobody sat round a table and designed our language, but in an important sense the rich and powerful have always owned it via their grip on publishing, newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio, television and now the internet. So where does that leave us today?

An intriguing but tricky aspect of language is the way it so easily distorts our view of reality, almost as if it evolved to assist successful lying. Not by design but by centuries of evolution and the tendency of all elites to control behaviour by lying. Do as I say not as I do has to be a feasible message for the masses and language seems to help.

Suppose we replace words such as true and false with words such as accurate and inaccurate? To do so offers a significant advantage in that it shifts the focus towards what can be demonstrated or observed. Accuracy seems to demand real world validation where truth often demands no more than passive acceptance. Which one suits the rich and powerful?

If we make a switch from truth to accuracy then we are likely to find vast areas of political, religious and artistic discourse cannot be described as accurate unless purely descriptive. Otherwise they tend to lack this essential element of demonstrability.

This is more significant than fiddling around with words because our ordinary concept of truth is widely used to peddle untruths. A very common aspect of blogging is how numerous official narratives are exposed as untrue by detailed analysis – by checking the accuracy.

Unfortunately our ancient link between truth and authority seems to discourage the extra effort required to check narratives for accuracy. If we link truth with accuracy it becomes obvious why we should make the effort. Many don’t because that’s another important word – effort.

5 comments:

Demetrius said...

As someone who delves into detail from primary sources one is always surprised when what seems to be a reasonable and received truth that must be by definition accurate turns out to be really very different. The trouble starts when you try to share this with others especially those for whom who hold strong opinions or attachments that new findings or detailed work reveal.

James Higham said...

Our teachers?

duffandnonsense said...

I have been 'Boring for Britain' over at 'my place' extolling the virtues of Adam Nicolson's superb book "When God Spoke English" which tells the story of how the King James Bible came into being. It is, AK, a precise example of which you write. However, it has the enormous saving grace of also being a work of art, as well as artistry, or even artfulness.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/When-God-Spoke-English-Making/dp/0007431007

Roger said...

I fear the situation is much worse, you and I may be forced into accuracy - facts, figures, derivations etc but can you imagine any possibility of a government minister delivering the full chapter and verse? Impossible, the whole business of government and law depends on 'a different interpretation of the facts'. For it is how facts, figures and derivations can be 'interpreted' that matters and that depends on the interpreter.

One day when AI assists government you can be sure lying and cover up will be built into the fabric, a single denial will result in every gainsaying file and document being automatically amended - there will be no lies because all the 'facts' will support the narrative of the day. Truth and facts are very delicate things, absolutes cannot easily be found.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - and so often the real story is more nuanced and complex.

James - ought to challenge it.

David - I'll bookmark it. I recently bought the collected works of Tolstoy so lots to read at the moment.

Roger - good point about AI. I think something similar is happening already in that there are people employed to provide instant rebuttals of any significant challenge to political narratives. Often quite clumsy but that doesn't seem to matter, supporters don't notice clumsy.