Truth, Power and Love

Donald Trump’s way of relating to truth shows something important.

Trump seems to see truth as secondary to identity. What he likes, what reenforces his beliefs and worldview, what makes his supporters like him is the truth. Anything that is critical of him or which makes him look bad is false, spread by the fake media.

What is primary for Trump is his own will to power. His own affirmation of who he wants to be. Since he sees himself as the best, anything that suggests otherwise is put into the category of doubting oneself – of letting others determine what you can or can’t do.

Trump doesn’t relate to the world as a spectator. He doesn’t start with a neutral description of the world and then situate himself within that reality. He starts instead with the reality he wants to see of himself and sees the world through that prism.

Contrary to all the worries about how Trump is creating a post-truth society, the problem with Trump’s relation to the truth isn’t that he doesn’t acknowledge truth as a neutral arbiter.

That can’t be the problem because truth can’t play the arbiter role on its own.

If two people disagree about something, so much so that they can’t agree on a fact which will decide the issue, there can be no fact which can play the arbiter role. Truth is like an umpire who calls balls and strikes. The claim of the umpire only holds if both teams agree on the rules of the game. If one team says they are playing cricket and the other team says they are playing baseball, and yet they disagree and are on the verge of fighting about whether the batter is out (this is pretty much most political arguments currently), what the umpire says isn’t going to settle the issue. For there is always the added question: does the umpire know what game is being played? Can he determine what game is being played? Or is his ability to determine whether the batter is out dependent on the players themselves, and on whether they agree on what game is being played?

Very little in everyday human life has truth as an arbiter as such. Is it sunny or cloudy? Are the Lakers a good team? Were Ross and Rachel on a break when Ross slept with the other woman? We normally navigate these issues not by resorting to truth as an arbiter but by getting aligned on what kind of game we are playing. If two people are fighting and don’t trust each other, they can fight about why the other person is wrong about the weather or the Lakers, or about the facts of who cheated on whom, when, where and why.

But surely somethings are just true or false, like if there is milk in the fridge or if it is raining right now outside the house? Actually, no. Not in the sense that the truth of the matter is prior to the coherence of the human interaction at stake. How much milk does there need to be for there to be milk in the fridge? This depends on what the practical tasks are for that milk. If it is for one bowl of cereal, perhaps there is milk. If for baking a cake for 30 people, then no. And what counts as raining: drizzling, a downpour, for how long, with what intensity? Depending on the context and the tasks at issue, the answers vary. There is no “the truth” attached to the abstract question “is there milk in the fridge?” or “Is it raining?”

Does this mean that truth is just whatever the powerful or the stronger person says it is? That is the worry raised by Trump. If truth can’t be a neutral arbiter, then how can we hold him accountable? Or hold anyone accountable? If truth can’t be an arbiter, is there only power?

I suspect, insofar as Trump might think about this kind of question, he might say “yes”. Like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Trump might think that truth, justice and so on are just what the strong says they are. Therefore don’t ever give in and apologize. Don’t ever agree anything you said is false or that your opponent said is true. For that would be a weakness, which gives your opponents a win and increases their power.

But this doesn’t follow. Truth as a neutral arbiter and the strong man’s power aren’t the only options. There is a third option rooted in compassion and love.

If two people are disagreeing so deeply that neither can agree on what fact might resolve the dispute, the deeper problem isn’t one of truth but of trust.

Marriage therapists know this. The issue is never really about which spouse is right or has the true beliefs (“You never take out the trash!” “I do too!”). The inability to agree on a common way of getting at the truth is a sign of the lack of trust between the two sides. If there is trust, then there is a momentum to work together and then to heed common norms. If there isn’t trust, even if one is shown truth as an arbiter (“Here is a video tape of the last year in the house, and you never took out the trash”), that itself would evoke a new round of resentment and anger (“You video taped me?! How dare you!”).

When there is a lack of trust, it doesn’t take much courage to give up shared norms and resort to brute power. It doesn’t take courage because that is what we naturally want to do when there is a lack of trust. Nor does it take much courage to assert the importance of shared norms only to say that shows you are right and they are wrong. Because that is also what is natural to do when there is a lack of trust.

When trust breaks down, courage is related not to truth directly, but to being willing to heal the wounds and to build trust.

This in fact requires a deeper commitment to truth. Wanting truth as the arbiter is the easy affirmation of truth. It doesn’t require any work to change on one’s own part – the truth shows the other side is wrong, and I just have to repeat the truth over and over again, in ever louder or nuanced ways.

The greater commitment to truth is the commitment to compassion. Which requires me to change my own assumptions and to see the world from the perspective of the other person. To step out of my shoes and see the world differently so that a deeper truth that neither of us can see can come to the surface when we work together.

Trump is right that fundamentally truth seeking is secondary to, and must be seen in the context of, our relations as people, and of our ideals, aims and hopes. This is not a threat to civilization, a break down of truth, law and science.

For our relations as people need not be defined by our fears or our anger, or by the will to power to show the other people are weak and I am strong. The spiritual insight, be it of Christ or the Buddha, is that there is another way we can relate as people, rooted in self transformation and a commitment to healing wounds and building trust. Which acknowledges the priority of human interactions over an abstract, dehumanized truth as an arbiter, but which sees in humanity more than a desire a win or to put down the opponent. Which sees in humanity at root not a will to power but a will to love.

4 thoughts on “Truth, Power and Love

  1. Miami

    Thank you for your interesting perspective on the matter. I agree with what you write and that love should be the prevailing force for finding a solution to most disputes. However, you pointed out also that if both sides do not play by the same rules (in your examples this was seeking truth), how do you think this political ‘game’ with Trump will play out? What should be done if the only way Trump seems to want or even can play the game (I truly believe there is plenty of evidence that this man has a narcissistic personality disorder, which means for a person not to be capable of loving others except him or herself), is power play? That seems his prevailing tactics: to neutralize his critics by implying it’s not the truth they’re after or they act out of hatred (the opposite of love), but that they’re in it solemnly to gain power. I personally do not believe this is the main driver at all for his political opponents, but it seems that the only language he understands is power and that that is the only way how this game can and will be finished: the side that has the most political, financial and legal power will prevail. Do you agree or not? What are your thoughts on the matter?

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I also think Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder. Perhaps that implies he only loves himself – though that might be too strong. But it still doesn’t imply that others don’t feel loved by him. Clearly many millions do. They feel a deep identification with him, and a sense that he is looking out for them. So Trump’s critics are not going to get far by trying to make it seem like an objective fact of psychiatry that Trump only cares for himself. To his supporters that will only reenforce their distrust of the elites, using “science of the mind” to discredit the love they feel from him.

      “the side that has the most political, financial and legal power will prevail”. This is definitely true. My sense is Trump is the last big grasp of the older structures of power in America before the majority minority reality starts to take over. This is why Trump looks for support from Putin and other autocrats outside America – because he is starting to feel like a minority in America, hence his feeling that the system is rigged against him.

      Right now the power struggle looks like it can go both ways. That’s a reality, just as in India, Brazil and so on. We cannot assume even in America and Western Europe that the liberal democratic structures will prevail. Still, I have faith that they will.

      There is a lot of power – financial, political, intellectual – shifting right now, with the big tech companies, AI, the rise of China, etc. Hard to tell how where the chips will fall. But there is also a deeper power, beyond the finances and politics. Spiritual power. The power of fostering love and mutual understanding. The power which helps us get beyond this vs that side and see things more as “we are in this together, even as we disagree on many issues”. If a democrat wins in 2020, it won’t mean suddenly the right side is in power. It will just continue the cultural and institutional struggles. The deeper cause of the spiritual transformation of our consciousness and how we orient to our “opponents” will play out in the coming decades.

      My belief is at a certain point down the road, as the current turmoil becomes clearer, the political and the spiritual transformations will coincide, and will enable newer, more humane and powerful modes of communal life.

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  2. miami

    Thank you very much for your extensive reply to my previous comment. Your message really resonates with me. One thing is the shifting of power. Currently this worries me, because I see a shift of power away from the promises (not entirely realized) of democracy, trias politica and equality of people towards populism, opportunism, inequality and ultimately dictatorship. We see these forces in many countries in the US, Europe and Asia. Like many people have forgotten the lessons from the past. At the same time the important transforming new factors of technology and AI that you mentioned, have yet to be unleashed to their full potential and we don’t know whether this will help us or eventually replace us or even annihilate us.

    I agree that love and understanding will unite us as a species eventually. They are what separate us from technology and necessary for cooperation in order to survive. But I wonder how many terrible things will need to happen before that happens. Just like the relative peace and prosperity that came after the two World Wars with the balance of power between the capatilist block and the communist block and the lessons learned and transformed in a new world order domonated by global institutions and military cooperation. I don’t think this could have happened without the wars. I’m not idealizing those post WW decades but I do believe they can be considered a golden era.

    We are currently out of balance and it’s yet unclear when a new balance of power will be established and what that will mean for the inhabitants of the majority of countries. I wonder if I will live the day that the new balance has been established. I guess that is an answer nobody can provide. So how to proceed? That is the question. Your message at the end of your response sounds hopeful. Thank you for that!

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Great comment. I often have many of the same anxieties, about the promise of democracy getting lost, pitfalls of AI, the shifting power struggles leading us into a wild, wild west or a warring period where people only recognize power. Also the absolute reality, I think, that some catastrophies are coming – related to global warming, or misplaced nuclear weapons, or some global tech failure, etc. The post WWII vision is reaching its end, and right now a kind of autocratic nationalism seems to be taking its place often. So what is the new vision that can uplift and unite people, even as we go through deep changes?

      The question is as old as the mountains. We are going through the current form of it, but the form itself is how it must have felt at the rise and fall and transformation of all past great changes in civilizations. There are many things we now need to do: environmental, political, economic, cultural, etc. But at root it is personal: what is the best way for me to harness my energies and approach my life, and spread hope and love? The answer is also as old as the mountains: to change my mode of consciousness, so that I am able to balance my ego perspective always with a non-ego perspective, and to see the fullness and bigness of life beyond the current (even scary or tragic) events. When one does this, if one is a politician, then one will be a more wakeful politician; or a more wakeful computer scientist, or a more wakeful doctor, or a more wakeful parent, or a more wakeful bus driver, or a more wakeful neighor, etc. Then we share not just the events that are happening and how respond to them – but deeper, and below that, we share the wakefulness of our consciousness – which uplifts and binds us together irrespective of more surface agreements or disagreements.

      Doctors are important because I want a healthy body, even though having a healthy body isn’t the main aim of life. Likewise, good politics is important because I want a healthy civic life, even though again that is not the main aim of life. The main aim is the full flourishing of my consciousness, and of our shared communal consciousness. All is a means to that.

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