A few days ago, I met a girl on the Hill. Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah works for a fairly recognizable Tea Party GOP Senator, and even though I knew that we would agree on next to nothing in our personal views of the world and politics, I asked her out to lunch. She’s cute–I couldn’t resist. So today, I strolled out of my office filled with true blue Dems and headed down the the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria to meet her. Most of lunch was filled with jokes about socialists and the 1%. Sarah is actually a really nice person, and I was glad to be getting to know her. Towards the end of lunch, she said something that didn’t mean much at the time, but it REALLY bothered me the rest of the day. I’ll try to paraphrase it.
Sarah started out by saying, “Yeah, you guys had a really good election cycle because Obama rhetorically appealed to the country really well.”
I couldn’t help but jump in: “Yeah, logically too…”
Ignoring the snideness in my comment, she replied, “Well, you guys may have the message, but we have the truth.”
At the moment, I took the comment simply as another slight towards me and my party in a meal that was full of them on both sides. But after we left, that moment stuck out in my mind, replaying constantly. The reason why was because, of all the outrageous claims made by each of us, she wasn’t kidding about that one. Her tone of voice, her body language, the sincerity of it all–she absolutely believed that there was not a chance that her side was wrong. At a fundraiser this summer, Rep. Slaughter from New York told a number of supporters that the Congress couldn’t function because, “…you can’t negotiate with Tea Party”. I loved hearing that from her and completely agreed. I’ve had some conservative friends advocate their positions to me in person, but there is always an element of inquisitiveness–there is an implied question in the debate of equals, and most of the people I’ve spoken to understand that. Today though, I came face to face with that uncompromising, holier-than-thou attitude. It stared at me through a pair of pretty hazel eyes and flirted with me over some mediocre catered BBQ. And, surprisingly, I never once felt like I was being proselytized. I wasn’t being set up to be converted. It was as if Sarah was so confident that her beliefs were, in fact, the truth, that they need not be forced on me. If I learn enough, if I look hard enough, I’ll end up where she is. She was the opposite of a missionary, brushing me off from even being relevant to her cause.
The reason this whole episode stuck with me was because of that last phrase. “We have the truth…” How does one “have the truth”? Truth is something that’s been searched for since the beginning of time. Truth in purpose, in morals, in law, in all the sciences. Objective truth has enormous implications in every subject matter. If one can find a basic truth, it sets the foundations for other truths to be built on top of it until we objectively and thoroughly understand the part of the universe. This is a nice sentiment that gives humans the hope that we can really decode the world around us and control our destinies. However, that conditional is premised on a faulty antecedent. Truth, in the most absolute sense, is not able to be found. This is not to say that it does not exist (I believe it does), but humans cannot know it. By definition, for something to be true, all other possible alternatives must be false. Humans must, with certainty, disprove all theoretical truths with the exception of the real truth for the truth to be unmistakably known. Since this is practically impossible, this is my description. Truth is a journey–one that none of us will ever finish, at that. We learn through empirical and philosophical processes what we can about the world. We think, experiment, re-experiment, and come to temporary conclusions that most of us call “truth”. But these conclusions aren’t actually truth. They are yet another set of rational hypotheses that have yet to be disproven. Perhaps they never will–it could very well be that you have discovered the actual truth. But since there are an infinite number of wrinkles and subtleties to every question we pose, one can never know with certainty that it is the truth.
Truths that seem self-evident are no less immune to this than complicated questions. Take morality. The idea that murder is wrong is widely accepted. But what qualifies as murder? Most people answer that it’s the unjustified killing of a human being. But what is justified? Is killing someone in war justified? What about if you’re hungry and have no money? That could qualify as self-defense. Philosophical semantics and subtleties aside, the point is this–we will never exhaust with certainty all of the possible alternatives to questions of truth. We have not over the course of tens of thousands of years, and we will not over any more tens of thousands. We can, as a society, decide to effectively set up rules and regulations around widely accepted functional truths, such as “murder is wrong”, but we cannot accurately claim to know that it is absolutely true.
Murder is an easy case, too. The troubling part about my conversation with Sarah was that she implicitly claimed to know the truth about all things that American politicians campaign on–liberty, justice, freedom, etc. How can one possibly think that one has discovered the truth of these things? Every philosopher from Socrates to Machiavelli to our own Founding Fathers has grappled with these ideas. My friend and the co-founder of this blog, Ryan, was always willing to infuriate me about the importance of metaphysics, which he describes as, essentially, the philosophy of definitions. I hated studying metaphysics because I always saw the question “What is liberty?” as useless, but, unfortunately, he’s right–it’s crucial to our understanding of how to form government and policy. But I believe I am correct in stating that you cannot know the real character of these concepts. To think otherwise is arrogant and telling of your actual LACK of knowledge.
As I reflected on this throughout the day, I realized that this is the true line in the sand in American politics. It’s not red states and blue states, Democrat and Republican, or rich and poor. It’s between those who steadfastly believe they are “right” and those who have similarly powerful ideas about how to run this country, but who are mindful enough to realize that they don’t know everything and that we need to work together to continuously move the country forward and protect our great inheritance from the Founding Fathers–a free country and a brilliant and enduring Constitution. The stubborn parties of society, including the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and other fringe groups, make very logical sense, actually–if you believe you are without a doubt correct in your identification and prescription of the problems in this country, why would you work with anyone else? All you are doing is allowing imperfections into the true solution. I think that’s why I’m drawn to the Democratic Party. Although I am speaking in generalities, as it currently stands, the Dems are the one’s who generally approach problems in a more appropriate manner. They come to the table with some preconceptions of what they believe, they ask what the problem is, and then try to implement the best the solution. Sometimes the best solution is a political one, rather than a practical one, but at least different views are considered and action is taken. And, of course, this is not to say that some Republicans don’t do the same thing. However, the Tea Party currently comprises a significant portion of the GOP and the threat of Tea Party primaries forces even mindful Republicans to ascribe to the ideological litmus test imposed on the GOP by the Tea Party. Until the influence of these absolutists wanes, I fear we will never have a truly functional Congress.
Developing any kind of personal or collective philosophy, political or otherwise, demands that we throw our preconceptions out and accept that everything we “know” is a work in progress. If we can do that, consensus in our government and in all aspects of our lives maybe just a little more likely and the world may be just a little bit better. Whatever that means…