Give Us Freedom, Then Tell Us Your Truths

It’s protest season in China. Seriously, either for historical precedent or rising humidity, spontaneous social unrest in China tends to flourish in early summer. Evan Osnos, one of the China-writers I respect most, recounts an incident in Zengchen, a town outside of Guangzhou, where security personnel allegedly beat down a pregnant street vendor, who – like many of her competitors – probably didn’t have permits for her mobile cart of deliciousness.

“Word spread that police had injured the expectant mother and killed her husband, and by the middle of the night a crowd was pelting police with stones and bricks. By Saturday morning, the Party chief Xu Zhibiao had visited Wang at the hospital, and ‘brought a basket of fruit,’ the state media pointed out. ‘Wang and her fetus remained intact,’ the mayor declared.”

As Osnos points out, China is awash with these sorts of rumors. [You can follow a gruesome tally here]. He cites two others: the first, a student who committed suicide after a teacher barred him from taking the all-important ‘gaokao’ exam – imagine the SAT X10 – because he arrived 15 minutes tardy; the second, Henan government officials chucking babies off the rooftops as a means of forcing evictions. Incidentally, both have turned out to be false – well, sort of.

In this environment of fear and social distrust, the government responds to all potential discord by castrating communication channels and preventing free and open discussion. Popular web portals block sensitive keywords and the muckrakers are kept under lock and key, in the name of social stability. This pisses me off as much as I assume it does Osnos, but I think for slightly different reasons that may or may not be all that significant. Osnos laments an attack on truth:

“But recognizing the true source of the illness—the consistent, deliberate misuse of truth for political purposes—is out of the question, for the moment. So authorities will continue racing around in an attempt to shore up the existing system, in which “lies will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie.”

The ‘misappropriation of truth’ cuts both ways. The story of the suicidal student, however false, is still true for many across China. It strikes a real chord and represents deep-seeded emotions that deserve representation. In many minds, there are strict, unforgiving teachers who do not recognize individuality. In many minds, there are students who see their educational responsibilities as a matter of life and death. In many minds, there are parents who do not respect their children before or beyond academic achievement. Even if it’s locally or demonstrably false to those who know the actors, it’s nationally and ideologically true, for those who know the emotions. The rumors will be retold even among those who questions its origins, because it provides a persuasive outlet for real, under-represented emotions that are very much ‘based on a true story.’ For that matter, what isn’t?

Appealing to the truth and its eternal preservation is a poor tactic – and often antithetical – for advocating change. Dogmatic language does give a perspective an air of confidence and authority that can be persuasive. However, we should be weary of those who claim unique access to the truth. Evoking the truth is a tactic most often employed – and effectively, too – by the insecure few who seek to maintain consolidated power and by those who most-fear discussion and dissent. There’s no better way to end conversation, save violence.

The CCP is a staunch advocate of ‘telling the truth,’ so full of passionate intensity, whether about living conditions in Tibet, the Jasmine Revolution, or the Olympics in Beijing. However hypocritical, they do have a point. Western journalists (and I’m still not sure that’s a thing) and China-observers do have agendas and sacrifice truth ‘so thoroughly on the alter of politics,’ to use Osnos’ language. We all do, myself and the New York Times included, and we shouldn’t be ashamed by subjectivity. Our agendas are not necessarily deliberate or malicious, but are informed by contingent and limited experiences that often exclude other perspectives. It’s a good thing, too. If we all shared the same perspective there would be no source for change or progress.

The quest for objectivity is a search for consensus by trying to use descriptions that would receive approval from all members of a given audience. If a given audience maintains biases – compared either to a foreign, past or future audience – then it would be curious if the truths they agreed upon did not. To say, “They’re not telling the truth!” is just to say that they don’t share a particular consensus. That’s OK, so long as we can be open, honest and humble, and forfeit claims that truth exists beyond perspective. If we agree that everything is up for debate – from the shape of the earth to the behaviors of foreign governments – then we can focus our energy on making sure that everyone has the opportunity to be understood. And then figure out which perspectives are most useful for achieving certain objectives.

The source of illness is not the substitution of lies for truth, but the destruction of free discussion that’s critical to figuring out what perspectives are useful for various purposes. The main problem in China is that there’s too much Truth and too little is up for debate. [Furthermore, there are ineffective mechanisms for making policy reflect consensus – but one thing at a time.] Truth should be the product of never-ending dialogue and experimentation – what comes out on the other side of open debate. Restrictions on free speech are much more harmful than sanctioned lies, because they enable the only environment that permits sanctioned lies to survive unscathed. They facilitate false consensus that are codified by power as Truth.

I’m confident Osnos would agree about the importance of preserving free and open discussion. But I also think it’s important to stop talking about truth – to stop playing the game that gives authoritative priority to some ideas over others. And we should be particularly skeptical of those who appeal to truth in argument. In so far as Western journalists have more credibility as being more truthful, it’s because their ideas and perspectives must stand more on their own merits against unfettered public scrutiny. Perspectives should never be given a free pass just because of their source, rather, sources must earn our trust. Remove the environment of debate and you destroy the means for determining credibility. In other words, to borrow a phrase – among other ideas and arguments presented here – from the late Richard Rorty: take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.

It’s dangerous to believe that truth lives eternally outside the influence of human perspective and storytelling – or that some know it better than others. Because then you might relax under the pretense that no matter what happens, truth will always prevail. Some truths will, but yours might not. People and ideas do not always survive oppression – and, sadly, we never remember when they don’t.