Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Reflection on Kierkegaard's observation: truth rests with the minority


Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion. While the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion---and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion…while truth again reverts to a new minority. (Soren Kierkegaard)

Very early in my life, I heard, and continue to hear in the drum beat of my memory, the urgent voice of my mother: “If everybody runs down to the town dock and jumps into the water, are you going to join them?” The words were always uttered at the moment when whatever popular purchase or trend came crashing into her value system, belief system or her world view. She represented the ultimate individualist, libertarian, and objectionist perspective, although none of those monikers were available to me at twelve.

Following the crowd was not her picture of a healthy life. On the other hand, in all of the half century-plus I knew my father, I cannot remember his every expressing an opinion, except about the weather, the safest topic of conversation in Canada.

There are some important reasons why truth might be more likely to rest with the minority. One might be based on the urgent need of many people to “belong” and to develop and deploy radar ready to detect that latest whiff of rumour, of gossip, of sensation and even perhaps of personal trouble that may be floating, or more likely “thundering” through the neighbourhood. And while there may be a high sensitivity to these winds, the degree of accuracy with which the radar screens in the minds/ears/eyes/hearts of most people is quite low. Just try the age old experiment of forming a dozen people in a circle and then whisper a single sentence into the ear of one person, asking that person to whisper the same sentence to the next person. After the message has gone round the complete circle, ask the last person to hear it, to repeat it. If you have not experienced this piece of “social research” you will be astounded by what comes out of the mouth of the last person. If it bears any resemblance to the original sentence, it will be a very attentive, and certainly not typical group.

And then there are some other barriers to the truth. One is the stark quality of the truth, in so many cases. The history of medicine, for example, has run hot and cold on whether or not to tell a patient s/he has cancer, given the conflicting evidence that such tragic information might, and often has, triggered other perhaps equally fatal symptoms. At this writing in Canada, it seems that the profession is favouring full disclosure. And then there are other obstacles to truth telling in so many professional and personal situations. For example, depending on the local culture, specific individuals and also particular professions are viewed through a “community lens” that, like a fuzzy camera lens distorts the truths it purports to reveal. Doctors who have performed an outstanding piece of recovery surgery early in their career, for example, continue to hold a platinum reputation long after the shelf-life that legitimizes that reputation is past due. Similarly, if a local attorney drops the ball on a high profile case, through no fault of his or her own, that reputation sticks like glue for decades, unless and until a new and different case provides different evidence, so different and so dramatic that the “public” is forced to alter its virtually frozen view. It a professional from another career stubs his or her toes, his career is finished in that community, regardless of the quality of his or her teaching, or his or her social work, or his or her accounting expertise. The public “majority” is enshrined with a view of the truth that, by definition, ignores much of the evidence that those with intimate knowledge know to be true, and also know that they do not, or will not, or may not disclose. The herd mind set (self-designed truth) is extremely powerful, especially to those who really do not have an opinion, and prefer the opinion of the masses, in order both to avoid the effort to ascertain the full truth, and to avoid having to appear to be too interested for whatever personal and private reasons they might have.

On the larger social policy stage, the complex and often obscure issues which are driving a public posture are rarely exposed to a wider public than those with what is “affectionately” knows as “a need to know” thereby keeping the rest of the public in the dark except about the headlines, designed to evoke strong emotions from predictable constituencies, favourable to the people most in line with benefiting from their support. And the mass movement on which most public issues rotate is remarkably free of the finer nuances studied by and disclosed to only a minority. Mass media outlets know profoundly that their ratings depend on sales or viewers that can and will consume only the headlines, and thereby dedicated space/time (depending on the medium) to those positions. Nothing could be more relevant to this point that the preponderance of time/space devoted to the candidacy of Donald Trump, without even modestly assigning investigative reporters to probe his plethora of deceptions/lies/exaggerations/and even character assassinations. On issues like racial equality, especially, starting with women, blacks, LGBT members...the majority view has always been bigoted, with only a very small minority willing and courageous enough to take up the cause of those repressed and maligned minorities. Within the minorities themselves, of course, the truth of their abuse is widely known, as is the truth of a child’s physical, emotional and psychological abuse known only to that person (and perhaps one or two close and trusted loyalists) while the public blithely think the family’s golden reputation is both warranted and worthy of support.

In the selection of criminal juries, of course, those ‘in the know’ of the public information surrounding the case are excluded from serving, in order to attempt to paint the picture generated by the trial process on a ‘clean canvas’ of minds free of any opinion that might colour their decision.

In the file commonly known as “social safety net”...the public support for those in need, the majority in both Canada, would rather repeal its existence, and certainly restrict its expansion. On the question of the right to carry guns, the majority, in the United States at least, would prefer the support of the Second Amendment, as opposed to any legislative move to restrict the ownership, especially of assault weapons. Only a minority, at this time, seek gun control legislation, as only a minority seek public support for the PRIDE movement and the parades they are holding in an increasing number of communities.

With respect to war, especially in the United States, the public majority position has been in favour of going to fight in VietNam, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, while a minority continued to oppose these wars, based on the honour and the valour of the American military machine in previous conflicts, especially WWI and WWII, and perhaps even Korea. Tradition, by definition, will most times garner a majority of public support, given the well-documented public resistance to change, an issue that starts with only a single person’s writing or thoughts, and spreads very slowly out to a minority who are willing to challenge the status quo, and are willing to look at the fundamental truths of new research. A classic model of this dynamic is the large majority who have rendered global warming and climate change a hoax for decades while a few lonely voices at first, and then only a small minority became fully conscious of the impending dangers and risks the human race faces should we collectively drag our feet or completely resist the changes to our tax system, to our purchase prices of fossil fuels, and to our development and purchase of carbon neutral renewable energy sources.

Many of the original majorities, unfortunately, can be traced back to the teachings of the Christian church (more specifically the Roman Catholic church) with respect to divorce, to birth control, to abortion, to doctor-assisted dying and to a support for military recruitment, without objecting to a draft. The majority of the public is so easily and so readily supportive of a national effort for war, at least in the United States, that only recently has the current president dragged his feet on invading Libya and Syria, and for both decisions he has been roundly and soundly criticized by a majority.

Minorities, on the other hand, are much more reflective, much more inquisitive and clearly much more sceptical of the public utterances of public figures, than are majorities and are thereby much more likely to dig beneath the surface in order to begin the complicated process of forming their own opinions. And at the root of minorities, are individuals, prophets, writers, song-writers, dancers, choreographers, playwrights, and composers who think complicated thoughts about complicated subjects and issues. Whether or not they are “public thinkers” like Noam Chomsky, or philosopher/professors like Charles Taylor, innovative thinkers like Bill Gates, or investors like Warren Buffet, or original feminists like Betty Friedan, or literally dozens who carried the torch for centuries, these people were on the cutting edge of public opinion, without ever garnering the public majority to their various nuanced views. Marshall McLuhan, Bertrand Russell, William Buckley, George Bernard Shaw....these are other examples of individuals who, without the support of public majorities, ventured into the dark unknown of a truth so deeply feared and often distrusted by the mainstream.

And the disciples of any of these people were always, and remain, a solid cornerstone of minority opinion. In fact, minority opinions are more often and more likely to remain the cutting edge of public and social truths, so resisted and so even despised by a majority. Such a dynamic could foreshadow a commonly held world view by the majority that only the proven is worthy of their support, and that includes both ideas and persons whose public image in unsullied and untarnished by scandal or by libel. It may not be that the majority really cares about the truth, but more about their retention of whatever slim-hold on power they flaunt.

On a personal note, I have resisted purchasing the most popular item in the market offering, basing my decisions on the premise that those in the shadow of the spot-light of international advertising are more likely to produce a quality product and a quality service, given their need to compete with the “most favoured” offering. Nevertheless, in politics, only the majority win elections, when the most appropriate and most relevant ideas may well find their roots in the minority. In Canada, one sterling example is the national health care program, begun by a very small minority, under the then premier of Saskatchewan, and only decades later, spread to the rest of the Canadian provinces, and eventually into the federal government.

Lights begin to shine in the privacy of laboratories, or private studies, or over an easel in a private gallery, or over a pen and paper, and more recently over a laptop....and only very slowly, if at all, with those ideas spread to the majority. The velocity of such spread depends on the specific arena: in pop music, it could take a few moments for millions to view a U-tube upload; whereas in the field of cancer research, it could take decades of painstaking research by hundreds of scholars to reach a break-through advance.

Nevertheless, the truth is  more treasured by the minority, more likely to originate in a minority, often of one, and more fully comprehended and assimilated by the minority.

It is the pressure to belong to the majority that can be considered one of the significant impediments to ingenuity, creativity and innovation. And, I thank my mother every day for paving the way for a life of getting and staying comfortable in the minority, often a minority of only one.

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