Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Theory, perceptions, truths.....have they morphed into "whatever" and "who cares"?

“This is no longer theory,” were the words tumbling from the mouth of another talking head this morning on television following yesterday’s guilty plea to 8 counts of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort’s guilty verdict on 8 counts.

It is as if truth as a core value in the centre of concentric circles is surrounded, before its firm establishment and after its clarity, in order to forge a path forward, by “theory” or speculation, or intuition or extrapolation or assumption, or presumption or fantasizing or terror.

And before truth can take its rightful place as “established” and “agreed upon” and “beyond dispute” and worthy of validation and respect by a significant body of reasonable people, there are a plethora of explanations for how long this process might take, in each situation. One of the more impactful forces impeding the establishment of public confidence on a piece of information is the weight and the depth of “push-back” from interests threatened by the final victory of truth over speculation.

Take tobacco: for decades, the tobacco companies making these ‘cancer sticks’ denied their impact on human health, in spite of the mountains of evidence filling both cancer wards and graveyards that their products were killing thousands. And even within the last month, the British Columbia government secured a court ruling that prevents tobacco companies from accessing the health records of cancer patients, in their pursuit of damages for costs of health care in the treatment of thousands of smokers. The battle for “truth” including final exposure of the tobacco companies’s pursuit of profit at the expense of individual lives continues, long after the scientific evidence has been proven beyond doubt.

Similarly, on global warning and climate change, the scientific evidence, first postulated by a Swedish scientist in 1896, that human activity is contributing significantly to the rise in global temperatures continues to be denied by many, and disputed by many others. Naturally, those denying and disputing the science are really arguing for their own “special interest” in things like the profits available from mining and selling and burning coal, or from fracking, or from extracting, selling and burning other fossil fuels. And given the large number of factors that play into the gestalt of rising global temperatures, the issue of isolating a single factor seems tremulous at best, and foggy at worst. Nevertheless, as the evidence mounts so too does the sophistication of the instruments available to measure the emission of carbon dioxide and methane, two of the most toxic pollutants.

Nevertheless, because the generally agreed “apocalyptic” year of doom in approximately 2100, most adults now living will no longer be alive when the “sword of Damacles” falls. Consequently, it is very easy for many to put off any urgency on the issue, given that it will fall to generations even beyond their own grandchildren to face the ultimate peril.

And so the “theoretical” debate continues, as protagonists and antagonists pour millions into propagating their unique perspectives. And of course, the “advantage” goes to the corporate interests and their political puppets, whose pockets and whose “advantage” is seen as embedded in “jobs today” and “wages today” and “economic pressures today” as compared with a far-off mirage of devastation that no one really wants to contemplate. Deniers and disputers of global warming and climate change have both money and time on their side, two of the most potent forces driving our contemporary culture. We live in the “moment” and we have injected the lethal steroid of narcissism into our personal demands for instant gratification, in all we do. This further distances us from any foresight into even the next month or year, never mind the next century.

We mud-wrestle then in theory, speculation, hypotheses, while pitch-forking extreme threats and counter-threats in an epic yet hollow drama of the deaf and dumb, both of those in their literal meaning. And as this kerfuffle plays out, no really serious and substantial steps are taken by either governments or corporations to help to slow the rise in temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Theory versus anti-theory has so far not resulted in an agreed synthesis. Scientific fact versus corporate greed has so far not resulted in a synthesis of an equation that respects both in some meaningful manner, given our “binary” universe that simply does not tolerate collaboration, compromise and the rough patches needed to achieve that synthesis. (The Trudeau government is talking the balanced respect for the economy and the environment so far without many serious partners.)

On the future side of fact we find more theoretical witnesses, many of them exploring the new evidence emerging from space, about millions of galaxies like our own, and the potential of “life” having existed or even currently existing on any other planet. There is also the “future” theoretical basis of artificial intelligence having a much greater role in the functions currently conducted by humans, including vehicles, medical diagnoses,  medical treatment and the future of what today we call “work” and the implications of a potential guaranteed income for all.

Experiments, like the one in California, where a select group of low-income citizens are being “given” a specified dollar income for the purpose of discerning how they will use that money, are significant attempts to validate the theory that an guaranteed annual income is not wasteful of public monies. Of course, the political “right” will scream long and loud that this is a waste of “hard-earned taxpayer money” and fight the proposition with all the energy, and distortion of whatever the facts prove to be, they can muster, with large loads of cash from their bankers.

We, the people of the world generally, and certainly in North America and particularly in the United States, have been watching another political/legal/ethical drama unfold. That is the narrative that is, and continues to be the story of the presidential election and administration of mr trump. For many months, speculation ran rampant that this man was unfit for the office. And while Hillary Clinton voiced that view during the campaign, her words were dismissed as mere campaign rhetoric. As the election ended, and the evidence of Russian interference in the campaign became public, (and perhaps even continued to grow) in spite of all efforts by the election “winner” to frustrate the attempt, a Special Prosecutor was appointed to look at whether or not there was any connection (collusion, conspiracy) between the trump campaign and the Russian hackers.

Depending on which side of the political divide one occupies, the theories of what actually happened ebbed and flowed, capturing headlines, tweets, and talk-show airtime for the last eighteen months take on their own colour and shading and leaning and relative impact on others. And the “theories” are also hatched out of the depth of emotions that events and personalities generate.

Theories that trump is not to be trusted, for example, spawned multiple critical exposes in various publications, while theories that Hillary Clinton was not to be trusted also led to multiple “theories” some of which generated action and serious harm.
In our personal encounters, too, we have ‘theories’ about how the world works and how other people think and act. Often, too, we simply our perceptions into those things and people, foods, movies and music, activities and travel destinations that we “like” or “dislike” depending on what is usually highly superficial and often anecdotal perceptions (theories) of others. An d depending on whether or not we “trust” those sources, we “germinate” our own theories (calling them perceptions, attitudes, feelings and impressions. And while they are unique to each of us, they are not intended to approximate a truth that can be said to be universal, or even wide spread. Between partners, too, for example, select questions like “Does this make me look fat?” asked by the female in a relationship evoke a highly nuanced reply, if the male intends to retain the respect of his inquirer. “You look very nice!” suffices in almost all instances. Similarly, if a man asks his partner if he is looking “old” or “haggard” or “too heavy” he is likely expecting (and certainly hoping) to hear, “Not to me!” or some other equally ambiguous non-answer.

We do like to think our “feelings” are absolute truths, worthy of the utmost respect and honour from our colleagues, as if our sensibilities could generate only “true” emotions. And, of course, our memories are also “infallible” in that they generate only “true” dissertations of events from our past. Truth be told, our feelings, fleeting and changeable as they are, and memories, tepid and “impressionist” as they have to be, have a ‘ring’ of truth, but leave out and exaggerate elements depending on our “emotional memory” of the incident, whether or not it was a personal direct experience, or second hand, as from a book, or from a repeated story by another.

Medical diagnoses, while sometimes highly accurate and ‘truthful,’ also tend to be speculative, as they must be, depending on the incisive analysis of the presiding doctor or nurse. Certainly any prediction about a firm prognosis, for example, is highly speculative and usually acknowledged as such. Weather forecasts, although much more “accurate” than in decades past, are so fluid and dependent on extremely fast-moving air currents, temperature variations and atmospheric stability. Nevertheless, many of us speak of them as “true” unless and until there are several days in a row when the “weatherman” was wrong. And then we flip into a dismissive and derisive attitude, reducing all weather reports to “flim-flam”.

If we are willing to face the core truths of our lives, we spend a large amount of our “awake” time in speculation, theorizing, offering opinions and skirting direct questions, preferring the oblique, or as some would have it, obtuse, to the straight-forward and basic truth.

Much of our “social” behaviour, reputation and public respect depends on our “nice” and non-confrontational responses to most conversations, demonstrating what T.S. Eliot told us long ago, that humans cannot deal with too much reality (including truth). Much even of pastoral care is, or has been, couched in terms that can be described as “gentle, tepid, unoffensive, supportive and indirect.” Just this week I listened to a person deride the medical profession for telling a family member with a fatal illness, that she was near death. Thinking it was a cruel comment, he might have preferred a less direct exchange. As I listened, and gave some credence and support to the professionals, he did agree that the person and her family were quite deep in denial and probably warranted a clear assessment of the prognosis.

Several years ago, the medical profession was in the habit of telling patients at the time of a first diagnosis with cancer, that they were going to die, only to learn that such “information” exacerbated their cancer, leading to an even earlier demise than might have been expected. The practice was then discontinued and perhaps discretion and judgement of the whole situation, including the readiness of the patient and family for the whole truth, plays a more significant part in the decision to disclose with compassion.

Yesterday, in two court rooms, two men’s lives were changed, with the prospective implications for others, including the president of the United States. His proclivity to trumpet his own version of the truth, whether or not it conforms to the perceptions of even one other person, has brought to the front of our minds the question of what truth is, where we can find, where it decidedly is not, and how reliant on its steady resonance each of us really is.

The human capacity to dissemble, prevaricate, mislead, distort and confuse, both deliberately and unconsciously, is so prevalent in our contemporary culture, not only from individual political leaders, and from corporations and from many sources that our collective trust and confidence has been shattered. And so has the stability and trust in our institutions, including something we call democracy.

Judging by the cries of “Lock her up!” at last night’s political rally in West Virginia, the people in the trump-cult have a very different real on the legal events from those two courtrooms than that talking head on television. For them the “guilt” does not matter, is theoretical at best, irrelevant or worse, proof that the “establishment” is their’s and trump’s worst nightmare.

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