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Truth is not enough

I haven’t posted anything about Wikileaks because it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of commentary. Also, I am deeply conflicted about it, for predictable reasons: I’m happy to see some nasty government programs exposed, but I also believe governments and the people who work for them need to have conversations that are frank, honest, private, and even regrettable.

I here just want to comment on a particular theory of truth that many are using to justify Wikileaks. This ideas says that “the truth” is a neutral and accurate depiction of how the world is. One is thus always justified in stating the truth.

That definition may be true, or it may be true as stipulated, but it’s not useful. In fact, it’s the opposite of useful because it misses truth’s value. Someone who babbles an endless series of true statements is insane. Kierkegaard talked about this as “objective madness.” He imagines a patient walking home from a stay in an insane asylum trying to convince people he’s sane by repeating over and over something true: “The world is round. The world is round.” The same ex-patient would be just as insane if he varied his list of true things as he strolls down the street: “The world is round. Books have weight. Wheels roll. My toenails are growing.”

Truth can be noise. Truth can be used to distract us. Truth can be wicked violence. It is not enough, therefore, to justify your blurtings by saying, “But it’s the truth!” Truth’s value comes from its role in the complex social fabric — network — within which we live. That network contains many other human values, purposes, and fallibilities. The truth matters because it helps us act in our world, together.

So, I don’t think Wikileaks’ actions can be justified simply by saying, “But the site is just saying the truth!” It’s far more complex than that. What effect will this exposure have? How might it have been a more effective exposure? What do we gain and what to we lose. With this round of Wikileaks, we both gain and lose, imo.

Here, by the way, I think Assange’s interests diverge from many of us who believe in the power of transparency. I find persuasive Zungzungu’s argument, based on a 2006 writings attributed to Assange [pdf], that Wikileaks is not about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine: It is aiming at rendering “authoritarian conspiracies” ineffective. I am glad that the site has exposed some of my government’s wickedness; I am unhappy that it is going to render it less effective in the good that it does. And I am unhapy with my government’s response to the leak.


Here are links to some Berkman posts about Wikileaks. And here’s a discussion initiated by Jay Rosen about Assange’s non-answer to a question like the one this post raises.

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