Tag Archive for philosophy

Truth

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.

—George Orwell, 1984

One slim silver lining in the dark, towering cloud of recent events is a new respect for truth. People – even liberals – have in the past tended to be rather cavalier about this notion. Now, in light of lies and errors writ large on the world stage, we realized that truth matters.

I ask my philosophy students to define truth by filling in the following open sentence.

A statement (or belief) is true if and only if ….

They give answers that boil down to the following.

(1) ….if and only if I believe it.

(2) … everyone (or most people) believe it.

(3) …it can be proved.

(4) …it matches reality. (Only one or two in each class come up with this.)

And then we go through these and discover (with only the smallest prodding from me) that (1) (2) and (3) are incorrect. Obviously there are tons of things that I once believed that I now know are false – e.g., Santa Claus exists. Same for you. So, (1) is incorrect. There was a time (long time) when everyone who thought about it believed that the earth was stationary. They were wrong. The earth didn’t chug into motion in the fifteenth century. So, (2) is incorrect. There are pairs of statements: e.g. “Julius Caesar had type A+ blood.” And “Julius Caesar did not have type A+ blood” neither of which can be proven, but one of which must be true. Also perhaps more interestingly “God exists” and “God does not exist.” So, (3) is incorrect.

How about (4)? Well, I kinda like (4) although I would express it slightly differently:

A statement is true if and only if things are the way the statement says they are (were, will be – for past and future tense statements). It’s hard to find a counterexample to that one.

My students sometimes complain: “But (4) is circular.”

No, it’s not. It would be circular if it used the word “true” to define truth but it doesn’t do that. It uses words which mean the same as truth but that’s not circular. If you define a square as a figure with four equal sides and a right angle, your definition is not circular.

“But (4) is useless.”

Well, not exactly. It gives some pretty simple advice. If you want to know whether your statement is true, go look at the world – look at the things you are talking about – go see if ships fall off the edge of the horizon, go explore the heavens to find out whether the earth moves, go look for miracles and religious experiences and good theistic arguments if you want to know whether God exists.

“But in many cases we can’t find out whether (4) applies.”

Absolutely. But that’s because we are small, imperfect creatures. Why should we expect to know all the truths? Why should we expect a definition of truth to give us an algorithm for telling in each case whether a statement is true? That would be a miracle in itself and worth a lot to someone playing the stock market.

There are complications of course. Some statements are ambiguous. In some cases there may well be no matching reality. (Some people think moral claims are like this.) But that doesn’t refute my (and Aristotle’s) favorite definition. It just means that we have to clarify what we mean and recognize that some statements are false and their denials are false too.

The main complaint my students have about (4) is that it is boring. They were hoping for something sexier. Well, so be it. It’s better to be boring than wrong.

But I find something appealing about it. Truth is what really happened. Exactly how many people were on that mall. Exactly what he was thinking when he claimed that his victory was the biggest. Exactly what will happen when we repeal the ACA. Even if truth sometimes eludes our investigative powers, it is worth pursuing.

Author’s bio: Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University. She has published short stories at Cirque,Everyday Fiction, Wordhaus, Oxford Magazine, and Short Fiction Break (first place contest winner). When not writing philosophy or fiction, she enjoys spending time with her husband and twin teenage sons, walking, reading, playing chess and watching Shakespeare. Find her work here: https://franceshowardsnyder.wordpress.com/fiction/

Cultural Appropriation: Rights and Wrongs

by Frances Howard-Snyder

Is it wrong for a white woman to write a novel that includes black characters? I keep hearing people – locally and internationally – saying yes. Lionel Shriver recently said no. Her speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism and counter-criticism. Both sides erected ugly straw men versions of their opponents’ positions and then knocked them down. If we listen to both sides more carefully, though, we may find considerable agreement.

First, I’d like to set aside the issue of whether writers have the right to write about various things. I often read or hear the thought that “I can whatever I Goddamned please. No one’s going to censor me!” The word “right” is ambiguous. But it is clear that (at least) American writers have a constitutional right to write about anything, and the same constitutional right to express outrage at the writing of others.

But we need to distinguish the question of whether someone has the right to do x from the question of whether doing x is wrong. I think we can all agree that some writing and other speech can be morally wrong. Donald Trump has a right to talk about grabbing a woman’s genitals against her will, but such talk is still wrong. Similarly, fiction can be morally wrong if it describes minority characters in stereotypically and inaccurate ways. E.g., Westerns portrayed Native Americans as blood-thirsty and cruel. So, I think we can agree that some portrayals of characters, even if protected by First Amendment rights, are morally wrong.

I am interested in whether it is always wrong for white writers to write about black characters, or for heterosexual writers to write about gay characters, or abled writers to write about disabled characters, or for that matter, for men to write about female characters. Surely not, at least when it is done well. We shouldn’t ban Othello, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn. Even short of banning these books, it would be a mistake to boycott them, just as it would be a mistake to boycott Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, on the grounds that its author was of a different ethnicity from its characters.

Maybe we can all agree on this point. Maybe even Shriver’s most vociferous critics will agree that it would be absurd to tell white, middle-aged, straight women to write only about white, middle-aged, straight women. Surely interesting stories happen when people encounter others who are different from themselves and deal well or badly with them? Surely, trying to get into the mind of someone different from ourselves has the potential to increase our empathy? As my friend Laura Rink says, any constraints on who can write what diminishes the pool of art and creativity.

If we all agree on this, I can stop. Bad portrayals of people from other groups are morally wrong. Good portrayals are fine. We might disagree about whether a particular portrayal is good or bad – e.g., about whether Shriver’s The Mandibles or Stockton’s The Help do a good job of portraying their black characters, but that seems to be a subject for another venue – e.g., for detailed critical reviews of the particular works. I would urge that an imperfect but well-intentioned and carefully researched characterization should be critiqued as imperfect but not held up for moral opprobrium.

But I do get the sense that some of Shriver’s critics do want to argue that whites should not write about black characters at all, not just that they shouldn’t write stereotyped or distorted descriptions of black characters.

According to Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the woman who walked out of Shriver’s speech in protest, “It’s not always okay if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with.”

Here is the charge of cultural appropriation. Whites, even when they do it well, shouldn’t write about blacks because when they do so they are taking something they have no right to, they are depriving others of something that belongs to them.

But this is a false dilemma. My writing about a subject doesn’t prevent you from writing about it. Your writing about a subject doesn’t prevent me from writing about it. A white man writing about a Nigerian girl does not prevent Nigerians from writing about Nigerians, or Nigerians from writing about white Americans for that matter. There are infinitely many fictional story possibilities. My writing one doesn’t decrease the number available for you to write.

There are lots of wrongs that white people have done and continue to do to members of other races. We should acknowledge and address those wrongs. But this is not one of them. This is the wrong target.

Author’s Bio:  

frances-hsFrances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University but prefers to explore ideas through fiction. She has published short stories at Cirque, Oxford Magazine, Everyday Fiction, Silver Pen, Wordhaus, and Short Fiction Break. When not writing, she enjoys time with her family, reading, walking, and playing chess (badly).