By: Joshua Chamberlain
Posted: December 29, 2011
I was recently engaged in a spirited political debate with a friend of mine, we’ll call him “Jim,” who happens to work for one of the major political parties. Needless to say, Jim has very strong feelings about many of the hot-button political issues of the day and aligns himself very closely with his party’s stance on most of these issues. I typically feel very differently about these issues, and thus our conversations often become back-and-forth discussions/arguments.
It has long amazed me that two people can look at one situation and see two completely things. In the political realm, nearly every question these days comes with two completely different answers. What’s more, television news programs typically report it as such; there is the Republican response and the Democratic response on nearly every issue, and the viewer is left to decide which is more valid (even if that issue is a matter of scientific fact).
The truth, however, is that the viewer is choosing much more than an opinion; the viewer is, in essence, choosing his or her reality. Just like me, Jim has his take on each issue and believes it fully. Neither one of us can be talked away from our position, for that position, for each of us, is the truth; it IS reality. For one of us say that our take on immigration reform is wrong is akin to saying that 2+2=5. It just doesn’t compute, and neither one of us understands why our counterpart can’t understand the simple truth.
Coincidentally, my English class just read George Orwell’s 1984. 1984 has been taught many ways over the years. My parents’ generation read it with communism as the focus. In the past, I have used it as a lens on post-9/11 America and have asked the students to think about what happens when we start to give up personal freedoms or engage in fervent nationalism.
This year, however, the students shifted the conversation toward the concept of reality and how we define truth. The basic source of power for the Party in 1984, after all, is the ability to determine and change reality to fit its purposes. Since the Party changes history to show that it has never been wrong, there is no reason to ever question it. More to the point, however, the Party convinces the citizens of Oceania to want to control their thoughts. In essence, they create a situation in which each citizen has the ability and desire to choose his or her own reality.
This idea flies in the face of conventional wisdom and, in effect, destroys any need for history class. After all, what is history but a memory? And, what is a memory but a concept? When one student first brought this up, the rest of the class had a tough time wrapping their minds around it. After all, we have all been brought up knowing that justice is the search for truth and that we are all expected to adhere to the truth in a society based on justice.
In the end, however, after a great deal of conversation, my students determined that there is no one, universal truth, for truth is a concept and concepts, by definition, are created by the individual. Each society creates its own truths, but those truths are, ultimately, malleable.
Pretty heady stuff, eh?
While I was, of course, impressed by my sophomore students’ ability to cull new, broader meaning from such a dense text, their conclusions got me thinking about our current political situation and my political conversations with Jim.
Basically, I see something very similar going on in our own society. We have become so hardened in our own ideas that we now see the opposition as lacking the ability to see reality rather than just having a different perspective. For example, how do I know that my take on abortion is correct? The same reason I know 2+2=4. I just do, and if you say something else, you are clearly insane.
So, where to go from here? I have tried hard to understand Jim’s take on the issues, but I still fall into the same trap. I try to look logically at the other side’s facts and convince myself of the opposing argument, but I typically fail in this pursuit. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way to overcome this block. Jim recently told me, quite astutely, “Just admit it. You are as partisan as I am.” Maybe he is right.
I guess the answer might be that, like Orwell writes, reality really is an individual concept. This brings up all sorts of questions, many of which might elicit somewhat sinister responses. At least I can sleep well at night knowing, however, that I am right. Not that there was ever any question…