Thursday, October 2, 2008


In Human, All-Too Human (1878), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "Enemies to Truth--Convictions are more dangerous enemies to truth than lies." I love this aphorism because it applies to "people who think they are right." My satire routinely targets people with strong convictions, precisely for the reasons that concerned Nietzsche.

In one short line, Nietzsche warns us that convictions endanger truth. Truth, of course, is not an absolute standard, but rather an appreciation for numerous viewpoints and considerations. To see the truth, one must set aside bias and look at the whole picture. One must be willing to embrace differing perspectives. Convictions, on the other hand, refer to a person's deeply-held beliefs on a particular issue. If a person has convictions in one regard, he necessarily rejects viewpoints that contradict those convictions. Convictions narrow the mind; they close off other avenues of inquiry. That is why, according to Nietzsche, they endanger truth. They make it impossible to move beyond a single perspective on matters.

Yet in modern political, religious and even academic life, people define themselves by their convictions. Convictions become a calling card; they tie particular beliefs to particular individuals. A religious leader may have a "conviction" that all gay people are going to hell. He attracts praise for his position because he believes in it so strongly. But at the same time, his dedication to his belief prevents him from inquiring whether there may be an opposing viewpoint. He would appear "weak" if he acknowledged his opposition. He would "undercut his convictions." In essence, the man with convictions refuses to even inquire whether there may be an alternative answer to a question. If truth involves an appreciation for the "whole picture," convictions make it impossible to look beyond a single interpretation.

Our society encourages people to hold convictions. But this is partly because our society generally does not subscribe to Nietzsche's understanding of "truth." For many people in the Western world, "truth" is a knowable idea. It is fixed. It is unwavering. It does not reflect individual perspective, but rather expresses an objective state of affairs that everyone sees in precisely the same way. It is much easier to strongly hold a belief when one also believes that there is only one "truth."

I think many people profoundly misunderstand "truth." Truth is a concept that we all think we comprehend, when in fact it routinely eludes us. In law school, we used many words without really understanding what they meant. "Truth" was one of them, along with "fact." There was an unspoken assumption that "truth" consisted of "facts" that anyone could learn. We were told that the goal of a trial was to "find the truth" through complicated evidence rules that supposedly created truth. And "truth," according to the law, refers to "what actually happened" in a given situation.

But trials, if anything, produce only second-hand truth. Truth is individual. It is impossible to say "what actually happened" in a given situation without perceiving it first-hand. Only those whose sensory organs perceive an event, condition or act can know "what really happened." When witnesses use language to convey what they perceived, they cannot fully transfer their sensory impressions to their listeners. The listener, in turn, applies his own memory, experience and knowledge to "guess" what "actually happened." He does not perceive it. It is a uniquely individual process. Every listener will conjure a different mental impression based on the contents of his own mind. He may even neglect to hear certain details or jump to conclusions without listening, distorting his impression even further. That mental impression becomes "the truth." It is certainly not "what actually happened," nor is it absolute, or even accurate.

Still, very few people comprehend this. Most believe that we all can learn "the truth," and it is not our fault. From our earliest childhood, parents, teachers and other authority figures have demanded to know what we have done out of their sight. They have demanded to know "the truth" about our behavior. We told them what we did. We told them "the truth." As children, we believed that our words precisely conveyed our sensory impressions. In fact, they only provided a mental impression for our listeners, who then formed their own view about the "truth" in the situation we described. Our words interacted with all the bias, experience, knowledge and memory in our listeners' minds to create a fundamentally different truth than what we perceived. In a word, truth is elusive. And it depends on individual mental processes.

Convictions assume that there is a commonly-accessible, knowable truth. It is impossible to deeply hold a belief about a particular matter without also believing that everyone can see the same truth. A person with conviction castigates those who disagree with his position because they "cannot see the truth." In other words, a conviction implies that truth is absolute; it discards the possibility that there may simply be another, equally-valid way to view the problem. Convictions lead to intolerance, misogyny and narrow-mindedness. They allow people to brand others "wrong." They provide a stable platform for judgment, because--after all--there is only one truth. Either one believes or one does not. Convictions allow for simple dualities: Right and wrong; good and evil; black and white. They simplify the mind.

Life is not so simple. Situations rarely have clean-cut solutions, and any human problem inevitably begs questions of perspective. Everyone brings an individual perspective to events; it is impossible to suggest that there is a single truth that unifies them all. There are simply too many people perceiving too many things at too many divergent times. Rather than acknowledge this complexity, convictions ignore it. It is difficult to understand "truth." In fact, it is a continuous process, because truth changes with the circumstances and individuals involved. Perhaps the only truth is that there is no absolute truth, but rather a fluid appreciation for myriad viewpoints. Nietzsche advocated embracing that appreciation. To do that, one must resist blinding convictions.

But is it really possible to live a life without strong beliefs? Probably not, but there is a way to reconcile strong beliefs with an appreciation for truth. After all, there is a difference between merely holding a belief and believing that one's position is the only one. In other words, it is possible to strongly hold beliefs knowing that they are uniquely individual expressions. Others may agree with them--and even follow them--but they remain individual expressions. They have no greater claim to the truth than any other belief. Thus, it is possible to be passionate about beliefs without descending into blindness and intolerance. Perhaps more importantly, a humble approach to belief leaves the mind open to new perspectives. An open mind is always stronger than a closed one, no matter how much "conviction" it has.

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