Outcome 2 – Encountering Conflict: Truth essay

“Facts and truth often do little to prevent individuals from engaging in conflict”

To present that “Facts and truth often do little to prevent individuals from engaging in conflict” is to grossly understate the volatile conditions of human society in which facts and truth are often the cause of conflict between individuals, let alone cause for their resolution! Aeschylus claimed that “In war, truth is the first casualty” whilst Sun Tzu stated that “All war is deception.” Both thus described and defined the contexts of conflict directly in terms of truth and it’s opposite.

The human catalysts of causes present a history in which several bearing the torch of truth have literally and metaphorically been crucified or burnt at the stake, even if these unfortunate martyrs have in retrospect proved great leaders of great causes. The message of Jesus Christ, for example, was like a fire amongst the people and cultures of ancient society: it worked to cleanse the minds of his followers by forgiving them their fallibilities, and to restore their faith in God and a sense of purpose in His/Her world. Nevertheless, such essentially (hopefully!) universal truths with respect to the role of compassion in society saw the spiritual leader condemned to die on the cross. It was with meek acceptance of his “crimes” in an unjust society that Jesus “turned the other cheek”, and so wore a crown of thorns and dragged his own doom through the streets of Jerusalem. Despite the prosecution and persecution of a vast number of Christians, such saintly passive resistance has proved victorious: many have since sought to realise the principles of a faith that has love, forgiveness and non-violence at its heart, even if at the time the unforgiving powers of politics sought only to violently suppress the teachings of the humble carpenter’s son and condemn his innocent believers. The Christians did not seek conflict, and their religious message might not be factual, but they did seek change for the good of humankind and got absolutely nailed for it.

Similarly, Galileo Galilei was crucified in a metaphorical sense for his role in sharing truth, and was placed under a life-term of house arrest for presenting a challenging new perspective. Karl Popper theorized that all science should seek to challenge assumptions, and that it was only when all possible explanations were discounted that a theory might survive the tests and rigours of truth. This is the position of Brecht’s Galileo when he declares “Abandon hope, I say, ye who enter on observation”: he is making a sardonic play upon the pronouncement engraved upon the gateway to Hell in Dante’s Inferno, and thus signalling a shift in the role and site of discourses of truth from religious doctrine to empirical investigation. In expressing his confidence in truth and reason the father of scientific empiricism once argued that “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go”, and he believed that the new method of investigation would have society (rather than individuals) engaging in a paradigmatic shift of beliefs. Andrea wails “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”, but Galileo is quick to correct her and present “No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” The position of truth here is shown to be different to that of the “hero” who presents it, for though Andrea believes Galileo to be the force behind changing perceptions, Galileo instead asserts that truth itself is the champion. What this demonstrates in Life of Galileo is how the controversial teacher shies away from any personal responsibility for the truth of his theories; here we realise a failure to appreciate the conflict that facts and truth may present for those who discover and demonstrate such. Indeed, it was the purpose of Brecht to criticise and accuse Galileo of a cowardice that Christ did not present in revealing truth and realising change and faith for those who would follow.

Truth is often explosive, but illumination itself is often overwhelming and blinding. Brecht’s Galileo likes to believe that “Thinking is one of the chief pleasures of the human race,” but in presenting such he underestimates the power of human ignorance, and the desire for security, rather than revelation. Galileo rudely tells Sagredo “Stop standing there like a stuffed dummy when the truth has been found,” but later he unfortunately fails to understand his pupil’s position when Sagredo tells him “I’m not standing like a stuffed dummy; I’m trembling with fear that it may be the truth,” and Galileo does not heed the The Little Monk’s advice of: “We have the highest of all motives for keeping our mouths shut – the peace of mind of the less fortunate.” Plato similarly appreciated the difficulty of convincing people to confront truth when he outlined in his famous allegory the angry reactions of prisoners in the cave to the described discoveries of the freed individual. All too often, human ignorance proves a sticking point between contesting positions, but it is fear of change and fear of failure that often drives innocent minds to oppose the potential of new ideas for new freedoms.

At the same time, there are some who actively oppose truth for immoral purposes: to pursue the purposes of control and power. Bertholt Brecht knew such for himself, and was a strong critic both of a fascist Germany prior to World War 2 and also of an undemocratic America during the HUAC trials Cold War, though he had to flee from persecution in each country in both instances. He portrays Galileo arguing with the Philosopher that “Our duty as scientists is not to ask where truth is leading”, and thus shows how the great scientist seems to ignore the political relations described by social theorists such as Lenin, Foucault and Orwell of the triumvirates of knowledge, truth and power. Ludovico informs Galileo that his action of sharing knowledge with the peasant classes has caused social unrest, and that their new-found thoughts serve to distract them from paying their due rent, whilst the Little Monk regrets that the truth of Galileo’s discoveries will have the workers feeling “betrayed and deceived” by Holy Scripture and reluctant to continue to accept the authority of the Church. Sagredo sums up the political danger presented by Galileo and his ideas: “It’s a disastrous night when mankind sees the truth. And a delusive hour when it believes in human reason… How could the people in power give free rein to somebody who knows the truth?” Here we discover the reason underlying the persecution of the scientist and messenger of truth – it is not so much what he has to say, but to whom he chooses to reveal it. If Galileo had continued to write in Latin, a language beyond the comprehension of the lower classes, his ideas would have flourished amongst the educated and ensured the continuation of their authority. Instead, his teachings roused a revolution of thought amongst those who knew only “the orderliness of a bare cupboard, and necessity nothing but the need to work oneself to death”. Such was neither tolerated, nor forgiven.

This conclusion demonstrates that truth itself is not responsible for conflict, but the revelation of truth to those who may oppose the established structures of power inevitably leads to the persecution of individual advocates. In history, the popular movements of both Christianity and empirical reason were founded upon paradigmatic shifts in beliefs and society, yet it was the potential for changes and challenges to the exercise of control in society that prompted the powerful to respond with suppressive force. Brecht himself believed that great thinkers had a responsibility to lead such change, and was critical of those who, unlike himself, did not have the courage to engage in conflict that served a higher purpose or greater good. Is it better to be a live mouse, or a dead lion? Maybe instead it is enough to be part of the peaceful solution, and not part of the problem… I believe that in present day democracy in the Information Age we enjoy a liberal opportunity for informed dialogue, simply because in many cases we have moved beyond the individual circumstances of despair that create conflict, and so modern societies transcend the causes of conflict rooted in ignorance, poverty and inequality that used to typify society  Of course, I’m unfortunately wrong all too often!

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