For when truth becomes subjective, nothing can be falsified.
Thoughts from Matthew Syed on Saturday, November 26 2022
As we inwardly curate our cosy truths, there’s a world outside in trouble
It’s easy to blame social media for polarising us, but a deeper shift has affected our whole way of thinking
The verb “to share” has undergone a subtle but intriguing transformation. For most of my lifetime the concept was “other-directed”: as one dictionary definition put it, to share is “to give some of (what one has) to someone else”.
Over the past few decades, however, the verb has taken on a new, inner-directed meaning, a point noted by the sociologist Robert Putnam.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it this way: to share is “to talk about one’s thoughts, feelings or experiences with others”.
I mention this because it hints at a deeper transformation in the way that people — particularly in the West — engage with the world. For most of the period since the scientific revolution, the emphasis was on external reality: measuring, engaging and transforming things to solve collective problems.
We had shared empirical standards and objective conceptions of truth, ideals that sat behind the transformation in economics and technology that created the modern world.
Over the past half-century, though, there has been what we might call an “inward turn”.
Our focus has shifted from the outer world to the inner self; from external reality to subjective feelings.
This can be seen in many areas, not least the explosion in the sales of self-help books in the 1970s and 1980s and the rise of the self-esteem movement in education during the same period. More recently, we have seen a transformation in photographic behaviour. At one point we took photos to remember events or vistas.
Now we take “selfies”: apparently no scene is considered worthy unless we are in it.
This self-directed focus influences other areas too. In their online lives people spend their time not learning about the world but instead presenting “curated selves” — posting snaps of their holidays and dinners; airbrushing pictures to make themselves look better. Indeed many are so focused on sharing (that word again) their own lives, they are seeing less of anyone else’s. The metaverse, with its virtual ecospheres and fictional identities, is likely to exacerbate this kind of digital navel-gazing, taking us ever further away from empirical reality.
One of the blind spots in historical analysis concerns psychology. We chronicle queens and kings, wars and famines, but not the subtle trends in the way people perceive and think about the world. And, as political crises swirl around us, a transformation is occurring in our minds. We cannot see it, cannot smell it, but it is arguably the most significant of change of all. The self has become the object of ever greater focus — and this is not merely influencing the way we take photographs and define words but affecting our politics and culture too.
The psychologist Jean Twenge, for example, has found that narcissistic personality traits have increased as rapidly as obesity since the 1980s: she calls this a “narcissism epidemic”.
Her data reveals growing levels of entitlement and a rising infatuation with fame — not achieving something worthy of fame, mind you, but fame itself. There is even a market today for fake paparazzi: people pay photographers to follow them around so they can feel like a celebrity. Perhaps her most striking finding is that whereas in 1950 just 12 per cent of American students agreed with the statement “I am a very important person”, by 1990 the figure had risen to 80 per cent — and it continues to grow. This shift towards self-aggrandisement, she argues, has made it more difficult to get along with others.
And this, in turn, might help to explain an otherwise perplexing transformation in political debate. We often think of polarisation as caused by social media, but that is to overlook the shift in psychology. For if my focus is inwardly directed and my self-esteem requires me to be right, will it not be more difficult to engage with other points of view? Won’t it make me more likely to feel offended when someone disagrees with my opinions?
The same tendency explains the rise in the use of the term “lived experience” — a search on Google’s Ngram service reveals this has taken off in the past decade. There is nothing wrong, of course, with bringing personal experience into discussion. Victims of sexism, for instance, have a vantage point that those who have never been targeted will never attain. The danger, though, comes when lived experience trumps data on matters of fact. If, say, the Duchess of Sussex claims that a member of the royal family expressed a racist slur, it isn’t enough for her to inwardly feel this to be true. The issue turns on the words that were actually uttered.
And this, I think, is where the inward turn has become perilous, taking us further away from shared reality.
Domains like critical race theory, which claims that racism is structurally embedded in society, are difficult to argue with, because criticism is said to violate the lived experience of minorities. These and other academic subjects that prioritise feelings above data are now being taught in universities in the UK and have even penetrated our schools.
In political debate I have noticed that instead of being asked, “What do you think?”, people are increasingly asked: “How do you feel?”
I can’t help wondering if Brexit is another manifestation of the inward turn. I guess I’m not alone in noticing how Leave voters use subjective feelings to justify their decision, even in the face of objectively worsening evidence. Yes, we may be poorer, they say, but we have “control” over our economic destiny. Yes, immigration may be higher, but we have “control” over our borders. But what’s the use of the mere “feeling” of control — notwithstanding the right to produce glossy new passports — when we are ever more subject to the vicissitude of external events?
I should perhaps note that the inward turn has had favourable consequences too. It is healthy that people are more aware of their inner feelings, voice and purpose. It is also wonderful that openness about mental illness is no longer stigmatised, as it was during the Victorian age. But the pendulum has swung so far the other way, it has started to destabilise us.
Society requires common ground, unifying institutions and shared standards of truth. We cannot debate without those things; cannot compromise; cannot reach consensus.
The inward turn has led to fragmentation: not just identity politics but echo chambers, thought silos and the rise of “alternative truth”.
For when truth becomes subjective, nothing can be falsified.
When we lose a common sense of reality, we become marooned on solipsistic islands, shouting across the barricades of our own, indubitable experiences.
Descartes argued that we can never be certain of anything beyond our own subjective selves. I always felt greater sympathy with Wittgenstein, who argued that language, science and truth can emerge only when we transcend the self and connect meaningfully with others. This is what ultimately led to the rise of western civilisation. It is why the inward turn, left unchecked, could one day destroy it.
Matthew Syed - Saturday November 26 2022, 6.00pm, The Sunday Times
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