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Power or Truth

My truth, your truth, our truth, THE truth … in this post-truth era of ‘alternative facts’, it would seem that the most needed commodity on the planet at the moment is the hardest to find.

People and societies are asking for a clear way through the many complex and challenging issues we face. Climate change, the rate of family violence, depression, dementia, obesity, slavery (aka. human trafficking), the degree of trust in governments and religious institutions, the ongoing intolerance and discrimination that occurs due to race, religion or gender, corporate greed, abuse of the elderly, to name but a few.

The list of issues and the many more not listed, suggests that we need a different approach or maybe we need a very, very old approach.

When the suggestion is made that a different approach is needed, it is easy to get general head nodding and agreement, but then the need to actual look at what we personally believe or the need to change what we personally do and the age-old battle between power and truth plays out … Here are two short examples, a few hundred years apart, to set the scene for the next part of this exploration.

Dr Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor who lived in the mid 1800s. He was concerned about the deaths of women who gave birth in the hospitals where he worked. He discovered that the hospitals where autopsy were also conducted had higher rates of death. Even though they did not know much about bacterial infection at the time, he implemented a regime of hand and equipment cleaning that led to the reduction in mortality rates of these women.

Today we take this understanding for granted and would scoff at any suggestion that this was anything but good practice, but the medical profession of the day did not take kindly to the suggestion that they may be somehow responsible for the death of their patients.

Power trumped truth and Dr Semmelweis was run out of town. In that moment where lives were on the line, those who had taken an oath to protect our well-being chose power over truth.

We might write this off as an issue from centuries ago but the reality is, the same thing happens today – the politicisation of climate change, the lobbying by the food industry against any changes to the levels of sugar in foods, the protection of sensationalistic journalism over reporting of facts and balance.

There are many more examples in modern times where evidence is dismissed, manipulated or simply vilified to avoid admitting an seemingly uncomfortable but simple truth … 'we got it wrong'. In many regards it’s no big deal, people make mistakes all the time; the adult option is to learn and move on, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Who hasn’t been involved in some kind of project where the ‘powers that be’ determine that something should be a certain way, yet all the evidence suggests that this is the wrong direction?

As a society we have placed more value in appeasing the power base than we have in building collective understanding. It is an approach that is exemplified by the adversarial models of the Westminster system, the legal system, and even the academic realms focus more on the rigorous defence/prosecution of an idea rather than collective understanding.

The basic premise makes sense: test your idea rigorously and the best ideas will survive. But when power and the need to be right get in the way, it becomes okay to bend the truth, to ignore or make up facts, to incite outrage and to stack the deck. One side takes I step away from truth and the other takes two. We justify it by saying that, if we don’t, the other side will, and in doing so give another crank to the flywheel that keeps things ticking along as they always have.

We glorify this adversarial approach in TV shows and continue to reward fear-based campaigns and media articles with our reactions and indignation. However, the community has become tired of being manipulated like this; but rather than change the systems that support this way of operating, the community is beginning to use the same strategies against the decision makers.

Organisation complain of less civility and genuine interest in understanding at public consultations. The public have gotten better at inciting and threatening those in power and the bullied have become the bullies. It makes community leadership a fraught position where it is fatal to have made a mistake in the past or show any glimpse of fallibility or uncertainty. Community leaders are pressed into the relentless demand for quick solutions that relieve and appease. Everyone wants an answer but no one wants to do the hard work that it takes to keep communities and organisations strong.

But humility, vulnerability and uncertainty are the hard work that makes communities strong. We need places for people to explore what they don’t know, we need places of humility where it is okay to start a conversation with ‘we’ve got it wrong’, rather than ‘this is why I am right’.

“The descent into right and wrong, is simply a sign of the absence of truth.” Liane Mandalis

The reality is, there is no magic bullet. No three step program that will bridge the divide. The principles that have underpinned quality conversation are not new, just not always followed; so here is a simple memory jogger:

  1. NO BLAME/NO FAULT: We all have thinking errors, biases and our own ‘power’ structures that we unconsciously protect. Truth is a humility that lies beyond those structures. There is such a thing as a unified truth and understanding that groups can arrive at, but only if arriving at that place is desired more than being right.

  2. LIVED EXPERIENCE IS EVIDENCE: Science is one form of evidence and has an important role to play, but our own lives and experiences are also evidence. What is felt is also evidence or at least a starting point for another way of understanding. If we only rely on scientific evidence and do not explore our lived experience, nothing new is tried and we end up in an intellectual battle, limiting our exploration of what is needed and what is possible.

  3. WE ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE: In any system we all have a role to play. Pointing fingers is the easy part, taking responsibility for our part is the doorway to understanding others and allows for others to explore their own role.

  4. GO TO THE BIG PICTURE: While there are many who stoke the fire of individuality, humans are social beings and do better as a collective. This means there is something to learn from each other in every problem or issue. We ignore this because it feels too big, but we don’t need to change the world before looking at the learning, we just need to look at the collective learning and apply #3 (personal responsibility) – we only change the world when we change our world.

Of course, there is more to say on all of these and more to explore … but at least we are having the conversation.


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