Monday, September 27, 2010

Can the Truth Hurt?

President Obama has been getting so much criticism lately that one hesitates to pile on with any further critical commentary. However, there is something the President said last week, which seems to me emblematic of what passes for serious political and moral discourse these days

Asked about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that some segments within the U.S. government had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks (and that much of the world actually believes that), President Obama responded: “It was offensive. It was hateful. And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of ground zero, where families lost their loved ones — people of all faiths, all ethnicities, who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation — for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable.”

Of course, Ahmadinejad’s rant was offensive and hateful and inexcusable. But it was also untrue. Perhaps the President presumed that most sensible people already realized it was untrue and so that fact didn’t require repeating. But then I suspect that most sensible people probably also recognized Ahmadinejad’s statement as being offensive and hateful as well – and all the more so precisely because it is untrue.

Given that this is a case of words which were simultaneously both offensive and false, perhaps I am reading too much into the President’s remarks; but it strikes me as revealing – of something – that the emphasis seems to have fallen primarily on Ahmadinejad’s falsehood's offensiveness rather than on tis falsehood. Is this symptomatic of a way of thinking and speaking that is increasingly afraid of giving offense and is intensively offended by offensivensss, but seems less and less interested in the claim of truth?

It seems to me that something has happened in our moral language in recent decades that reflects a radical distortion in our way of thinking about things. Whether this reflects a widespread acceptance of an outright post-modern rejection of the possibility of objective truth or simply a decadent popular culture’s indifference to truth can be debated, but the practical result seems pretty much the same.

The consequence is increasingly evident in attempts to discuss moral matters, where a position (no matter how ancient and impressive its pedigree) can simply be dismissed as unacceptable because someone is offended by it (thereby freeing the one offended from having to confront alternative arguments and perhaps even reconsider his or her own position). It is certainly not a sign of a good and noble character to desire to be offensive. Ad hominem attacks, name-calling, dismissivenss of others’ motives and sincerity are always inappropriate. And, of course, many things that are offensive may also be demonstrably false. But surely there may be some things that are true that may also be offensive to some or even many people, and yet may need to be said if we are to see our way to moral clarity.

It’s purely a coincidence, but yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. I remember all four of those debates, but (like everyone else a that time) particularly remember the first one. As was noted at the time, many of those who listened to the first debate on the radio tended to consider Nixon the winner, while those who watched on TV considered Kennedy the winner. There was a lot of serious substance discussed in those historic encounters between two serious and qualified candidates, but the 1960 Presidential debates – and especially the first one – are primarily remembered in history as the triumph (thanks to TV’s new role) of style over substance.

It seems we have been sliding down this particular slippery slope for quite a while now.

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