Do Better: Truth and Good as Process

6 August 2020

In our societies, the Good and the True are ultimate values. They are ideals we strive for and the primary standards by which we judge people and claims. There are good and bad people; we praise the former and condemn the latter. Some people are right, and others are wrong. We believe and listen to those that speak the truth, and we call “fake news” when others spread falsities. According to this perspective, learning and growing have merely instrumental value, as means of reaching those end goals.


What would happen if, as individuals and as a society, we started focusing more on growing rather than being good, and on learning rather than being right?


The American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) invites us to think in terms of processes rather than fixed ends. His theory of knowledge is a theory of inquiry, the activity by which we come to know, rather than a theory of what it means to have knowledge. Dewey has much less to say about the nature of truth itself than about the way we test, revise and verify our beliefs. In a similar way, his moral philosophy does not state what defines a good person, what our duties are, nor which moral principles are universal. Instead, he presents a view of the “moral self” based on the recognition that “it is impossible for the self to stand still; it is becoming, and becoming for the better or the worse.” Morality is located in the “quality of becoming” rather than in the degree of approximation to a fixed moral ideal: “Growth itself is the only moral ‘end.’” The task of moral philosophy is to provide a theory of moral deliberation in which standards and principles act as guides for navigation in a complex moral life, rather than rules to be applied.


One might wonder: what practical difference could this shift of focus possibly make? We learn and we inquire in order to get hold of the truth, we grow and we try to do better in order to become good. Worse still, if we lose sight of these goals, the process will lose its direction and we will be content with less: with beliefs that are justified but might still be false, with becoming a little less mediocre everyday rather than being genuinely good.


However, there are reasons to think that this shift of focus could make an important and valuable difference.


In a society which values “being right” and “speaking the truth” over and above inquiring and learning, we are ashamed of admitting that we are wrong and of changing our minds. If we want to be right, and think we are right, we will prefer holding on to our opinions rather than consider the possibility that we might be wrong, even (or especially) when faced with contrary evidence. Yet, what is more rational than to change one’s mind in the face of contrary evidence? The problem is this: questioning one’s beliefs amounts to admitting that, right now, one is not in possession of the truth. So we let the powerful “confirmation bias” do its work for us, and all new information is filtered so as to comfort ourselves in thinking that, yes, we definitely know the truth, while others are ignorant. Likewise, if we think we are already good, why should we make any effort to become better? Becoming better is for those who are not good enough. The result is bigotry: intolerance with regard to other people’s opinions or values and, more importantly, complete unwillingness to question oneself. Hence the paradox: a society whose core values are truth and goodness will tend to foster irrational and bigoted attitudes.


When the focus is shifted from truth and goodness as fixed ends to the process itself, it is no longer shameful but honorable to admit that we made a mistake, and that we could do better. It does not mean that we are ignorant or bad (other static terms), but that we are still in the process of learning and growing—like everyone else. The result is an anti-dogmatic attitude in which we constantly check ourselves, listen to others, learn new facts, and never assume that we are fully “there” yet.


This idea is at the heart of the messages of anti-racist and LGBTQ+ movements addressed to privileged people, enjoining them to adopt a self-critical attitude in order to grow. One of the mottos of the Black Lives Matter movement on social media is “Listen, Learn, Amplify, Act.” People who think that they are “not racist” and are among the “good ones” are told that anti-racism is not a passive and static state of mind, but an active commitment to improve, learn, and educate others (you can replace “racist” by other terms such as “transphobic” or “homophobic”).


While this remains the core message of various movements, it is possible to distinguish between two tendencies in current activism, one attitude being in line with the “process view,” while the other is still marked by the perspective focused on fixed ends. An argument can be made for the counter-productive effects of the latter.


According to Dewey, the process view focused on growth “makes one severe in judging [oneself] and humane in judging others. It excludes that arrogance which always accompanies judgment based on degree of approximation to fixed ends.” This means at least two things: the critical attitude needs to be applied to oneself, and other human beings should be seen as growing—or at the very least as having the potential to grow. Here are a few ways in which the differences between the two strands manifest themselves.


First, we tend to forget that an “expert” on a topic is not the voice of Truth, but rather someone who has inquired and verified their claims, and who considers the warranted status of their claims as responsive to evidence, reasons and arguments. You can educate others while admitting that you are yourself still learning. One example of such an attitude is British actress and activist Jameela Jamil, who calls herself a “feminist-in-progress.” On her Instagram page and in her podcast “I Weigh,” she listens to experts and shares her own knowledge with the assumption that everyone is learning.


Second, it is important to distinguish between “checking” and condescending. It is one thing to remind everyone that efforts in the fight for justice need to be continuous and that there is always room for improvement; it is another to make snide comments about white people for not posting about racial injustices on social media, then for posting on social media for two weeks, then for not going to the demonstrations, then for going to one demonstration only, and so on. The difference between the two is that in the latter attitude, white people are not so much given pointers for improvement as morally condemned for diverging from the unachievable ideal of the “perfect ally”—and usually any degree of divergence counts as being a cog in the oppressive system. The counter-productive result is discouragement: the message that comes across is that as a white person, you will never be a good enough ally. Instead, if one considers growth itself as the basis for moral judgment and as the only moral “end,” as Dewey suggests, individuals are judged on the basis of who they were yesterday, not how far they still have to go; they are told what they can do to do better, not denigrated for what they haven’t done yet. This attitude makes evolution and action much more likely to happen: “It is the next step which lies within our power.”


Finally, it is worth reflecting on the word “accountability,” which comes up frequently in response to criticisms and worries about “cancel culture” and public shaming. People losing their jobs or receiving verbal abuse online as a result of transphobic or racist comments are seen as forms of accountability. However, there are two very different ways of holding someone accountable for their actions. On the more static view (focused on fixed ends), the sole purpose of accountability is to punish someone for the harm they have done, and maybe make an example of them. On the “process” view advocated by Dewey, “one is held responsible in order that [they] may become responsible, that is, responsible to the needs and claims of others, to the obligations implicit in [their] position.” One could say that the first leads to public shaming and “cancel culture” while the second leads to “call out culture.” Here is how Jameela Jamil explains the difference between the two: “Calling out means pointing out someone’s mistake, condemning it if it is harmful to others and demanding someone does better. Cancelling means ‘de-platforming’ someone and calling for their job and position of power to be entirely taken away, often for the foreseeable future.” The second leaves no room for growth. If you choose to condemn someone’s words or actions, then you are also responsible for the way it is done, according to Dewey: “Those who hold others accountable for their conduct are themselves accountable for doing it in such a manner that this responsiveness develops.”


Let’s take two concrete examples. After posting a tweet perceived by many as transphobic (in which she implicitly equates womanhood with the biological reality of menstruation), J.K. Rowling received thousands of hateful messages and “threats of violence”, some of them calling her “cunt and bitch” or for her “books to be burned,” according to the blog post she wrote in the aftermath. While she was not “cancelled” (she did not lose her book deal with Hachette), the verbal abuse she received is in no way based on the assumption that she can learn, but on her portrayal as an evil TERF (short for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”). Aside from the evident fact that J.K. Rowling is unlikely to change her opinion from receiving insults, it creates a hostile climate in which individuals less powerful than her are afraid to speak out, except in the intimacy of groups that they know share the same opinions. Yet, if they don’t speak out, they cannot be corrected. Compare this backlash with the open letter written by trans activist and model Munroe Bergdorf to Baroness Nicholson (who misgendered her and called her a “weird creature,” among other things), in which Bergdorf points out the Baroness’s mistakes and calls for a “conversation.”


Some might respond that many people are simply not willing to learn and grow, in which case it is then justified to resort to attacks and punishments, instead of wasting time trying to reason with them. This was perceived to be the case with J.K. Rowling, who had already posted similar comments in the past and who in her blog post presents herself as having done and finished her learning.


However, there are reasons to think—and even empirical evidence to show—that persistence is key. The shift of culture from static values to learning and growing needs time and effort. Here is a hypothesis worth pursuing: regardless of the person’s apparent unwillingness to grow, talking to them as if they were already listening, as if they wanted to learn and grow, has the potential to make all the difference. The validity of this hypothesis has been corroborated by a study published in Science in 2016. While calling people “racist,” “transphobic,” or “bigots” is unlikely to produce any positive change (and even more likely to make them dig in their heels), door-to-door canvassing has been shown to “markedly reduce prejudice” for the medium to long term. The method consisted in approaching subjects who initially expressed prejudiced opinions with regard to trans people and engaging in an “approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others.” Instead of responding to transphobic slurs with accusations of bigotry, canvassers (sometimes themselves trans people) patiently asked them to give reasons for their beliefs and exposed counterarguments. This seems to be the method chosen by Munroe Bergdorf. In her letter, she expresses a justified skepticism with regard to the sincerity of the Baroness’s apology. But instead of giving up and calling for her “cancellation,” she wants to have a conversation in the hope that it will produce a genuine change of opinion. In short, the change you are hoping for is more likely to operate if you work on the assumption that it can take place.


The problem is that this method requires a lot of energy and patience. The anger, frustration, and exhaustion of people from minority groups—who face violence in their daily life and on social media—can explain why this approach is rarely undertaken. (This is perhaps where the role of “allies” becomes most important in providing support.) Some opinions can kill, and this is why they can never become acceptable. But patient conversation is not mutually exclusive with calling out someone’s harmful words or behaviour. Anyone who is able to do so should try the experiment themselves: have a conversation with someone you consider a bigot online or in real life. If you take a condescending tone and tell them how ignorant, racist, or transphobic they are, you will most likely gain nothing but new insults. If you acknowledge what they are saying, enjoin them to take a different perspective, and give arguments and evidence that counter the validity of their ideas, they might start to listen. Does this sound too optimistic? You will probably not convince them this time around, but if this conversation has made them at least begin to consider the possibility that they might be wrong—and more importantly, that they are still learning, as we all are—then you will have gained everything.


Photo credit: Jason Hargrove via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


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