In the early twentieth century, the philosophy of logical positivism swept the academia and some of its tenets became absorbed into popular culture. Even though it was later proven wrong, it continues to deeply influence our ways of thinking about the world we live in. According to this philosophy, all valid human knowledge is based solely on facts and logic, with no room for subjective elements like intuition or feelings. We will trace just one among the many consequences that resulted from widespread acceptance of this philosophy in the early twentieth century.
Any collection of facts can be put together in many different ways to create a narrative. For example, the heartbreaking story narrated from the Red Indian perspective in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee differs dramatically from the dominant story of conquest over savages. Rhetoric is the art of putting together facts into a persuasive and coherent narrative. Skill in this art was much admired, and the subject was taught in universities until the early 20th century. However, the positivist idea that facts by themselves are enough, led to the misconception that rhetoric was involved in the distortion of facts and deceiving people by mis-representing them. Thus rhetoric went from being a valuable skill and a virtue to a vice: rhetoric came to mean the use of empty words and emotional appeals to override facts.
Many of the deepest truths about human existence are paradoxical. For example, ‘the glass is half empty’ reflects a truth about a shortcoming and encourages us to strive for completion and fullness. At the same time, ‘the glass is half full’ encourages us to appreciate what we have and avoid poisoning our hearts by focusing on scarcity and what we lack. Understanding the simultaneous truth, relevance and importance of opposing points of view is essential. Such an understanding is blocked by the positivist view that meaningful sentences must be either true or false.
To illustrate the necessity of understanding multiple narratives, consider Cecil Rhodes’ (1902) view: “We are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” According to the imperialist narrative, Rhodes took up the ‘white man’s burden’, suffering through exile and struggling and sacrificing to bring the benefits of civilisation to the savages of Africa. Numerous statues, plaques and buildings bearing his name, honour the remarkable achievements of one of England’s national heroes, who became one of the richest men on the planet as a result of his exploits.
An altogether different narrative is available from former Rhodesians, who renamed their country as soon as they could do so. The Pan-Africanist Congress in January 2002 argued that “the problems which were being blamed on [President Robert] Mugabe were created by British colonialism, whose agent Cecil Rhodes used armed force to acquire land for settlers”. Rhodes “preferred land to niggers” and acquired a fortune using immoral and unscrupulous methods. He used this fortune to fund a private invasion of East Africa. He bought newspapers in order to shape and control public opinion. He brokered secret deals, issued bribes and used gangs of mercenaries to butcher his opponents, seizing close to a million square miles of territory from the native inhabitants.
To try to decide which of the narratives is true is to completely miss the point I am trying to make. It is an indisputable fact that large numbers of sincere and honest men have held the story of the ‘white man’s burden’ to be a simple fact, an objective understanding of a harsh reality. This belief has shaped their actions. Edward Said’s monumental book, Orientalism, explores how European literature has been distorted by the necessity to justify colonialism and imperialism. From the African viewpoint, the imperialist narratives are hypocritical lies, invented to provide cover for greedy land grabs and for justifying ruthless massacres. But if this is so, we would fail to understand why a people who favour justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, honour Rhodes as a national hero. To understand history, we must simultaneously understand both stories, directly opposite to each other, as being the ‘truth’ to different groups of people.
A partisan who has internalised a narrative finds it difficult to conceive of the possibility that there exist other ways of looking at the world. Understanding the simultaneous truth of conflicting narratives is a difficult challenge, and yet this is a crucial pre-requisite for developing tolerance. A cinematic illustration of this concept is presented in the classic Japanese movie Rashomon, which presents four different narratives woven around exactly the same collection of facts. Manly heroism in one version is abject cowardice in the other; chastity in one is carnal heat in the other; magnanimity in one is brutality in the other; and so on. Perhaps, the Japanese are better attuned to this art because of a cultural practice: meditation on Zen Koan forces one to contemplate, struggle with, and try to make sense out of the paradoxical, such as ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’
The idea that the same collection of facts can be validly interpreted in radically different ways, leading to a multiplicity of ‘truths’ has startling implications. Yale professor Maria Rosa Menocal, in The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, documents how tolerance dictated by Islamic laws led to peaceful coexistence with mutual respect and learning for each other for seven centuries in Islamic Spain. Very significantly, long-standing tolerance was “profoundly rooted in the cultivation of the complexities, charms and challenges of contradictions”. This narrative is dramatically in conflict with the dominant narrative of an Islamic history of narrow-minded intolerant bigotry, as exemplified by the Islamic State, Boko Haram or the TTP. Our modern education leads us to believe in a single objective truth, and worse, that we are the sole possessors of this truth. Anyone who disagrees with us is automatically an irrational lunatic or worse. Creation of tolerance desperately needed in today’s world requires moving beyond binary logic, towards understanding the paradox of the simultaneous truth of opposing narratives.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2015.