The Value of Truth (Codex Vagus: essay 08)

Teachers and professors around the world attest that their best students tend to be Asians, and a healthy portions of them are of Chinese extraction. In fact, Asians, and Chinese in particular, are deemed model immigrants in many parts of the world. The first generation may come as manual laborers, but by the third generation they become business owners, professors, doctors, lawyers, and high earning professionals of all kinds. This is widely attributed to Chinese culture of placing value on scholastic achievement, as well as respect for order and authority. But people who have worked in China complain of rampant dishonesty, widespread corruption, collapse of civic order, and absence of community morals. How can it be that Chinese immigrants become model citizens in other first world countries, yet people in China be entirely the opposite? And this is not a phenomenon limited to China. Most of Asia is corrupt and stagnant countries with crumbling societies in spite of being populated with diligent, studious, law-abiding people. They make great immigrants, but their home countries are a mess.

Codex Vagus is the title I gave to essays unrelated to creative writing on this blog.

Codex Vagus: essay 08

Amartya Sen is an Indian economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. He found that nations with freedom of speech with “openness of communication and argument” did not suffer from famines. Conversely, in areas where informed and unregimented formation of values are not allowed, famines tend to occur.

Sen’s studies center around famines, but it also applies to economic collapse and loss of wars. Japan before and during WWII not only flooded the country with military propaganda and isolated the island nation against news from abroad, but also limited whose voices could be heard by whom. One of the most self-destructive result of this was that the Yagi antenna – invented by Shintaro Uda and Hidetsugu Yagi in Japan – was not funded or adopted by the authorities of Japan, even though this was the component that made radar possible. The Japanese navy suffered monumental losses due to the inability of the government to listen to its own people.

There is pervasive myth that dictators, who do not have to worry about elections and polls, have an advantage over democratically elected leaders who must concern themselves with the most immediate pressures of power struggle. We tend to think that savvy dictators can play the geopolitical game like chess and plan far ahead because they do not have to worry about re-elections. But when people climb the ladder to power, fewer and fewer people will talk hard truths to them and more and more will tell them what they want to hear. When this is coupled with tendency of dictatorial governments to engage in propaganda and suppress open dialogue, the top man will eventually trapped in the falsehood echo chamber of his own making. Hence, the dictator ends up living in a fantasy world divorced from objective facts.

But government suppression of open dialogue is not the only thing that can result in calamity. The collapse of the Japanese real estate bubble in 1990, the Dot Com Bubble in 2001, and the subprime mortgage bubble in 2008 were preceded by unwarranted hubris and irrational exuberance that drowned out voices of reason. Likewise, revolutionary fervor, popular excitement, and – in no small part – peer pressure to adhere to accepted doctrine silenced voices of reason during the French Reign of Terror and the Cultural Revolution. Recently, consolidation of mass media by a few large conglomerates, corporate sponsored astroturfing, and algorithm-driven social media are all obstructing free thought and civil discourse. Taboos can also silence reason. When some people are exempt from criticism due to their high or low social class, majority or minority racial status, conventional or alternative gender status, this hinders open discussion. A taboo to discuss bad behavior by a minority transgender person is equally obstructive as a taboo to discuss the warts of a regal monarch. Extreme partisanship dichotomy can also ruin open discussion. When you cannot discuss the health issues involving obesity without being iron branded as a fat-shamer or a science denier, or the intricacies of vaccination without being sorted as either an anti-vaxxer or a science worshipper, or socio-economic issues without choosing between runaway socialism and terminal capitalism, then open dialogue is effectively obstructed. Commercial incentives for non-disruptive ideas also help drown out actual problem solving discussion.

Powerful corporate leaders, billionaire power elites, movie producers, religious cult leaders, and even civil activist leaders can fall into the same trappings as dictators. They become surrounded by the echo chambers of what they want to hear until they have no other option than to believe their own lies – given that they have no exposure to truths that contradict their beliefs. Dictators hold sway over entire nations. Other forms of leadership is of no less importance. Some corporations have more economic presence than the small countries typically ruled by dictators. And some billionaires have more influence on the world than obscure kings. The number of billionaires who sent men into space rival the number of nations that did the same.

It is the nature of governments to tighten control and exercise authority in times of crises. The powers bestowed to governments in times of distress tend to become precedents and become permanent. Thus, governments in general grow oppressive over time. Powerful capitalists have a penchant for shaping discourse in a way that suits them. Peer pressure has a great silencing effect to non-conformists. Taboos sprout naturally like weeds. Algorithm based media is here to stay. And people have a tendency to form into opposing radical groups because it is easier to blame all the problems on the opposing group rather than to listen to the other side and hammer out solutions. Free speech, open dialogue, constructive discussion, and fact based arguments are always in a state of peril.

Societies have a way of devolving into chaos when factual truth is hidden from it, whether they are national societies ruled by governments, corporate entities, religious organizations, or privately owned think tanks. When problems are hidden from view and solutions are not contributed from a wide range of perspectives, terrible things happen. Asian societies tend to have a cultural proclivity to favor universal agreement over chaotic cacophony, obedience over dissent, courtesy over straight talk. Many Asians know that this is a dangerous state of affairs. Few have spoken out. Fewer are listened to. In recent years, this has become less an Asian-specific problem and more a world wide problem.

In the West, however, where dire problems like famine are not clear and present dangers, people tend to underestimate the gravity of the situation. Truth is not an abstract concept. Open dialogue is not a formality. Free speech is the lifeline of a stable and prosperous society. And free speech within a nation may be insufficient when a large and powerful group of people – stock brokers, say – share the same views. And the end result is a society where famine, literally or figuratively, will become the order of the day.

One thought on “The Value of Truth (Codex Vagus: essay 08)

  1. Fair observation, though as a friend, I still remember the day when you yourself took my questioning of vaccines/pharmaceutical companies as an opportunity to label me an anti-vaxxer. But at least I now get where that came from.

    And, I agree the West (particularly the US) is heading down this path. Nuance seems lost and that’s a shame.

    Liked by 1 person

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