Truths about truth

In this so-called post-truth era, many people seem to feel that truth is negotiable.  You can have your truth, she can have her truth, I can have my truth, and according to the common view in society today, they can all have equal validity even if they are mutually inconsistent and incompatible.

This is, of course, just lazy thinking that avoids the need to engage with other people’s ideas – their truth claims.

The world doesn’t work according to this “multiple truths” viewpoint.  I can’t go into my bank to withdraw $10,000 when the bank’s records show I have $150 in my account, even if my “truth” is that I have the full $10,000.

If I am driving and a police officer stops me to issue a fine for speeding dangerously, I can’t reply and claim “my truth is that I was driving safely”.  (Well, I can, but it won’t make any difference, because my “truth” is no more than an unjustified “opinion”).

Similarly, school leaders and boards have to operate in the real world where facts mean something.  Whether it is disciplining a student, dismissing a teacher, arranging a bank loan for a capital project, or responding to a media attack, the truth of the matter is central to sound decision-making.

In another article, I described the difference between correspondence truth and coherence truth.  School boards and leaders should understand the difference because it will almost invariably result in better decision-making.  Two (perhaps surprising) examples illustrate the difference.

The Boxer Rebellion in Beijing

Example 1: The Boxers of China

In 1898-1901, a group of nationalistic Chinese men known as the Boxers led a rebellion in Beijing (then Peking) to drive out foreigners.  They believed certain martial arts gestures made them immune to bullets.

They were wrong.

They found that immunity to bullets did not work very well in actual battle conditions.

Their belief was sincerely held, but that did not make it “truth”.  In their case, their belief was coherently true (because they all shared the common belief), but the belief did not correspond to reality.

Tariana man, Brazil

Example 2: The Tariana of Brazil

The Tariana people are found in the remote upper reaches of the Amazon River basin in Brazil.  Only about 100 people speak the Tariana language.

In Tariana, it is grammatically incorrect to make a statement without saying how you know it is true.  Because evidence of truth is required, this is known as evidentiality in a language.

Every sentence must contain a marker that indicates on what evidence the statement is based - such as whether the speaker saw it, or heard it, or inferred it from indirect evidence, or learned about it from someone else.

I cannot just say “the dog stole the fish”.  To speak proper Tariana, I must add a suffix to the end of the verb.....

If I actually saw the dog drag the fish over the grid of the fireplace, I would say “The dog stole ka the fish”. (ka means saw with my own eyes).

If I didn’t see the dog take the fish but I heard the noise of a fish falling from the grid, I would say “The dog stole ma-ka the fish”. (ma-ka means heard, smelled or tasted).

If I come into the kitchen and see the fish missing and the dog looking happy and well-fed, I would infer that the dog ate the fish and say “The dog stole ni-hka the fish”. (ni-hka means inferred on the basis of evidence I have seen personally).

If I come and the fish is gone, and my general knowledge says only dogs steal fish, I would say “The dog stole si-ka the fish”. (si-ka marks information made on general assumptions).

If someone else told me what had happened, then in reporting it I would say “The dog stole bi-di-ka the fish”. (bi-di-ka marks information as having been reported by someone else).

In almost every culture in the world, evidentiality is secondary information, but to the Tariana it is basic to communication and understanding.  The Tariana are compelled by their language to be precise in telling others how they know something.

When the Tariana speak, they cannot avoid conveying both correspondence and coherence truth.

Wouldn’t it be great if students and staff – and even board members – had obligatory evidentials and were compelled by the language they use to say how they know that their claim is true.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

To initiate a conversation about arranging a workshop on “Truth” for your board or school leadership team, send an e-mail to Stephen Codrington at [email protected].

In addition, we offer a range of workshops that address many matters relating to enhancing the quality of school leadership and board governance, including 11 NESA-approved workshops specifically tailored for schools in New South Wales.

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