• Kenneth Jacobs

When Truth Lags

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

The truth of a matter lags when we reflect upon events after the fact.

For instance, the harmful effects of CFCs were discovered in 1974, but it wasn't until after we discovered a hole in the ozone layer in 1985 that we acknowledged ozone layer depletion. That's more than a decade of reflection before the Montreal Protocol, to phase out the use of CFCs, in 1987. This is to say that it took more than a decade before the truth and consequence of a matter prevailed.

The fact that progress on issues like climate change is slow, and take too much time in retrospect, is due in part to a lack of effort on behalf of those not inflicted. Poor hearers are poor policy makers, not because of sensorineural hearing loss, but because they don't listen and seek-out those of whom they most definitely heard, even if only faintly. Good hearers are good policy makers because they cup their ears and make adjustments based on what is heard––just as you or I would when we hear the cries of our family members and friends.

The fact that climate change is a human problem is more true today than any days prior. But that truth still lags, however, when only 23% of republicans with "high" science knowledge believe climate change is due to human activity.

The truth of a matter lags because truth is often retroactive; it takes hearing, reflecting, and judging, which so often happen after oppressive institutions have already been in full effect. William James put it this way:

"Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas" (p. 222).

Experience "boils over" when the oppressed make hearers out of family, friends, acquaintances, and eventually policy makers. #MeToo is the product of a boiling over and it is correcting our present "formulas"––about what is acceptable and not acceptable––by making hearers out of men. The #MeToo movement is defining what is true––good, bad, right, or wrong––by reflecting upon the actions of its oppressors and by judging the consequences of their actions.

Truth is retroactive, then, in the sense that those not inflicted by oppressive agents and institutions are latecomers; they don't experience the boiling over until it is already too late. The oppressive agents and institutions are poor hearers, and for that reason, the harm has already been done. When reformative movements callout the perpetrators of oppression, it is for the purposes of correcting the heinous acts that those perpetrators have institutionalized. We must look back on actions already taken, so we can reflect on their consequences and determine what is true today.

Truth happens to ideas, and certain aspects of revealing the truth remain retroactive because the judgements of our own actions and the actions of others are often in hindsight. Hindsight, however, may not be the only means of securing what is right. Vigilance is another means by which we can steer toward actions with consequences that are true for many and not just one (click here for the problem of personal truths). John Dewey seems to have made reference to vigilance as keeping ends-in-view. That is to say, if our means of attaining some such ends come at a cost to those around us, then we must make change now, in the present. We must keep our actions in check by cupping our ears and listening.