“Truth speaks to power in many tones of voice.” –James A. Smith
This quotation comes from Smith’s 1991 book “The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of a New Policy Elite,” published by the Free Press. Smith’s point is that because of the large number of think tanks, some closely affiliated with governments, others more academic, and because of the wide variety of what today we would call their missions, the “truth” that the think tanks come up with also varies widely—from quite liberal or progressive to quite conservative, with biases and interests shaped by ideology, affiliation with corporations or political parties, and other factors. All of them hope that their research and reports will influence the policy decisions of local, state, or federal governments. Hence, they all have their truths which they speak to power, but in different tones, or better, different voices.
Many readers will recognize that Smith owes his phrasing to the more commonly known phrase, “speak truth to power,” which, as best we know, was first coined by the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), and popularized by the Quakers in a 1955 book on nonviolence and resistance to war mongering (Rustin was raised a Quaker). Rustin and the Quakers intended to stir citizens, especially the citizens who were neglected by the power structures of the day, to rise up and courageously challenge the power of the elites with their truth. The assumption being that there is a truth to speak, but there is also the implication that truth and power are in opposition, an implication that is perfectly understandable in the contexts of the early civil rights movement as well as of the perennial and senseless wars that characterized so much of the same period. The civil rights movement during the 1960s was contemporary to the Vietnam War, and protests against the first often entailed protests against the second, and vice versa.
Given this history, Smith’s rewrite of the phrase, from “speak truth to power” to speaking “truth to power in many different tones of voice” has an element of irony, especially since Smith’s book is about a certain kind of elite, university trained policy experts, speaking truth to another elite, powerful politicians: presidents, cabinet secretaries, senators, governors, and so forth. It kind of upends Rustin’s original idea. But it also raises an interesting, one might even say a philosophical, idea: If there are so many different voices speaking, each of which purports to be the truth, what is the truth?
It certainly suggests that truth is subjective and relative, that cultural, political, class, and other factors strongly influence what an individual considers to be true and what he or she considers to be false. Which further suggests either that perhaps there is a truth but it is obscured by subjective factors, or that ultimately there is no final truth—therefore, that there is no such thing as truth at all. There are some who favor the latter suggestion, on certain grounds, such as that, there being no god, and therefore no final or authoritative arbiter of truth, and that, human beings being the product of evolution sans teleology, one should not expect our limited brains to be able to discover a final truth. Thinkers of this school might further point out that ultimate truth might be both undesirable and even dangerous (they would have history on their side in this argument). Truth is whatever the human brain can construct, and is not our there to be discovered (say, by observation or meditative insight). They would also point out the social aspects of truth.
For example, many people believe in God and structure their lives and values around that belief. They make choices, including political ones, according to what they know to be God’s will. Other people believe in no god at all, and are convinced that the first group is completely deluded. Occasionally, someone will cross from one group to the other, but ordinarily people cling to their original beliefs. The occasional staged debates between an atheist and a believer are generally pointless as anything but spectacles because each side is so confidant of its truth that they barely hear each other. The same can be said about political identities. For in a social sense, to deny the truth of a group is to exile oneself from that group—family, friends, community, etc.
There are, of course, certain objective “truths,” certain facts that only a madman or an ignoramus would deny. Water is H2O, i.e., two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Oxygen is necessary to human life; carbon monoxide is poisonous. And so on. The problem of objective truth does not arise in the realm of simple facts such as these; they arise in the realm of what is called “data”—both in what is included in the databank and how it is collected, and in how it is interpreted. This is where we get to the heart of Smith’s point: those tones of voice are different because they have collected different data or arranged it differently, or they have the same data but are interpreting it differently according to the perspective of their ideologies, their goals or motives, or their class interests, etc.
For example, currently (February of 2016), the Apple Corporation is in a legal tussle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over unlocking the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. This is not the place to argue the relative merits of both sides of the battle, but the situation shows that while the facts of the situation are known, the right thing to do is not. Nevertheless, Tim Cook is absolutely sure that he is right, and James Comey is sure that he is right. But why do they disagree? Likely because their professions and their life experiences, their beliefs and values, direct them to one or the other position. Yet these two powerful men are certain of their truth, and frankly, there is no objective way to reconcile their contradictory beliefs. What it really boils down to is preference—for security, or for privacy, neither of which is to be found carved into a stone waiting to be discovered on some isolated mountaintop. Nor can we hope that by clearing away the obscuring subjective factors we will be able to discover the underlying truth. This is not like clearing away age-old superstition to discover that malaria is caused not by effluvia[i] but by a mosquito-borne micro-organism (an objective fact). Clearing away the obscuring subjective factors will reveal nothing.
[i] Actually, the theory that effluvia, odors from swamps and other kinds of standing water, caused malaria and other diseases is not an example of a real superstition but of objective error. People were intelligent and observant enough to notice that malaria was more common in wet, swampy areas than in dry areas, so as a bit of inductive reasoning it was not unreasonable to conclude that disease could be caused by breathing bad air. It was an error because they did not yet have knowledge of micro-organisms; once they were discovered, it was easy for people to correct their objective knowledge and to take practical steps to combat infectious diseases. Subjective falsehoods are far more difficult to correct.