Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy -- Truth and Falsity 


Citation: Kenneth Cloke. Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy.  GoodMedia Press. 2018, pages 20-25.

Ken Cloke wrote Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy, which was published by GoodMedia Press in 2018.  It is a fabulous book, stock full of ideas about better ways of engaging in politics that will help save our democracy--and that of others.  While we obviously cannot post the whole book on Beyond Intractability, Ken generously gave us permission to post several sections, one of which follows below.  The other excerpts, and a link to the book's page on GoodMedia Press (where you can buy the whole book for just $24.95!) are immediately below. 


Buy the Book | Table of Contents 

ExceprtsIntroduction | Power, Rights, and Interests | Truth and Falsity | Meditative, Interest-Based Approaches to Political Conflicts | Power, Rights, & Interests in Political Discussions | 20 Ways to Talk about Political Differences, | Algorithm for Political Dialogue | Global Pandemics, National Borders and Political Problem Solving



This excerpt is from the Introduction, Chapter 1, pages 20-25.


It is typical for political advocates on opposing sides to label each other’s factual claims as false, or more recently as “fake news,” and dismiss entirely what they have experienced as obviously and irrefutably untrue. Even the most rigorous fact-checking, however, seemingly fails to convince anyone, or change their minds or political conclusions in the slightest. In mathematics, where there is far greater clarity about what can be proven to be true and false than in politics, Godel’s “Incompleteness Theorem” nonetheless holds that, within certain mathematical systems, there are true statements that cannot be proven, together with false statements that cannot be disproven within the system, forcing truth and falsity to lie at least partly outside the realm of provability. In response, mathematician Ian Stewart writes:

Classical logic, with its sharp distinctions between truth and falsity, with no middle ground, is two-valued. Godel’s discovery suggests that for mathematics, a three-valued logic would be more appropriate: true, false, or undecidable.

A similar three-valued or “multi-valued logic” would be equally appropriate in discussing a number of political differences. “Paraconsistent” forms of logic, for example, offer ways of assessing statements that are both true and false, and would be described as paradoxical in traditional logic. Dov Gabbay at King’s College, London, for instance, is attempting to develop rules for reasoning that capture emotional arguments, including those that arise in political conflicts.

As an illustration, in politics, there are factual assertions, such as: “President Obama was born in Kenya,” that can easily be proven to be false, while the underlying reasons these statements became popular and gained a wide audience: i.e., the view of a Black President as “foreign,” or the desire to diminish his power and popularity by labeling him as inferior without using explicitly racist epithets that might be more easily dismissed, can be regarded as at least tactically and emotionally true.

Yet the fundamental political issues that separate left and right and gave rise to this demonstrably factually false assertion — the issue, for example, of what course the United States ought to follow with regard to race, abortion, immigration, gun control, climate change, same sex marriage or any proposal for action, must be regarded as far more complex, multidimensional and difficult to decide than a simple separation into true and false facts will allow.

Similarly, though equally controversially, global warming, climate change and human contributions to both through the use of fossil fuels, CO2 and methane emissions, deforestation, and similar activities have been scientifically verified by innumerable in-depth studies; yet again, the underlying reasons for their denial, including financial contributions to politicians by fossil fuel companies, dependence on automobiles, distrust of science, and similar factors require deeper dialogues and more complex conversations.

Indeed, it is the very complexity of social problem-solving and political decision-making that gives rise to the desire for simplistic, adversarial solutions. The conversion of complex problems into simple scapegoating assertions allows people to channel their rage and confusion into authoritarianism, war, genocide and adversarial political practices. As Adolf Hitler wrote, without apology:

I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them. … I, on the other hand, reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me.

The simplest way we describe any conflict or problem is: “It doesn’t exist.” The second simplest is: “It’s your/his/her/their fault.” The third simplest is: “It isn’t true/clear/proven.” And the fourth is: “It’s been/being taken care of.” If we try to disprove any of these assertions factually — not just politically, but in any conflict, we rapidly discover that we have slipped into a self-defeating, non-disprovable argument, one that turns in a vicious circle, forcing us to realize that the desire to deny that there are problems, or find someone to blame, or disregard them as untrue, or assume someone else will handle them are far more convincing than logical or rational discourse concerning a complex set of facts.

Yet, in response to “birther,” “climate change denial,” “flat earth” and similarly untrue and illogical assertions, it is possible to direct people’s attention to, and openly discuss, the underlying emotional truths that are revealed metaphorically in the reasons they offer, and in the precise accusations and “factual” allegations that typically pepper their adversarial communications. We can invite them into more nuanced, complex exchanges in which these assertions, which never last and are hard to pin down long enough to be refuted, are simply bypassed in favor of deeper, more “truthful” conversations about the concerns that gave rise to them, without surrendering scientific accuracy or legitimizing falsehoods. The danger is that we can easily slip into a “pseudo-dialogue” that presents, for example, round and flat earth ideas, or evolution and “intelligent design,” as equally factual, when scientific truth unambiguously establishes that only one of them is true. Yet beneath these controversies lies a hostile attitude toward science that exaggerates emotional truths and places them on the same level as scientific truth, whereas facts and feelings are fundamentally different and require their own unique form of dialogue to discover what is true with respect to each. (For more on “varieties of truth,” see my book, Conflict Revolution: Designing Preventative Systems for Chronic Social, Economic and Political Conflicts.)

Exaggeration, in all conflict conversations, is used to communicate the priority and personal importance of emotional, as opposed to factual truths, so that if we are offered a choice between factual accuracy and emotional accuracy in telling a conflict story, we will nearly always opt for emotional accuracy, because it is only emotionally compelling stories that induce empathy and allow others to easily understand what we felt happened, and why we are so upset.

Consider, for example, commonly used phrases, like “You always,” and “You never,” to which the other person nearly always counters with “Yes I do,” or “No I don’t,” which are denials and not at all the responses we were looking for. As a result, we can realize that these statements were not meant to be factually correct, but instead can be understood as consisting of a combination of two statements:

  1. You are doing this too often/too little for me; and
  2. I am getting seriously emotionally upset about the number oftimes this has happened, and the fact that you haven’t heard or responded to my requests to do it less/more often, so I am going to exaggerate how often you do it so you will understand that I am upset and respond to my emotional request, rather than to the factual assertion that justifies it

The difficulty, of course, is that the words “You always,” and “You never,” are heard as accusations, factual assertions and adversarial responses, prompting denials, counter-assertions and counteraccusations. It is possible, however, for mediators to tease apart these statements and ask questions that invite the underlying meaning of the assertion to be expressed, acknowledged and addressed. For example, we can see that, merely by using these words, we have:

  • Camouflaged our requests as statements of fact
  • Exaggerated the truth
  • Stereotyped the other person as unreasonable
  • Not taken responsibility for communicating our needs Ignored others’ needs, explanations, or reasons for acting in their own self-interest
  • Failed to accurately describe what we really want from others Missed opportunities to become vulnerable and invite others into more intimate conversation and relationship
  • Suggested that it is not acceptable to express deeper emotions directly
  • Infused frustration and disappointment into the conversation
  • Converted desire into anger and hurt feelings into annoyance Missed opportunities to collaboratively negotiate the satisfaction of mutual needs and diverse interests
  • Created a source of chronic conflict within our relationship

Even with simple assertions like these, it is possible to avoid getting caught up in assessing the truth or falsity of pseudo-factual statements, for example, by separating factual from emotional communications, identifying what is taking place beneath the surface, clarifying the consequences that flow from using that form of communication, reframing the statement to avoid misunderstanding, acknowledging both parties’ emotions, surfacing their underlying interests, inviting apologies and deeper acknowledgments, etc.

These techniques help people gain perspective on their problems, pinpoint their underlying sources, invite them to work together to solve them, and prevent future conflicts from occurring. Mediators routinely do this in cases of interpersonal misunderstandings and miscommunications, and we can see how these techniques might easily be adapted to shift political conversations as well.

Indeed, emotionally charged distortions of facts can be found in nearly every political argument, and a similar set of interventions can allow us to bypass what merely appear to be factual assertions, but are actually emotional markers and requests, indicating that there is some issue the speaker cares deeply about, and at the same time, does not have the skills to discuss in a non-adversarial, emotionally intelligent way.