“Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others.”
Mikhail Bahktin, Discourse in the Novel, 1935
What if I intended to get to Dialogue but only arrived at Monologue?
The Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin spoke a lot about language and truth in the early part of the 20th century. Since one of the foundational concepts of this blog is the function of truth telling, it’s important to see what Bakhtin can contribute to the discourse of truth discovery.
For Bakhtin, the discovery of truth happens in dialogue. That means that many voices all come together and as they interact with each other they discover truth. This is common knowledge. After all, who doesn’t appreciate the ability of a good debate to get to the core of an issue.
Now we get to the hard part. What if I know something is true already? What if, because of my religious affiliations, or my family traditions, or the advice of significant and influential people, I have developed an understanding if the truth that I feel is right? Does the purpose of dialogue then become trying to convince others of my truth?
I recently responded to a meme posted by a friend on Facebook. The meme pointed out that offence is not always a marker for truth. Of course me being me I had to comment and use the moment to teach something (not perhaps my best trait). I had two motives, the first being a genuine desire to enter into dialogue with my friend. The second was of course to be right :-p
I even had a Bible verse to back up my truth claims. I couched the reply in the form of a question on how to interpret the weaker brother verse from Corinthians in an age where it seems many get easily offended.
But the dialogue didn’t happen.
According to Bakhtin, if it’s not dialogue then it’s monologue, which for Bakhtin is the gravest of sins. My interaction with my FB friend was intended to start dialogue, wasn’t it? Are there forms of “dialogue” that are in effect “monologue”? What factors contribute to fostering dialogue? Is merely saying that “I want to dialogue on this” enough? Or is there more to it than that? Is it simply because it’s on social media that it becomes monologue?
At this point it is important to discuss the concept of truth since one possible complaint of the above framework is that it promotes a concept of truth that is relative rather than absolute.
The basic goal of every person in every society is to try to understand Ultimate Truth, or what’s called sometimes Ultimate Reality. This is the unadulterated pure truth that exists beyond human comprehension or human influence. This would be the Ultimate Truth that exists behind every reality that we know. This is the Truth that every system of truth we have in our human society is trying to approach.
Traditionally, there’ve been two different ways people have tried to understand or approach this ultimate reality. Certain people look to the past and say, “Remember how it used to be? Remember how things were so good? There was a simple past. Things were safer in our society. We didn’t get caught up in technology so much as we do nowadays. I wish things were like the past.”
Other people look to the future and they have dreams for a better future. They say they say the past wasn’t that great after all. And they would like to change some things to make a better future.
When evaluating these are two different ways of looking at how we can approach ultimate truth, it’s important to remember that we don’t forget the goal is to become closer to that Ultimate Reality that exists somewhere beyond our perception. The Bible refers to our perceptions of Ultimate Reality as a “mystery” (Mk 4:11; Ro 16:24; etc.) or as seen “in a glass darkly” (1Co 13:12).
Post-Truth is a term that’s become popular lately. It implies that somehow in the past we were closer to the truth than we are today. I wonder, however, if it’s not so much that we’re in a Post-Truth society in as much as the truths we thought that were closest to Ultimate Reality in the past have now been shown to be further from the truth than we thought? Part of this is because of the introduction of different perspectives due to a blending of different cultures in our society today. In the past societies were more monolithic and isolated from other societies and so they shaped truth based upon what they knew using their common language, frame of reference, and religion. But once the world got smaller because of changes in international travel, and as people started to understand the truths as other societies understood them, they realized that maybe their original perceptions and understandings needed adjustment.
So how do we tie this together? I think we often confuse the truth as we understand it with Ultimate Truth and we assume that we’ve got it figured out: “The things that I believe to be true are the right things and if you believe different things to be true, then you’re wrong and I have to convince you about that.” I think basically that’s how we feel because that’s part of human nature, but a realization that we’re all trying to approach human nature from a different perspective leads us to conversation with one another that can help each of us come closer to ultimate truth in a better way.
This idea of conversation opens us up to an evaluation of our own societies as well. We thought our societies were fairly monolithic, but we didn’t realize that that our society is made up of a lot of disparity and a lot of divergence. Irigaray (in Hinton, 2013 & Hollywood, 1998) complained of how the “normative subject” in society was a white middle-aged man and advocated for using different perspectives to better understand society. The “normative subject” in “most western philosophical and religious discourses” is “white, male, free, middle to upper class.” Irigaray credits Freud with developing this norm but critiques it by wondering if there is then room for the feminine. Since the feminine isn’t “normal” then there must be “no sex difference.”
These this lack of difference diminishes the female voice because “normatively there is a strong tendency to deny epistemic value to differences … which are therefore epistemically suppressed and must be suppressed by the subject if she is to gain epistemic authority” (Hollywood, 234).
Irigaray is not advocating for some type of feminine norm but her critique opens us up to different perspectives beyond sex and gender including age, relationship status, health, language, ethnicity, economic and social strata, and more. We all have different perspectives and each of these perspectives is a different way for us to approach this truth in this reality.
It brings a couple of questions to mind. How do I know that my understanding of the truth is complete? Can I not learn from others whether right or wrong? Maybe somebody else has a different system of logic or a different understanding of reality, or a different system of hermeneutics than I do, and I can learn from them so that I can improve and that I can learn a new thing.