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What Do You Do When Both Sides Are Wrong?
“There is much truth on both sides,” wrote the English essayist Addison in 1711. What this phrase fails to indicate is where the whole truth lies.
Today, one is often advised to “look at both sides” of every question. It is a generally held view that every wise and reasonable person does so, and that only in this way can the truth be determined. The political and juridical institutions recognize this as a principle. In Parliament, there is the government and the official opposition; in the courts, there is counsel for the plaintiff and counsel for the defense. Everything is arranged so that the “pros and cons” of every question are heard.
Just on the surface of things, it seems strange to speak of “both” sides, as if every question necessarily had two sides, no more and no less. Yet even the simplest phenomenon has many sides. Why look at only two? Such a limit will make it impossible to arrive at the truth. Surely we must look at all sides.
Perhaps this objection is pedantic. Perhaps the “sides” in question are not after all the various aspects of a phenomenon but merely different interpretations of it. “Both sides” means “both interpretations”. In other words, we are not being asked to look at a phenomenon as it really exists, with all its sides, but merely at two opposing interpretations or mental representations of it. One could conceivably look at all sides of each “side”, each interpretation. However, the problem remains. Every phenomenon can be interpreted in many different, mutually contradictory ways. It seems strange to insist on considering only two.
What do you do when “both sides” are wrong? We are asked to consider two opposing interpretations, chosen from among many. We are apparently not supposed to ask why they are chosen or according to what criterion. And most importantly, we are not invited to look at the reality which is the object of these interpretations. How, then, can such a procedure enable us to arrive at the truth?
Two wrong interpretations cannot add up to a correct conclusion; nor can any number of interpretations replace the study of the thing itself. We cannot properly understand any phenomenon without studying it itself, as it really exists. Not divergences, not exceptions, not interpretations, but the thing itself must be examined, in its development, and in its myriad of relationships.
The injunction to “look at both sides” misses the mark completely, because it draws our attention away from reality toward mere interpretations. Whether the phenomenon or question to be examined comes from politics or from science, from philosophy or from culture, “looking at both sides” will not get us even an inch closer to the truth.
The invitation to “look at both sides” is a diversion from looking at the reality of a thing. Those who accept it will always be led astray. Reality simply does not have two sides. It is one, and it does not change because someone decides to interpret it differently. The earth did not stop moving around the sun because the medieval schoolmen bade it stand still; it did not lose its roundness because of their preachings that it was flat; and it has not stopped to rest on the back of an ox or a turtle because some believe it is so supported.
The demand that both “pro” and “con” be considered is actually a demand that reality not be acknowledged. It takes the human mind away from serious inquiry into prejudice and bigotry. For example, it is often asserted that the existence of “pro” and “con” in parliament – a governing party and an opposition party or parties – guarantees real democracy, ensures that the interests of the people are served and prevents the rulers of the country from turning to dictatorship. But this assertion is not supported by the history of Canada or any other country.
The Liberals and Conservatives have alternated as governing party and opposition party for well over a hundred years. This did not prevent R.B. Bennett from imposing Draconian measures in the 1930’s, measures which were surpassed by Duplessis in Quebec in the 1940’s and 1950’s, nor did it prevent the proclamation of the War Measures Act by Trudeau in October 1970. The governments in question – Conservative, Union Nationale and Liberal respectively – found that they could not achieve their aims without using the police and armed forces to terrorize the people, without open dictatorship. The existence of opposition parties did not stop them. Why was this? Again, the answer can only be found by looking reality in the eye, by studying the political system and its foundations. Chest thumping assertions about that system may come from all sides of the House of Commons, but they are not on the side of truth.
Since reality is one, truth can only be one. How then can there be two sides? “Looking at both sides” is flight from reality. It is to forget the real world and bury one’s head in interpretations. The moment this adage is applied, a colossal mistake is made.
To consider a phenomenon by weighing its pros and cons is to obscure its real dynamic, the direction of its development, and its relations with other phenomena. For example, natural science has shed light on the evolution of humankind, showing in detail the forces which impelled it and illuminating the relationship between human sand nature. But in recent years, an attempt has been made to deny these discoveries by putting forward a series of beliefs labelled “creation science”. Thus a controversy has been generated, pitting those who believe in “creation science” against those who recognize the theory of evolution. The public is being encouraged to “look at both sides” and “weigh all the arguments”. But what are those “two sides”? The reality of evolution does not disappear just because some individuals choose to believe in “creation science”. To embroil oneself in the “pros and cons” of this question is to lose sight of what is most essential: the significance of the theory of evolution for the enlightenment and emancipation of humanity.
The theory of evolution by natural selection was one of the great discoveries of natural science which smashed all ideas of fixity, all notions of an unchanging universe created by a divine being, and proved that all matter is in constant motion. This natural science emerged victorious over medievalism not because it produced weightier arguments but because it was consistent with reality. Despite all the savagery of feudal reaction, which mercilessly persecuted the persons of science and enlightenment, natural science could not be crushed. The issue was finally settled not by the pen but by the gun. Natural science triumphed only with the overthrow of feudalism. This was not a debate, not a weighing of “pros and cons”. It was a struggle for the future of humankind, for enlightenment and progress, against that which, for all its power and might, could not be defended.
The idea that every phenomenon has two sides, that truth is tainted with falsehood and falsehood with truth, is itself a patent falsehood and a fetter on the mind. Interpretation cannot alter reality; it can only fool the gullible and obstruct inquiry. The organization of a flat earth society has not flattened the earth; the repetition of falsehood does not make the truth disappear. In the same fashion, the injunction to “look at both sides” cannot make its followers any the wiser.
(The New Magazine, Introductory Issue, March 1987)
(Renewal Update, posted February 14, 2022)