It’s often said that we are living in a post-truth era. But if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that society cannot function without at least some shared truths. A number of writers and thinkers are now tackling this topic, arguing in favour of a shared reality. Here, a crop of new titles advocates for liberalism, freedom of expression, rationalism, science and the collective making of meaning.
The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, Jonathan Rauch (Brookings Institution Press, 280 pages)
In this thoughtful defence of liberalism, Atlantic writer and gay rights advocate Jonathan Rauch champions what he calls “the constitution of knowledge,” or the institutions of government, law, journalism and academia that form a “reality-based community” adhering to rules and norms and striving for objectivity. It’s a system that he argues is now under threat from a “fire hose of falsehoods” on the right and cancel culture on the left, resulting in a crisis of democracy. Even so, Rauch remains optimistic, making this timely and compelling book a hopeful one, too.
The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, Jesse Singal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages)
In a world of viral TED Talks and blockbuster pop psychology books, everyone and their aunt is busy selling simple solutions to the world’s most complex problems. Back in 2014, it became Jesse Singal’s job to review this tsunami of behavioural science offerings, as editor of Science of Us, New York magazine’s new online social science platform. Thanks to a stats-heavy master’s at Princeton and a solidly skeptical disposition, he was in a decent position to parse good research from bad. “What I didn’t anticipate was the fire hose of overhyped findings that would fill my e-mail inbox daily,” the host of the popular Blocked and Reported podcast writes. Starting with the implicit association test, Singal began taking a closer look at the field’s sacred cows, and the result is this well-researched, engaging and often funny debut.
Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020, Salman Rushdie (Random House, 368 pages)
This collection of essays and speeches, old and new, spans almost two decades – and serves as a sort of extended meditation on the collective making of meaning. No subject is off limits for the Booker Prize-winning author, who muses on a range of topics, from his friendship with Carrie Fisher and his early days as a writer travelling India, to how he quit smoking and his recent bout of COVID-19. And, of course, truth, with Rushdie noting that “reality itself seems everywhere under attack.” The author is at his most moving, however, when he reflects on the profound dislocation of the 21st century. “These are the four roots of the self: language, place, community, custom,” he writes. “But in our age, the great age of migration, many of us have at least one of these roots pulled up. We move away from the place we know, away from the community that knows us, to a place where the customs are different, and, perhaps, the most commonly spoken language is one we do not know, or if we speak it, we speak it badly and cannot express the subtleties of what we think and who we are. … Migration is an existential act, stripping us of our defences, mercilessly exposing us to a world that understands us badly, if at all: as if the earth were stripped of its atmosphere and the sun were to bear down upon it in all its pitiless force.”
Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News, Eric Berkowitz (Beacon Press, 320 pages)
Freedom of speech has fallen out of favour, now frequently associated with right-wing talking points. But here, in this nuanced outing, California human rights lawyer Eric Berkowitz gives the subject the consideration it’s due. He traces the history of attacks on free speech and explores why societies censor dissenting ideas. “The compulsion to silence others is as old as the urge to speak, because speech – words, images, expression itself – exerts power,” Berkowitz writes. “Even in countries where free expression is cherished, we often forget that forgoing censorship requires the embrace of discord as a fair price for the general good. Tolerance is risky. Suppression, on the other hand, is logical – and, across history, it has been the norm.”
Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, Steven Pinker (Viking, 432 pages)
Canadian Steven Pinker’s latest is a thought-provoking and energetic scribe on why rational thinking is crucial for the progression of civilization. “In an era blessed with unprecedented resources for reasoning, the public sphere is infested with fake news, quack cures, conspiracy theories and ‘post-truth’ rhetoric,” the Harvard psychology professor opens. “How can we make sense of making sense – and its opposite? The question is urgent. In the third decade of the third millennium, we face deadly threats to our health, our democracy and the livability of our planet.”
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