What is two plus two? Well, as it turns out, it depends.
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” This statement was the “thoughtcrime” of Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Though not yet a thoughtcrime in the real world, this statement is increasingly suspect.
Politics is the conversation a whole people has about what is good and bad, and just and unjust regarding their common life and common nature as human beings.
That conversation, of course, is only possible if language is possible, if words mean discernible things and are communicable. The famous story of the Tower of Babel, in which God mixed up the languages of men and forced them to scatter, is an apt analogy for the breakdown of politics following the breakdown of language.
Language itself, though, is only possible if reason is possible. The law of noncontradiction holds that two plus two can’t be four and not-four at the same time. The whole potential for politics depends on that law, because by it people can use their reason to arrive at and assent to a conclusion, and by it, people can deliberate together and consent to government.
If one denies the law of noncontradiction, however, all that remains is the tyrannical rule of force, one party foisting its will on the rest. A tyrant, after all, doesn’t bother asking for the opinion of his slaves.
Increasingly, progressives are using perplexing language that subtly denies the law of noncontradiction and hence reason, language, and politics. These progressives imagine that they are merely resorting to unconventional terms in order to avoid acquiescing to modes of thinking they believe support unjust power structures.
What they are really doing, however, is collapsing the only possible means of condemning injustice that isn’t itself a form of injustice. Tyranny can’t be made legitimate by making the tyrant and slave switch positions.
You’ve Got Your Truth, and I’ve Got Mine
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar defended the idea that the owners of a local bakery could be both guilty of racial profiling and innocent at the same time, depending on one’s perception.
“You can have two different lived experiences, and both those things can be true,” she said. In other words, two plus two can equal four and not-four.
However unusual, though, Ambar’s remark isn’t uncommon these days. It is often heard that certain people must speak their unique “truth” and society must recognize it as valid, even if it conflicts with an opposing perspective or plain facts.
During the infamous Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)—now a Democratic presidential candidate—praised Christine Blasey Ford for her boldness “to tell her truth,” regardless of whether her truth and the truth were the same thing.
This comment about the nature of truth wasn’t an exceptional gaffe like his embarrassing “Spartacus moment.” Booker has incorporated that idea into at least eight graduation speeches: Harvard Law School (2008), Brandeis University (2009), Pitzer College (2010), the University of Rhode Island (2011), Williams College (2011), Bard College (2012), George Washington University (2016), and Princeton University (2018).
His mantra is usually some form of an exhortation to “look for truth inside ourselves” and “tell your truth.” Revealingly, in his 2016 speech, Booker called truth simply one of the “profound ideals” of our country—a far cry indeed from “we hold these truths to be self-evident” as found in the Declaration of Independence.
It’s highly inconvenient, however, to maintain that truth is subjective. An appeal to objective truth is a far better weapon, for it is the only standard that one’s antagonist must also recognize. Oprah Winfrey unintentionally demonstrated this point in her 2018 speech at the Golden Globes.
In that speech, Winfrey praised various women who each spoke “her” truth about their personal experiences of suffering sexual abuse. Instead of recognizing the superior courage required to speak “the” truth and its superlative nobility, though, Winfrey claimed that “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”
Ironically, Winfrey also applauded the media for its “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth” because doing so “keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.”
Justice, Reason, and Right of the Innocent
Attacks on reason such as these do the pursuit of justice no favors, for reason is the only way to distinguish justice from injustice. Progressives, though, aren’t nihilists. They believe in a kind of objective truth, but they believe in a new form of logic to arrive at it that is consistent with their understanding of justice.
The progressive understanding of justice takes as a primary assumption a moral dichotomy, according to which all people belong either to an historically oppressed or an historical oppressor class. Because of past inequities, social justice today requires that people from historically oppressed classes receive benefits and privileges they have been theoretically denied in the past.
Likewise, progressives hold that some perspectives of the truth should be considered more truthful than others as part of the effort to achieve a just society. Thus, we must “believe all women” or “believe all survivors.”
It’s imperative for the progressive understanding of justice that those from oppressed groups speak “their” truth because—according to the narrative—they deserve to be believed, generally, regardless of the veracity of any specific claim. Think of it as affirmative action applied to reason.
People who are sympathetic to this understanding of justice undermine the only solid foundation on which to condemn injustice. They merely substitute the right of the weaker for the right of the stronger, forgetting that both neglect the right of the innocent.
In Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” there is a disturbing resemblance between this rhetoric and that of the novel’s antagonist, O’Brien. “Two and two are four,” insisted Winston. “Sometimes, Winston,” corrected O’Brien. “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.”
Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.