Can we trust anything?

Perhaps nothing displays more clearly the fragmented and sectarian character of present culture than the arguments around acceptance or protection of minority groups and views in universities, together with concepts like ‘safe spaces’. Such arguments reveal both an ongoing problem with securing respect for (say) transgender or gay people even in places which are supposed to foster tolerance and openness of mind, and lack of confidence in the very practice of rational debate. Yet these problems are in no way confined to universities or to university students. The collapse of trust within our society is profound, and extends even to loss of trust in our ability to think or understand.

It has been very easy to feel that much recent philosophy is over obsessed with language, and I have felt that myself. But once I recognise, first, that we use language to think and communicate our thoughts, and, second, just how little trust we now have in any of the images and ideas that bombard us daily from all angles and even in our ability to find ‘the truth’ behind them, the philosophers’ concerns make lots of sense. Marxism is supposed to have been refuted, and indeed the promise of an ideal future has gone to the birds. But the Marxian notion of ideology has taken root to the extent that we apply it not just to ‘ruling classes’ but to anyone. Bearing in mind that ‘ideology’ means ideas used to justify a given position or claim; bluntly campaign rhetoric and special pleading, that means we are entitled to regard anyone and everyone with the utmost suspicion.

Politicians are useless for even understanding and drawing attention to the depth of our loss of trust, let alone finding an antidote. Clearly laws against incitement to hatred and violence hardly scratch the surface. Indeed, when politics in a democracy is either trying to defeat opponents or find compromises all too often not respected for their own sake, it seems to be making things worse. The problem of making room for honesty, and trustworthiness even for words that we speak and write, remains untouched.

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