There are many unknowns about tonight’s Oscars, but one thing is for sure: some attempt will be made to express public support for the #MeToo movement that has swept Hollywood, business and politics since the last academy awards.
Since last year, thousands of women have stepped out of silence and revealed the sexual abuse and harassment they have endured at the hands of powerful men. Oprah Winfrey used her airtime at the Golden Globes to make an impassioned speech commending the women who had spoken out like this:
“what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I'm especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”
The truth of a sexual assault is undoubtedly personal. This is what Winfrey was trying to capture with “your truth.” But if that truth is not also objective, it is a lie and the #MeToo movement unravels. The women who have spoken out are commended on the grounds that they are telling not just their truth but the truth.
Sometimes the truth is hard to verify, which is part of the reason why so many women have remained silent for so long. The crushing question arose: "Who will believe me?" Sexual advances are inherently more likely to happen in private, or somehow shielded from other's eyes. When it's one person's word against another's, the truth can be impossible to prove. But the truth still matters. Popular physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously quipped that the great thing about science was that it was “true whether or not anyone believes it.” But this is not limited to science: it’s the great thing about truth. Period.
And yet, today, we have a truth problem. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the academy brought us postmodernism, unpicking the idea of objective truth. We all bring biases to questions of truth, the argument went, so no truth is ultimately objective. Evidence is slanted. Facts are concealed. Universal truth-claims are oppressive. Many reduced truth down to the personal and subjective realm and slapped a COEXIST bumper sticker on their car.
For some time, broadly speaking, conservatives resisted this postmodern approach to truth, while liberals embraced it. But then the post-truth dagger exchanged hands. In the run-up to the 2016 Presidential Election, perspective became everything. Fake news engulfed our social media feeds and post-truth politics exploded in our hands. Assertion trumped data, and popularity expertise. As the unlikely hero of the Republican Party emerged, conservatives wrung their hands and liberals decried what they saw as a post-truth assault on democracy.
Then came the Hollywood Access tape: clear evidence of the hero's affection for sexually assaulting women. Surely this would unseat him as leader of the party that historically sought to champion family values! But no. He weathered the storm. He acknowledged the video. Apologized. And moved on. Until the #MeToo movement gathered momentum and he started to question whether the voice from the “Access Hollywood” video is actually his. In a #metoo world, a video celebrating sexual assault is a serious liability. But here’s the problem: if there is no such thing as objective truth, why not deny your inconvenient past? If there are no historical facts, just artifacts and perspectives, why not modify your personal history? If all beliefs are equally valid, why not create fake news?
For those who have been sexually assaulted, history matters. Truth is truth, whether or not anyone believes it. Yes, these truths are personal. Yes, two people can hold different perspectives on the same events, and sometimes acknowledging two viewpoints can reconcile seemingly irreconcilable differences. But for those who have experienced assault, truth matters, even if flat out denied by the other party.
In our current moment, we must look back and make a sober assessment of the legacy of postmodernism in our popular thinking. "True for you but not for me" may seem to smooth over the jagged edges of religious difference. But in a world where religious beliefs shape individual lives and global politics, we are better to recognize fundamental difference and find respectful ways to debate truth. In a world still scarred by the genocides of the twentieth century, and feeling the fresh wounds of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and religious persecution in the Middle East, we are better to cling to the facts of history and to sift for truth in today’s news. Truth is seldom easily won. But we cannot afford to surrender to a post-truth world. The stakes are just too high.
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