Photo by: Marcelo Chagas, Pexels
“How do you know something is true? What is the meaning of truth?” I asked a group of friends who live in a different city to where I am, speak a different language at home than what I do, and have trained in a different field from what I have. “Truth is subject to change”, came a response, “based on knowledge and experience along the way.” Another friend interjected, “For me, it depends on the belief system and being able to prove it.” I found this negotiating of truthfulness intriguing. It was a demonstration of sacrificial logic at work; this accepting, favouring or discarding of truthful aspects. “We all have different truths”, she explained. “There’s an absolute truth based on your belief system.” This internal compass of truth seems to guide what we consider possible, probable, and preferable.
This got me thinking. How is truth communicated and interpreted? What are the faces of truth? How do we recognise disguised truths? Let us consider three such forms of truth in disguise: whistleblower, trickster, and scapegoat.
First, the whistleblower. In a world overly concerned with secrecy and surveillance, the whistleblower becomes an important figure. One that brings together notions of transparency and confidentiality, of heroism and disloyalty, of risky self-sacrifice and collective ethical short-comings.
The whistleblowing journey begins with an identification or perception of wrongness (Tran, 2011). In spaces, systems and structures where asymmetrical power exists, it is difficult to speak truth to power. Often truth-telling results in consequences for the truth-teller. The act of revealing or unmasking of information could be seen as a form of agency, but it could also subject the whistleblower to scrutiny. Whistleblowing is in many contexts synonymous with ‘leaking’ information, ‘snitching’ on someone, being a ‘traitor’ through the intentional escape of knowledge from the private into the public domain.
Next, the trickster. Agent of chaos, seeker of justice (Coleman, 2012). Tricksters, like myths, assert contradictions that question and confuse distinctions (Hyde, 1998). It is paradox upon which culture depends for its survival - its origins, liveliness, and durability - and it is the trickster that is capable of uncovering and disrupting the very foundation on which culture is based (Hyde, 1998).
It can be difficult to imagine a liminal character - someone who is both here and there, but also nowhere - especially in a context where binaries dominate our way of thinking. Dualities can be limiting if considered to be the only true states or forms of existence: distinguishing between right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead (Hyde, 1998). A trickster does not conform to these polarities. Instead, it is an establisher of boundaries as well as a boundary-crosser. Provocateur and saboteur; dismantler of convention and occupier of in-between fluid space (Geismar, 2015).
Finally, the scapegoat. Originally referred to in Biblical terms, but often disassociated from religious meaning, the scapegoat is a symbol of blame. Seen as the ‘one who wards off illness’ (Girard, 1982), the scapegoat becomes a means to counterbalance the loss of autonomy that threatens the derailment of society (Eggen, 2013). It is the symbolic act of casting to the wilderness - literally or figuratively - unwanted and unwelcome transgressions in order to obtain peace, balance, and forgiveness.
The scapegoat is rarely truly to blame, but does the truth matter if the end justifies the means? Scapegoating could therefore be seen as a problem-solving mechanism; a tool for ordering society and as a factor in the social condition of survival (Eggen, 2013). It is “a mechanism by which rivals stay distant while enhancing group unity” (Eggen 2013). The scapegoat as a universally recognisable and relatable symbol could, arguably, make masked truths a necessary tool for us to interpret our lived realities, to consider our place in the world, and to navigate where we situate ourselves in truth.
Some concluding thoughts
At a glance, the whistleblower appears to render visible the edge - and the transgression thereof - in order to make a truth known and transparent for the benefit of a greater good. The trickster is more tricky to contain simply. It challenges dichotomies - perhaps best put as ‘creative destruction’ or ‘destructive creation’ - to disrupt accepted notions of order, edge, and truth. The scapegoat - acted upon rather than having the agency to act - is a sacrifice of truth that restores or maintains balance within defined edges.
Something that all three have in common is that they engage with disguised truths - whether directly or indirectly - as a form of edge-work; risky and radical behaviour that pushes the boundaries of what is said, done, and known to be true. How do we, as futurists, operate at the edge in a role that defies a distinction between true and false? More importantly, what is our internal compass of truth that guides what we consider possible, probable, and preferable? Whether we blow the whistle on falsehoods, trick a system built on polarising distinctions, or escape the trap of sacrificial logic - as futurists we have the obligation and opportunity to bring about change in line with our own truths.
© Marguerite Coetzee 2021