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Unity and Truth

      President Joe Biden has called for unity but acknowledges that we will not always agree.  But what does that really mean?  To me it means that we achieve a consensus on truth.  This is hard, and even harder than it sounds.  Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr wrote that there are “…two sorts of truth: trivialities, where opposites are obviously absurd, and profound truths, recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth.”  There is actually a third kind of truth. W. Somerset Maughm wrote: “There is only one thing of which I am certain, and that is that there is very little about which one can be certain.”  Some “facts” are likely but not certain about the if or when. The likelihood can be very high or very low and the when can be very soon or far in the future.  We need to achieve consensus on all three kinds.

      Joe Biden won the presidential election and the opposite is absurd.  Trump supporters see themselves as patriots and to deny that is absurd.  Consensus on the first kind of truth is about facts and evidence but often depends on trusting the source. Too often people believe false things because they trust only what they want to hear, or trust only people they know.  Is the source well informed, impartial, almost always right in the past, and of integrity, or is the source poorly informed, self-interested, usually wrong, or a liar?  To achieve unity we need to agree on the “trivial truths” by telling the truth and punishing liars, and getting information from multiple reliable sources.  Be willing to admit that you were wrong and change your mind.  Forgive those who were wrong, but forgiveness requires confession and contrition.

       Personal freedom and sacrificing for the common good are both cornerstones of our society.  We must recognize both these profound truths and also the conflicts between them.  Freedom is valuable like freedom of speech, going where we please, spending our hard-earned money as we please, sneezing on people in a pandemic, inciting to violence, and cheating our neighbor.  Sacrificing for the common good is valuable like prohibiting publication of military secrets, obeying speed limits, paying high taxes, requiring wearing a mask during a pandemic, and putting cheaters and the violent in jail.  In a given case where is the right balance between freedom and the common good?   Unity means recognizing that there are absolute rights on both sides but some rights must be overridden by others.  It means recognizing that the other point of view has merit, even if you believe your point of view has more.  It means agreement to resolve conflicts by debate, voting, and/or by compromise.

      When and how bad will the next terrorist attack be and how should we prepare?  When and how badly will the worst of climate change hit us, and what should we do about it? No one knows precisely, though both issues are generally a truth of the first kind.  Unity requires agreeing act even when certainty isn’t available, again by debate, voting and/or compromise.


Jim Eliason

Storm Lake


Published 5 Feb., 2021 in Storm Lake Times and Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune

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