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Not the self-evident truth

in formation

Objectivity is subjectively defined. Beyond the seeming paradox of these words lies a truth one may unironically note as authentic. The frameworks of our everyday conversations revolve around ambiguous and subjective rubrics—coined “objective” by their authors. And to find evidence, one need look no further than the unexpected grade they once received on an assignment.

However, one might, and within that would discover a world of construed notions of objectivity and utter rejection of subjectivity. Within the realm of foreign policy, U.S. relations with Russia capture the essence of conflicting value-judgements. After all, the extent of bias and sense of justice that colors a nation’s policy objectives often correlates well with clashes they encounter on an international stage.

For instance, to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the “Russian truth” may bare down to a fundamental desire to restore Russian power and influence. On Dec. 2, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs updated its foreign policy doctrine to note how Ukraine and Syria are two new prominent “priority areas” for their strategy in the region. Particularly in Syria, however, Russian interests remain convoluted as the Kremlin continues to support a repressive, dictatorial regime.

Some argue that Russia views the region as a platform to display their military might, while others point to what Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has lauded as a “privileged relation” between Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s father, as a possible explanation for Russian intervention. Meanwhile, Russia’s official stance on Syria has been to cooperate with al-Assad in light of the Islamic State. “It is hypocritical and irresponsible to make loud declarations about the threat of international terrorism while turning a blind eye to the channels of financing and supporting terrorists,” claimed Putin in a 2015 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

In that same speech, Putin expresses his preference for “collective work” and “equality” in sovereign nations.

What a misunderstanding it must be, then, for the U.S., a country whose constitution professes the exact same ideals as those moralized by Putin, to characterize Russia as anything less. There is no evidence to suggest Putin is not sincere in his interpretation of justice in international law; however, if his truths speak sincerely, how can, therefore, the U.S. Secretary of State denounce the Russian “regime” as one engaging in deliberate efforts to terrorize citizens?

Simply put, easily. In a global context where enemies are easily constructed and authentic allyship is difficult to find, both the U.S. and Russia can believe in their respective truths, holding themselves to “objective” standards on the grounds of fairness, respect, and inclusion. Who, however, are the stakeholders in their characterizations of truth? The displaced Syrian populace? The legacy of al-Assad’s father? Russia with its desire to assert global influence? Those are to be, again, factored in an subjective manner.

Beyond nation-states alone, everyone can know and appreciate their divergent stakes, interests and risks. But what is intriguing is how confident each actor—be they Russia, the U.S., or a disgruntled professor faced with a regrade—can attribute truth to their words.

In that respect, “truth” has become extremely subjective. Within the context of Russian-U.S. opinions on Syria, much stands to be gained from discussions on the ways in which objectivity can be defined. Once a common rubric or set of objectives is established, defined perhaps by the prioritization of saving the most Syrian lives, the two nations may then proceed to weighing the costs and benefits of engagement. After all, the question of who is a suitable ally in the fight against ISIS or the regime of al-Assad, depending on one’s perspective on the root of instability in Syria, segues well into potential agreements. Effectively, agreements on what is a truth, otherwise described as an objective, can prevent many of the conflicts of interests found on global but also personal levels.

Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, many have taken to accepting truth on their own terms. Researchers at Stanford have found that young people are more susceptible to fake-news—an emerging “threat to democracy.” With eighty percent of today’s middle schoolers believing ‘sponsored content’ is real news, and high schoolers accepting photographs without verification and failing to distinguish real from fake news sources on Facebook, the future of truth-telling remains dismaying.

In response, there has been a commendable call for greater fact-checking. While valiant these efforts, it is important to recognize how individuals may be willful consumers of “subjective” news. The challenge then becomes altering those perceptions, and proving the value of objectiveness as it is contextually defined.

Duke’s tenth university president, Vincent Price, wields the power to define our own truths on campus—though how we act on those objectives is up to us. Coming from the University of Pennsylvania with an extensive background in public opinion and political information research, Price perhaps can embrace subjectivity and the nuances of diversity in opinion when implementing policies and promoting messages of our campus’ “truths.”

One ironically potent message delivered by Putin regarding Syria, concerning diversity of opinion, was that “we are all different, and we should respect that. No one has to conform to a single development model that someone has once and for all recognized as the only right one. We should all remember what our past has taught us.” Disregarding the egregious and provocative nature of this man’s prior statements and actions, there is a subjectively granted truth to his words.

Encouraging debate through conversations, preferably one person at a time, is a crucial aspect of restoring trust in our communities and governments. Our dinner tables shan't be homogenized echo chambers. Especially within elitist bubbles, diversity, across educational attainment levels, is a “requisite for any meaningful dialogue,” as Tom Ross, UNC president-emeritus, said at the recent Sanford event.

Once diverse actors set the criteria for the quality of information they act upon, diplomatic and interpersonal relations can better flourish. While recognizing the immense subjectivity of the words of any columnist, the argument for negotiating definitions of objectivity withstands. We all have different “truths” that we live; the great challenge now is to negotiate those within ourselves and with our neighbors.

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “in formation,” runs on alternate Mondays. 

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