Take Time for Truth

By Professor Richard Feist.

In his sonnets, Shakespeare pines over the sad fact that the great monuments we build in brass and stone—even the world’s boundless sea—are helpless before the onslaught of time. Time’s terrible hand will “blunt the lion’s paws” and “pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws.” Nothing escapes the ravages of time; our loved ones, someday, will be taken away from us.

What a “fearful meditation” Shakespeare calls such thoughts—and rightly so.

However, such freighted musings on time could be lightly leavened. My wife recently received a birthday card stating that because life was but a brief spark between dark eternities, get out there and buy those shoes.

Our time is more ravaging than Shakespeare’s. Through technological means we tamed much of nature, more so than Shakespeare would have known, but we have plunged into a different sound and fury. The modern technological tempest runs deep into our lives. In a finger’s snap we have gone from sporadically answering landline phones to frequently checking email and now incessantly texting on portable devices. We even had to pass a law prohibiting texting while driving, but how readily one spots drivers on any given day flouting the law.

There are many consequences of these days of distraction. Historians point out that today people read more than ever, but what they read is less complex and shorter. Who remembers phone numbers now? Publishers refuse long manuscripts while the population dines on sound bites and tweets. Technology’s assault on our attention spans is a kind of war, and as the old saw goes, the first casualty of war is truth.

Various outlets and venues vie for our attention, struggle to ensure that we see the world in a certain way, and insist on what the truth is. Thinking is one of the few things that one can be completely lazy about and still have done. If you refuse to think, there is always someone who will happily do it for you. Truth is similar since if you lack it, someone will always give you theirs.

Academics and advertisers know that distracted people are the easiest to convince. The more one does, the busier one is, the more susceptible one is to suggestion. This has not gone unnoticed outside the walls of academia and marketing. A few years ago the British Government set up a “Behavioural Insight Team”, nicknamed the “Nudge Unit”. Its job is to ascertain how to subtly influence busy citizens, by nudging them, to accomplish desired tasks. Nudging allows busy people to think that they are still completely in control of their own decisions. The Canadian Government is currently studying ways of having its own “Nudge Unit”.

This year Canadians will be nudged frequently. In the midst of our busy lives, we will be nudged to think in certain ways about deepening our involvement in the confrontation with ISIS, how much surveillance we should allow of our private lives and who will be our next government.

Nudging, the science of behavioural economics, is here to stay. We are influenced in more subtle ways than ever. There is no magic solution for combating all these nudges. But there is a simple, albeit old-fashioned one. Once in a while, one must put the cell phone down, back away slowly and take time to think, to get the facts and ponder them carefully. At Saint Paul University, a small, quiet place, we provide an oasis in which time, somehow, eases off a little and people have a chance to talk, to read and to think.

RichardFeist 2Professor Richard Feist. Associate professor. Faculty of Philosophy at Saint Paul University.