The old man turned off the radio
Said, “Where did all of the old songs go
Kids sure play funny music these days
They play it in the strangest ways”
Said, “it looks to me like they’ve all gone wild
It was peaceful back when I was a child”
Well, man, could it be that the girls and boys
Are trying to be heard above your noise?
And the lonely voice of youth cries “What is truth?”
A little boy of three sittin’ on the floor
Looks up and says, “Daddy, what is war?”
“son, that’s when people fight and die”
The little boy of three says “Daddy, why?”
A young man of seventeen in Sunday school
Being taught the golden rule
And by the time another year has gone around
It may be his turn to lay his life down
Can you blame the voice of youth for asking
“What is truth?”
A young man sittin’ on the witness stand
The man with the book says “Raise your hand”
“Repeat after me, I solemnly swear”
The man looked down at his long hair
And although the young man solemnly swore
Nobody seems to hear anymore
And it didn’t really matter if the truth was there
It was the cut of his clothes and the length of his hair
And the lonely voice of youth cries
“What is truth?”
The young girl dancing to the latest beat
Has found new ways to move her feet
The young man speaking in the city square
Is trying to tell somebody that he cares
Yeah, the ones that you’re calling wild
Are going to be the leaders in a little while
This old world’s wakin’ to a new born day
And I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way
You better help the voice of youth find
“What is truth.”
Written by Johnny R. Cash • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management US, LLC
The first record I ever owned was a 45 single – What is Truth by Johnny Cash. I heard the song when I was about 10 years old, and nagged my parents to buy it for me. It’s interesting how many of the themes in the song have persisted as unseen threads through my life.
For now, I simply want to think about the refrain: What is Truth?
Reacting to a post by Gillian Schutte of Media for Justice – on the irrevocable guilt of whiteness – I examined myself only to find too much defensiveness. So I pose the question: what if I’m wrong? Let me for a moment stop my irritability and look at my own conscience, suspend judgement like a good Pyrrhonist and argue my opponent’s point of view.
It is in this context that Johnny Cash’s words came back to me: old, familiar words: What is Truth? Do I really believe my own arguments, or are they merely self-deception? My response to Schutte’s blog is a useful opening onto the hidden back yard of my mind, full of rusted views and the brambles of outworn certitudes. It’s good to head into the strange yard which seems to have no boundaries, no parameters: you could lose yourself there, in a place with as many questions as answers. This isn’t to say, of course, that my position should be too-swiftly abandoned for Ms. Schutte’s, or that a better-argued view has more merit. Whatever truth may be it is certainly not dependent on the most sophisticated arguments.
According to the Gospels, Pontius Pilate asked, What is Truth? – unable to grasp it even as the Incarnate Truth stood before him.
I read this interesting perspective by Koketso Moeti – a challenge to my own rant against Schutte’s argument that all whites are racist:
“For me, there’s nothing casual about racism, so it’s a phrase I deliberately choose to not use. And I point this distinction out to show just how the use of language can reinforce ideas that there are “better” ways to be racist, when in actual reality both subtle and explicit racism contribute to the maintenance of an oppressive system. And in that is the power of language, its ability to reinforce oppressive power dynamics or make light of oppression and entrench harmful racist behaviours. Sociologist Pierre Bordieu argued that language is not only a means of communication, but also a medium of power through which individuals pursue their interests. His work explored how “linguistic exchanges are relations of power”, meaning language can be used to both produce and reproduce structures of domination. This is particularly notable in South Africa, considering the country’s socio-historical context of racial oppression. And because the perpetrators don’t use explicitly racist language, those that do become the evidence that they (subtle racists) aren’t racist and they are not like “those” white people. So the subtle racists are allowed to get away with it. And in this process also marginalising black people’s experiences of racism as invalid, as the imaginations of an “aggressive”, “dangerous”, “divisive” and “dangerous” black.Yes, in one of the conflicts, a whole executive director of an organisation invoked every tired trope to dismiss my reaction to their choice of language in a meeting. The kind of knee-jerk responses of “whites who acknowledge their privilege” and would never use words like k****r or monkey”, but still ensure that white superiority is protected and well-defended.So instead of jumping on an “anti-racist” bandwagon at the first sign of explicit racism, I suggest that whites like my colleagues instead step back and use it as an opportunity to try and understand how, on a daily basis, they unconsciously do the same thing.They should reflect on how performing anti-racism at any sign of explicit racism actually does nothing, when in their everyday lives they are keeping the machinery of racial oppression well-oiled.”
Koketso Moeti is the founder of amandla.mobi.