Truth and institutions

We may not always be successful in finding enduring solutions for our problems as a nation, but at least our attempts to grapple with these issues enrich our political vocabulary.  This is good for us in the long run.  An increasingly complex world requires a complex and nuanced way of talking about it.  This is what makes paradigm shifts possible and new solutions imaginable.

Take a look at the semantic harvest from the ongoing NBN-ZTE controversy: “dysfunctional procurement system,” “permissible and forbidden zones” (of corruption), “patriotic money,” “moderated greed,” and “damaged institutions.” Add to this the current obsession to “let the truth out” while observing “due process” and respecting the “rule of law,” and one gets a fairly good picture of the present state of national reflection.

But words are tricky. They are ways of seeing, but they are also ways of concealing.  As they evolve in meaning, they acquire new senses, but they do not entirely shed off their old usages.  One has to be alert to the specific context in which they are used.

Two difficult words in particular have been used rather freely in current political communication: “truth” and “institutions.”  Everybody in this country is looking for the truth, and yet we cannot seem to agree on the form it should take.  Consequently, there is broad disagreement on where we must look in order to find it.

The government says that the only truth worth trusting is the one that can be found in courts of law.  But there is no single privileged site in which to find the truth.  The Senate insists that its hearings are precisely devoted to finding the truth.  The media believe that their investigations and reportage are steady sources of truth.  The churches speak of the higher transcendental truth of prophetic wisdom. The academic sciences – with their structural analyses and public opinion polls — are not far behind in staking their claims in this contested terrain.

As if the issues pertaining to forms of truth were not complex enough, we are also divided on whether all the truth about the actions of individuals, including public officials like the president, should be made public.  We invoke the rule of law as if it were simple.  Yet, how does one reconcile the individual’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know?  How does one balance the president’s claim to executive privilege with the public’s right to information on decisions affecting their lives?

This is why we need institutions.  Institutions are structures that simplify the multiple questions of collective living.  They consist of values, roles, codes, and procedures by which reality is processed and choices of action selected.  Institutions therefore are instruments of order, the means by which a society stabilizes its existence in an unpredictable environment.

In early societies, truth was simple, and the last word on it typically came from the elders or the wise men of the community.  Institutions were not differentiated.  In modern societies, truth takes many shapes, depending on the specific function to which it is applied. Institutions become specialized.  The judicial system adopts rules of evidence in determining if something is lawful or unlawful.  Lawyers call it “due process.”  Science develops specialized procedures for posing questions, collecting data, testing hypotheses, and drawing findings on the nature of the natural and social world.  Scientists call it methodology.  Politics, religion, art, the economy, etc. – each one of these spheres develops a separate system appropriate to their functions.  The “truths” they yield within their respective horizons are important but they cannot claim an all-encompassing relevance. Nietzsche was right: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Therefore, when we say we must respect our institutions and follow due process, we have to be aware that we are not speaking of one dominant institution or one due process, but of many.  No single institution can claim basic primacy over the others in a modern society.  We cannot speak of judicial institutions and their rules of evidence and proper procedures as if they were the source of the only truth that really matters.

The world is much too complex to be understood as the horizon defined by legal experts.  Corruption as a phenomenon is of interest not just to judges and politicians.  It is of interest too to other institutions outside the legal and political system – the media, the Church, the educational system, the family, the economy.  As information-processing systems, all of them have procedures for establishing what is truthful and relevant.  Indeed, as human beings in society, we all make reasonable judgments about the meanings of events in everyday life without waiting for lawyers to speak – except when the issue has to do solely with legality or illegality.

This is precisely Malacanang’s problem.  A privilege it claims in law looks sinister in politics.  Even if the Supreme Court upholds the President’s right to invoke executive privilege to keep Romulo Neri from testifying before the Senate, that victory would almost certainly spell a further loss in political legitimacy for Ms Arroyo.  Even if no one eventually goes to jail for the NBN-ZTE deal, the negative information it has generated will make it extremely difficult for Ms Arroyo to govern, or for anyone associated with her to win public office in an honest election.


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