Truth & Tolerance: Bertrand Russell’s advice in the modern world

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Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a British philosopher, mathematician, essayist, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. In addition to being one of the founding fathers of analytical philosophy, “Encyclopaedia Britannica” cites him as a public “campaigner for peace” and activist for many moral, political and social ideas.  

In a 1959 interview with BBC, Russell was asked to outline the advice he would give to future generations, and his answer is extremely timely for ours: 

I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. 

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. And if we are to live together and not die together, we should learn the kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet. 

To summarize: Our decisions must be made on truth; not wishful thinking, and we need to learn to be tolerant of people whom we disagree with or we will end up destroying one another. It’s simple advice, but it bears repeating.  

Of course, this common-sense approach to truth and tolerance seems out of reach considering the current social climate of the United States. A disturbing amount of messages seen by millions of Americans bear little relationship to scientific, historical or social facts. Take, for example, the unfounded yet widely spread message earlier this year that drinking water could help prevent COVID-19 infections. Even though most people are aware of so-called “fake news,” inaccuracies are so numerous that it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish fact from fiction.  

Moreover, the United States is navigating a polarizing political divide which has sparked much intolerance among opposing ideological groups. One only needs to spend a few minutes browsing Reddit forums or YouTube comments to find examples of hate speech. Unfortunately this intolerance spreads beyond the internet as well. It is not uncommon to hear of politicians and common citizens alike labeling others as “deplorables,” “snowflakes” or “racists” and to have some go so far as to commit crimes against those who disagree with them. Facing these circumstances, how can we heed Russell’s advice to discern the truth and tolerate others? 

This prescription for humanity is much easier said than done. But we must not give up on truth and tolerance. Because, as Russell mentions, they are “absolutely vital” to society. Adhering to this advice is not a passive process. It requires a daily commitment to open-mindedness, empathy and a willingness to change our thinking in light of new information.  

We must be critical of the messages we see on a daily basis, and resist the spread of messages that contain inaccuracies. In order to refine our truth-seeking skills, Sarah Blakeslee, of the University of California’s Chico’s Meriam Library invented the CRAAP test to evaluate sources for credibility. Whenever reading or viewing something, you can remember to fact-check based on Currency (When was the information written and last updated?), Relevance (Who is the intended audience?), Authority (Is the author qualified to write on this topic?), Accuracy (Where does the information/evidence come from?) and Purpose (Is the purpose of the information to  inform, teach, sell, entertain or persuade?). 

As for learning to be more tolerant, we must try to engage with people that we disagree with. Answers do not come from silencing people who hold views in opposition to our own. We can learn to accept their reality, without having to accept the perceived justification of their views. From this starting point, progress is much more possible. Out of disagreement, as journalist Brian Cronan wrote, “is where the beauty and nuance of human discussion and intellectual progression emerges and blossoms.”  

Though the methods which will heal the cultural fragmentation of our society can and should be diverse, there are several key principles which can help to center us during this time of relative turmoil — two of them being Russell’s advice for truth and tolerance.  

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