Truth matters

I try to tell social work students that they need be aware of the relationship between the big picture of politics and power (the policy settings that influence the way that opportunites and resources are distributed) and the small picture of individual circumstances. We are slow to learn from our history; patterns repeat in slightly altered form and in Aotearoa New Zealand we are on a regressive course politically, with tax cuts and benefit sanctions designed to redistribute wealth upwards to the already wealthy and privileged. In this post I would like to explore some wider questions about the socio-political construction of ‘truth’.

The evolution of post-truth politics is often associated with the ascent of populist sound-bite driven politicians such as the narcissistic, deeply flawed and dangerous Donald J Trump, who, bizarrely, may well regain the U.S. presidency in January 2025. However, the notion of distorted realities has a much longer pedigree. When he received the Nobel prize for literature in 2005, Harold Pinter delivered a powerful speech reflecting on the role of art in society, the creative process, the function of words and the relationship between truth, power and political ideology. This talk is twenty years old now and is, perhaps, a fifteen minute read, but it is still a profound and disturbing text. It is a searing critique of post-war U.S foreign policy.

Pinter’s address reminds us of the lies which fueled public consent to the catastrophic invasion of Iraq:

As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

These words are particulary cogent today, when the U.S is donkey deep in the genocidal destruction of Gaza. Anyone with eyes and ears can appreciate the bitter irony of shuttle diplomacy urging some form of humanitarian moderation amidst the indiscriminate death and destruction – air-dropping food parcels or building a wharf for aid that Israel is systematically withholding, while all the time arming the Israeli state with money, bombs and shells. The killing could be stopped and a just solution-finding process could be facilitated if America had a mind to make it happen. The U.S chooses not too.

Many have argued that the horror of Gaza has irreparably damaged the reputation and status of the USA as a bastion of liberal human rights and freedom. Pinter points out that this reputation has always been a carefully curated illusion. Freedom is often another word for capitalism in this context. As the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1958) observed in his poem ‘Autobiography’:

I have read the Reader’s Digest

from cover to cover

and noted the close identification of the United States with

      the Promised Land

where every coin is marked

In God We Trust

And, of course, oppression, destruction and the slaughter of innocents is justifiable when God is on your side. Pinter considers the foreign policy record through and since the time of the Cold War:

Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified. But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all.

He focuses on the tragedy of American policy in Nicaragua, noting that the policy of undermining left wing liberation movements has had a global reach:

The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it. It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them.

I am not suggesting here that the U.S is the only source of oppression in the world, just that it has been, and continues to be, a powerful ideology factory for a particular set of economic interests that favour a particular form of social relations. And yes, Pinter is right, that these interests – the interests of private / corporate capital – have been brutally upheld over time. The world of politics and power is not a simple place and certainly not a pretty one, but truth does matter and it should matter to social workers. We walk in the small picture of others’ lives, but in circumstances determined by larger narratives that I believe need to be mercilessly questioned.

Image credit: Roger Sayles


Ferlinghetti, L. (1958). A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions Publishing.

7 replies on “Truth matters”

Kia ora Ian,

Thank you for this post.

While you don’t suggest that the US is the only source of oppression in the world, from a South Americans point of view, they were for a very very long time. The very reason I am writing this here is because we had to leave my beloved Uruguay – one of the countries mentioned above – because of Gringo aggression, manipulation and deceit.

Funny how things work out.

I love the fact you mention that “truth does matter and it should matter to social workers”. It is such an obvious and true statement but what I believe beats a lot of people these days in getting to the truth is time (or the lack of it). I am not saying that as an excuse, I am just stating what I think is the reason.

There is such an influx of material coming at one at any given point in time, through countless difference platforms that disseminating the truth from rubbish is at times difficult and when you now throw in AI I would suggest the problem exponentially gets worse.

However, you are right in saying that we must mercilessly question. We must be ruthless and dogged in that even if we may not make many friends. We are social workers for the simple fact that we are critical thinkers – we should be.

Hasta La Victoria Siempre

Cheers Luis – Thanks for sharing a little part of your story – and yes, they say disinformation has run around the world before the truth has even put its shoes on – or words to that effect. But I reckon the exponential power of reactionary right wing mischief should indeed put us on our collective guard and drive our commitment to social solidarity in these times. Ian

Really good post Ian,
I think you’re absolutely right to question how truth is constructed, used, and serves political purposes. It is also clear that with even a brief overlook of the history post World War II, the United States of America have exhibited the worst kinds of oppressive murderous behaviours, generally designed to support America’s socio-economic interests. And, of course they continue to do so. One heartrending aspect of this is the discourse of the United States as the defenders worldwide of global freedom and democracy combined with their explicit support for the worst kinds of brutal regimes.
Two points I just want to quickly make: firstly anecdotally; one often hears stories of travellers to the United States, meeting kind warm people who are utterly bewildered and saddened that the world does not seem to see them as heroes and liberators. Hence, I think the corruption of truth operates perhaps even more effectively with their own population than it does on a global level.
Secondly, is the nature of neoliberalism’s capacity to co-opt anything. In this instance, the quite sensible move of poststructuralism toward denying the possibility of the BIG truth towards more local and lived truths. A very necessary antidote to the rigidity of science post World War II. And, eminently co-optable to support a notion that truth is always the subjective experience rather than an objective, and sometimes nightmarish experience in the real. The support of multiple massacres, over many decades by the United States, can then far too easily be construed as simply a perspective, rather than a large proportion of humanity suffering under the direct yoke of the United States or the thuggish brutal regimes they have created.
We are well overdue to move past moral relativism and re-discover what should be a shared human sense of moral outrage at the awful lived experience in the real of so many people. The people of Gaza do not need our subjective deliberations, what they need, is our horror and outrage and a furious insistence on change.

Cheers David – You are right that it would be foolish to conflate the foreign policy of the economically imperialist U.S state with all American citizens – in the same way as many Jewish people reject the beliefs and practices of the zionist state – but as Pinter points out in his Nobel Prize address, the identity of the American people as home of the brave and free is incredibly powerful ideological glue – and this, in turn, is tangled with the inequalities of patriarchy, racism and class – all disguised as a function of meritocracy. And we can only wonder at a distance about what toxic alchemy has conspired to drive the ascendancy of Donald J Trump. Yes, it is a time for reasoned outrage and unified action e hoa. We are seeing some of this in Aotearoa now!

When ever I am reading global perspectives or big truths I am reminded as from a reflective perspective of social work how each line spawns an alternative dialogically and overdetermined other narrative. I can sit and debate such an article with myself for hours. So thank you for sharing all the thoughts and comments. They do inspire.

Then I am caught in the futility of it all as I move from the general to the specific from the global to the local. From being angry about the STATE of violence and whether a passive or counter offensive response is more appropriate. This questioning is not meant to have an answer as that necessarily polarises any reflective thought and yet at some point we must be called to action. This is social work praxis. Where theory and action meet to create a possibility based on our philosophy of praxis and our values in action.
The IDEA that social work can be a force for social justice must first be considered how social work is constructed within the capitalist ideology of inequality of the classes. Removing the complexity of all of the above I find and would like to offer that through the entry point of CLASS we can create partial truths or causality narratives as counter hegemony to capitalist project which is becoming more confused with itself as the chaos of its contradictions violently marginalises people from the the global village which was an imperfect metaphor for the hegemony of transnational capital anyway.
Through class as an entry point problematising the failure of capitalism and its propaganda on any alternative political economic system is a form of social justice advocacy. Of which mostly when I have tried to express these views am marginalised and thankfully in NZ only discursively assassinated by those not willing to listen. Many of them have been social workers in positions of power above me.

It is indeed a privileged position to express freely a counter hegemony and to hold your position in society. And yet that is what we must continue to work towards. Even in the face of violent opposition whether genocide of a class or the silencing through ignorance. Every action is founded on an idea entrenched in a specific value and philosophy and that my friends is the confusing and contradictory truth.

Hi Andrew – It can be difficult to work through the contradictory relationship between social work and social justice in a class society. Social workers face very real material barriers – employment relations and the law around public servants for example – so we need to be realists but also I think we can be disabled (and perhaps isolated) by our own analysis, so – for what it is worth – I think it is useful to ask ourselves what can be done rather than what can’t. Contradiction / resistance does generate change – the dialectic in action if you like. Oppression is wrong and systems that perpetuate inequality are wrong – that much is clear. Thanks for your contribution

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