Can we handle the truth?

The critical need for genuine fact cannot be overstated.

Maeve Roughton
8 February 2017

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CC0 Public Domain.

In December 2016 Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of the year, the singular term that their merry band of logophiles found to capture “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the past 365 days. As an adjective, “post-truth” is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Our post-truth era is not a moment in time after truth, but the juncture beyond truth—an occasion in which truth is no longer relevant.

Can we no longer handle the truth? Perhaps that depends on what the ‘truth’ truly is.

Before we can dissect the pitfalls of post-truth existence we must first understand what truth is: the state of being the case; a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true; the property of being in accord with fact or reality. Truth assumes actuality but it does not require it. Often, for something to be held as true it must only be accepted as such: 70 virgins patiently awaiting in the afterlife, Meryl Streep as the most talented actress in the world, the sky above us a celestial blue.

Truth can be subjective, based on personal opinion and experience. The perception of truth, whether you’re a devout Catholic, Katherine Hepburn fan, or colorblind, redefines truth from person to person, seemingly without minimizing the acceptance of any one of those beliefs as truth.

In a world teeming with selfie affirmations, the idea of one’s own truth—‘my truth’—has come to define an entire generation. The pursuit of the authentic self comes with the freedom to editorialize. A quick search of #mytruth on Twitter reveals intellectual breakthroughs on everything from life wisdoms (“Attention to detail is what divides the exceptional from the average #mytruth”) to personal reportage (“#mytruth I woke up with that familiar clammy taste in mouth, mouth as dry as cotton. I blinked”) to financial advice (“Parents, save up: Cost of raising a child is more than $233K Children are a bad investment #mytruth”).

In this context, truth is not the same as fact—the quality of being actual, something that actually exists. Those creating their own truths are simply deepening their own beliefs.

Think about two people standing in the middle of Central Park as a bird flies by. New Yorker 1 says to New Yorker 2, “I just saw a red bird.” New Yorker 2 responds, “No, that was a yellow bird.” Technological interventions aside, there would be no way for this pair to confirm who is right, to know what the truth is—whether a red or yellow bird flew by. Even if the same bird flew by moments later, NYers 1 and 2 would never be able to confirm it was the same bird that flew by before, in that moment, at that time: hashtag my truth.

Truth and fact may not be synonymous, but what about fact and reality? One of Albert Einstein’s favorite thought experiments will take us down another hypothetically complex path.  

Imagine yourself in the first car of a train cruising down an outdoor track. Your friend is on a platform up ahead waiting for you to rush by. Lightning strikes, two bolts at either end of the train. From the platform your buddy sees both bolts crash at the same time. You, however, being closer to the strike at the front of the train, see that bolt first because the light has a shorter distance to travel to you. When comparing notes after the fact, both you and your friend would be right (you did see one bolt strike first and your friend did see two bolts strike at the same time), but here fact is certainly different from reality. With this thought experiment Einstein launched his theory of relativity.

Does that mean that facts are relative, too?

In an interview on January 22 2016, one of President Trump’s senior advisors, Kellyanne Conway, introduced the phrase “alternative facts” in response to conflicting truths regarding attendance numbers at the presidential inauguration two days before. On Inauguration Day, Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer alleged, among other things, that the 2017 gathering had the “total largest audience” of any inauguration ever, a fact that has since been hotly contested. In defense of her colleague and employer, Mrs. Conway offered “alternative facts” as an explanation for why Mr. Spicer’s comments differed from mounting evidence to the contrary—a very post-truth truthiness moment.

Later in the same interview, Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd railed against Conway’s contention, to which she responded, “There’s no real way to quantify crowds. We all know that.” Simple math seems like the simple answer to this inane debate, but even that measurable fact is in question. We dispute everything from the afterlife to the gods of acting, but surely this is something we can prove?

Well, maybe not. Spicer doubled down on his earlier comments by declaring that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” The New York Times estimates that 160,000 people awaited the newly-minted president’s inaugural speech. On day two in office Trump said that the event drew 250,000. Aerial shots of January 20, 2017 abound, but who can count every single person from 8,000 feet up?

Suddenly, each one of those attendees becomes a red-yellow bird flying by.

It would also seem that the line between alternative facts and ‘fake news’ is tantalizingly blurry. Having already asserted that truth is not fact or reality, it’s hard to remember a time when fake news didn’t exist. The Greeks gave a horse to the Trojans as a ‘peace offering.’ Closeted homosexual Rock Hudson was a ‘celebrated womanizer.’ Kids get to ‘meet Santa Claus’ at Christmas, who’s usually a guy in a fat suit making the minimum wage.

Everyday we’re bombarded with total falsehoods. Some we know and love, and some we unknowingly and blindly accept. Because the spectrum for truth is so broad, fake news can appear to be as rampant as the real thing. One man’s fake news trash is another man’s real news treasure.

Trump and his team have long had a tempestuous relationship with the media, attacking digital and print outlets for skewing reality. At a recent press conference, the president directed his fury at CNN for publishing unsubstantiated claims about some (ahem) personal matters, condemning the channel’s prodding reporter without allowing a question to be asked. A couple of weeks later CNN took what some might argue was revenge by not covering the inauguration in full depth, shying away from assessment and coverage for fear of ‘normalizing’ what many perceive to be a sad, scary truth.

No news outlet can cover every moment of history, but there’s an expectation that the ostensibly bipartisan news outlets on 24-hour rotation will capture most of the important ones. Without all the various insights and perspectives, how real is the real news really?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” is what the forefathers of the United States declared. But even those truths, the ones we live and die for and free and enforce by aren’t agreed on. No wonder we can’t make up our collective mind about the color of a dress on the internet, whether the New England Patriots cheat (okay maybe on that one we can), or exactly how many people showed up to stand around for a few hours in Washington DC on January 20. Maybe we’re more self-referential now than we ever knew; maybe we’ve actually been ‘post-truth’ for a long, long time.

To be ‘post-truth’ doesn’t mean that fact and reality don’t exist. All of the events I’ve described actually happened. But the importance of truth beyond belief, the critical need for genuine fact, cannot be overstated. Our post-truth existence threatens to undermine certain truths that we do in fact hold to be self-evident, like the realities of science and discovery that are as close to undeniable as anything can be in this hyper-curated, deeply-connected world.

There’s a fine line between real and fake, between what actually is and what we perceive. That line has always been there, so the question still remains: can we handle the truth?

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