The Problem with Truth

In our desperation to makes sense of a complex world, we've damaged the concept of truth so badly we're now prepared to call it dead -- to our great detriment.

We keep hearing the phrase “post-truth world” delivered as a foregone conclusion in all sorts of contexts. However dramatic and click-worthy that conclusion seems, it is deeply and problematically inaccurate. If truth is simply the adherence to fact, the last few years have revealed how unstable and uncertain truth has always been in American culture and pulled back the veil on the soft, fluid boundaries between fact and fiction in modern society as opinion often masquerades as fact in the form of both mis and disinformation. Reality is that we never lived in a world with the broad, firm sense of shared truth that we seem to feel like we’ve lost -- that idea was the lie, not that we have moved beyond it. We have developed a longing nostalgia for an era of singular truth presented by singular voices that we all shared.  But that world never existed.

In a world with more voices and more information controlled by fewer gatekeepers who determine who has the right to speak and about what but many new gatekeepers choosing for us what we see not based on what we need but on what will generate the most engagement -- in our desperate grasp to make sense of a world that feels out of control and ungovernably complex, we have turned to phrases like “my truth” to validate our experience and give ourselves a sense of control over the world around us. Using the word truth to describe our unique view of the world from our unique place in an impossibly complex, hyperpersonalized graph of information is deeply problematic. Some facts are true whether we like them or want them to be or not. Declaring “my truth” as an expression that my experience is valid -- that the feelings I feel are real and not to be denied or ignored. But feelings are not facts just as opinions are not facts. And we must be willing to hold on to both the validity of our feelings and the possibility that our feelings lead us to opinions that are false at the same time. We are not always right, especially in the moment. Our perspective may be incomplete or incorrect in subtle-or-not-so-subtle ways depending on how we are getting information and how we interpret what we see.  We need time to reflect, to reconcile the truth of the feelings in the moment with the larger truth of what is happening in the world around us. And we need to reconcile our experience in community with others. To make sense of the complexity of more voices and in our need for validation and a media landscape allergic to nuance, moving too fast for the reconciliation we need to integrate our experience with truth, we look for shortcuts. Too much debate, too much confrontation combined with the myopia of our own uniqueness leads us to interpret our view as the view. And other views not as other but as wrong or outright threatening. 

What that nostalgia represents is a fiction that the truth shared by the Cronkite media world of the 1970s and 1980s, by the gatekeeper-driven culture of the last fifty years, was not only true but complete. What we long for is not just truth, not just clarity about which stories are true and which are opinion, but a sense of completeness. That not only is the story we are relying on to understand the world true, but complete -- without blindspots, without omissions (intentional or accidental). We need both truth — adherence to facts and completeness to feel whole and healthy. What Walter Cronkite may have shared on a nightly basis may well have been true but was deeply incomplete -- but white middle class and working class American culture requires that incompleteness to maintain its dominance and for that dominance to remain valid. In a more complete view of the world, the dominance of whiteness falls apart, is revealed to have always been false. An element of social justice and inclusion movements like Black Lives Matter is the striving for not just a more true view of history and society but a more complete one. They are threatening not just because of claims to power but because they force us to reconcile the incompleteness we have incorrectly held as complete and what that exclusion has cost us and everyone else. And what completeness might enable for us and for everyone else.

The inaccurate completeness of the past is so appealing (not just for white people although that desperation is acute) because it is simple and easy. Because it is smaller, it does not challenge us. But because it is smaller, simpler, it also makes humanity small, bounded by a narrower set of possibilities. A broader sense of completeness gives us a broader set of infinite possibility, of humanity unbounded by singular perspective -- unlocked by the potential of seeing all of human experience. To be infinite requires us to be willing to hold the whole universe of possibility, the whole of humanity in our minds, the whole truth -- and while that might seem daunting, too much for one person to hold -- it is not too much for our human community to carry together.