Truth and Trump
May 1, 2018
Stuart W. Mirsky

So why does truth matter? Why not lies when lying serves our interests better and we can get away with it? What's the big deal with telling the truth, respecting the facts? Doesn't everyone have his or own "truth," i.e., his or her own way of understanding their world? Can we deny the right of each to believe as he or she wishes? And if what we believe conflicts with what someone else claims is true, why should we trim the sails of our own beliefs to their wind? Who do they think they are anyway? Is their "truth" better than ours?

The question comes down to what truth is, of course. Sometimes we just mean by that word those big ideas we hold about how the world is. Truth, in this sense, is belief in God or in a life beyond death. Truth, that is, is faith. Indeed, in Hebrew the word for "belief" and "faith" are the same: l'hamin. When someone says they believe you they say they have faith in what you say. Even in English we often conflate faith and belief, reflecting the notion that believing someone is about trusting them, whether their words or their actions. Thus "truth" comes to be seen as applicable to someone's big ideas about how things really are and, by extension, to the big ideas proffered by a belief system. I believe in the Bible, say. Or in the Word of God (as delivered by this or that person).

To the extent we say we believe anything there is always that ambiguity, between having faith in a speaker or document and having faith in the trustworthiness of some words uttered or written down. A few centuries ago people in Europe began to make a formal distinction between trusting words because of who spoke them (authority of whatever sort) and because we could prove them for ourselves (rejecting authority as the bottom line measure). Science in the modern sense grew from that realization, i.e., that we can find out things for ourselves and that there are systematic ways to do it which can be learned and expanded upon, improved. Today's world is the result of that shift.

But "truth" has always been an ambiguous term since not everything we can believe or come to think we know is amenable to testing by observation. Even much of science cannot be tested directly by us and the great body of knowledge that has developed in our modern world as a result of the turn to science is simply too vast for any one of us to test and verify it all in our own lives. So we are always obliged to take some claims, some beliefs we seem to need to hold, on faith, restoring the original meaning of "truth" to that. We accept the narratives and predictions of science because we have been taught these as part of our modern body of knowledge and/or because we have come to trust the disciplines of science. They have given us telephones and automobiles, airplanes and space satellites and x-ray machines, and the microscope and the germ theory of disease and modern medicines and technologies. Science as a system of beliefs has proved itself to us.

But that proof is, itself, a matter of accumulated beliefs for, in fact, as some have discovered, we can also spin alternative narratives with other explanations of the phenomena of our world and sometimes these can seem just as good to us (partly because they can't be disproved and partly because they may satisfy us psychologically in ways science as a belief system may not). Truth remains, at bottom, a matter of putting our trust in something, whether a speaker, his words or a bevy of beliefs we have been taught (or developed on our own) over time. That's why truth is so hard to pin down and why people like Donald Trump don't seem constrained by it.

If what's true is what works for us, then someone like our current president may simply feel that worrying about saying things that match how others see the world is irrelevant. Saying whatever pops into his head is good enough because enough people respond in ways he desires to those things when he says them. What he says works, for him, and so he has no strong reason to worry about speaking in ways others will agree with if those others aren't his targeted audience and those who are respond as he wants them to.

"I could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes."

As for those who cheer him on, what does "truth" mean to them? Perhaps no more nor less than it means to him. If they can readily endorse his obvious falsehoods (obvious because of their contradictory nature as much as because they contravene clearly observable facts), they have surely shaken off the idea of "truth" forged centuries ago as that which we can test by observation. Instead they have embraced the older, less precise notion, that truth claims are the ones that serve our needs.

This, indeed, is the broader, deeper notion of "truth" for when you come right down to it, all claims of truth rest on that. True statements about the world must necessarily be those which enable us to pass through it most effectively. We must be able to distinguish between the shark in the water and the floating log before attempting to cross. And we must be able to speak words to our fellows to convey that to them. If not, somebody's likely to get eaten.

But what if you've placed your bet on the predator rather than his prey? The shark's truth isn't the carp's.

Update on May 4, 2018 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky
"As [Donald Trump] once told . . . Billy Bush when Bush called him out (privately) for lying about how great the ratings for 'The Apprentice' were: 'People will just believe you. You just tell them, and they believe you.'”
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