The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was “post-truth”: an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But what is truth? The eternal question has some new—and old—answers.


Truth, Lies, and Bullshit

For the ancient Greeks, truth was considered not only a virtue but intrinsic to one’s personality. The ancient Greek verb aletheuein means “to be truthful,” reflecting a sense of action. “Truth,” says Gabriel Richardson Lear, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy, “is something we do.”

“What Plato and Aristotle really are aware of,” she says, “is that when I speak to you, I’m not just telling you something about the way I think the world is. I’m also showing you who I take myself to be.”

Thus, communication “is not just passing information from one person to another. It’s a relationship between people.”

And like any relationship, truth is based on a certain amount of trust, says Chris Kennedy, the William H. Colvin Professor in Linguistics. According to the grammatical and social norms of language, when someone makes a statement such as, “It’s snowing in Iowa,” the listener assumes two things: the speaker believes it’s snowing in Iowa, and the belief is based on some reason, like a weather report. These conditions apply whether or not it is actually snowing in Iowa.

“That’s why language is a good vehicle for communication,” says Kennedy, who is teaching a course this spring called Truth. “We can use language to describe the world; we have intuitions about whether these descriptions are true or false, and given these norms of belief and evidence, we can use other people’s descriptions to update our own beliefs.”

Yet these conventions, he adds, “can be abused.” Drawing on contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit, Kennedy tends to think of much of post-truth as bullshit rather than lies.

Bullshit, Kennedy says, differs from lies in that a liar knowingly speaks untruths, while a bullshitter doesn’t care about truth or falsity. The bullshitter’s interest lies entirely in getting the listener to act or think in a certain way—regardless of whether the listener’s motivation is based in truth or not.

“It’s precisely this attitude that erases the substance of debate,” Kennedy says, “which is why it’s so dangerous to democracy.”


Multiple Truths

The truth has always been subject to manipulation, especially by those in power.

For example, Clifford Ando, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Classics, History, and the Law School, notes that the Roman emperor Trajan sent back reports of great success on the battlefields of the Near East, leading the Roman Senate to award him several honors. But months after he died, it became obvious that Trajan had lied about these victories.

In a large empire in 117 CE, news traveled slowly. “The most efficient mechanisms for moving news,” says Ando, “were under the control of the government.”

Cassius Dio wrote one of the only histories of Rome from its foundation to the height of the monarchy. Dio wrote that when Rome changed from a democracy to a monarchy, the only historical account he had to go on was the emperor’s.  Under the democracy, contestation in the public sphere created a space for truth-seeking by members of the public.  “Under the monarchy, by contrast, Dio can report the official version,” Ando says, “and he can report rumors, but he says, ‘From the moment of the consolidation of power, it became extraordinarily difficult to verify the truth.’”

In writing histories of nineteenth- and twentieth-century India, Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations, noted an evolution in scholars’ accounts. Early “official” histories, produced by English colonizers, eliminated the viewpoints of the colonized. They gave way to so-called objective histories, in which scholars sought to overcome their biases of class, religion, or nationality. Now, historians acknowledge those biases up front.

But whether or not they agreed on, say, the causes or effects of the Partition of India, the scholars would at least agree that it happened. Similarly, Ando says, in the case of Trajan, whether or not the senators agreed on what happened during Trajan’s last military campaign, they would have agreed on two things: first, that the emperor either was or was not successful in the military campaign, and second, there would be some way to find out whether it was true.

Ando, who also studies knowledge’s history and transmission as a faculty member of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, contrasts this form of truth-seeking with the global post-truth era. Whether it be a denial that smoking causes cancer or a debate about climate change, according to Ando there exists “a process of obfuscation that enacts an endless deferral of the possibility of knowing the truth.”

“The nature of political disagreement fundamentally changes,” Ando points out, “if you refuse to agree that there are even scientific facts.”

Truth and Fiction

Is post-truth a form of fiction? When Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, often called the world’s first novel, in the eleventh century, critics condemned her for telling lies, says Norma Field, the Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. But supporters argued “that falsehood can be a means to a greater truth.”

Certainly writers such as François Rabelais and Octavia Butler created stories to illustrate larger truths. Post-truth, on the other hand, insists on itself as a substitute for truth, says Field, eliminating “the rich ambiguity of traveling between artifice and reality that any notion of fiction always involves.”

Truth and Post-Truth

Truth still exists, these scholars affirm. Yet we seem to have created a post-truth world in which many people readily believe “alternative facts” or “fake news.” The reasons for this cultural shift are too numerous and complex to contain in this issue. But acknowledging that those reasons exist may be one step toward reasserting the truth.

 


Comments

What are the differing consequences of the various versions of truth? Is this another way to talk about it?

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