“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” So said the character Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. To try and purify and simplify things, I turned to the Merriam Webster app on my phone and found this among the numerous definitions of truth:
“A judgment, proposition, or idea that is true OR accepted as true” (emphasis mine)
The contradiction in that definition is profound: Actual reality versus accepted reality. Most of us have ancient ancestors who accepted that the world was flat. Strangely, some modern people still believe it, but do you? Whether you do or not won’t change the facts on the ground beneath your feet.
What’s obvious, but not explored enough these days, is that “truth” has two natures: Objective and Subjective.
Subjectively, the opposite of one person’s truth is not false. It’s another person’s truth, or more literally their perspective and opinion. America theoretically is great by design for tolerating such diversity. Exercising the 1st Amendment by airing diverse perspectives can move us closer to objective truth.
In contrast, objective truth is like a balanced checkbook. You either have money in the bank or you don’t. Because of objective truth and its consequences, the electric company will shut off power if they’re not paid. They will not care about someone’s “alternative fact” regarding phantom money in an empty account.
I’ve had the privilege of supporting businesses that worked hard to present objective truth the best they could. I helped them do it. Yet, everybody reading this probably can recall businesses that lied. We know they lied, because the objective truth eventually came out. Some of those lying businesses survived after a regulatory fine or a whipping in the court of public opinion. The most egregious lying companies went down in inglorious flames that burned the guilty and the innocent.
Let’s apply this to the elephant in the chat room: When someone defends a demonstrably false statement –something originally presented as objective reality — and claims it is based on “alternative facts,” they are trying to place you inside their subjective reality. Or, less kindly, they’re selling a bill of shoddy goods hoping you buy it.
Such an approach to persuasion shows even less integrity and accountability than President Clinton’s defense that “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”
It is, in fact, very much akin to an abuser who bloodies their spouse and then exclaims, “Look what you made me do!” The technique is called gaslighting, and it makes an outside observer’s head spin. Yet, the spin sucks many in.
Objective truth is elusive and easily clouded. Pursuing it is rarely pure and never simple. But, objective truth will be uncovered. Eventually. Just ask Enron.