Thinking about this week’s column, I recalled watching Oprah Winfrey’s controversial interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (that’s how her website named them) last year. I’m not sure why. Something that has stuck with me about that event was Winfrey’s use of the term ‘your truth’.
Note: not ‘the truth’, but ‘your truth’.
At the time I thought I’d caught something that everyone else had missed. Very profound of me.
As it turns out, I was far from alone in seeing this – and for Oprah watchers, this was a familiar rhetorical device and as a concept, an integral part of the inspiring message she has delivered to her audiences for decades. Back at the Golden Globes ceremony in 2018, she foregrounded it in these words: ‘What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.’
This is intriguing. ‘Your truth’ as a personal story to empower oneself. Something that stakes a claim on reality and one’s place in it. Perhaps this is why the idea – ‘your truth’, ‘my truth’ and so on – is particular prominent among those in what might be termed the self-actualisation industry.
Mike Robbins, for example, is an author and speaker working on leadership and motivation. His website contains a short essay entitled ‘Truth is About How We Feel’. The title is in itself instructive, but it’s worth drawing on some of its insights:
Truth is not about being right. Truth is about how we feel and what is real for us. It’s about expressing what we think and feel in an authentic, vulnerable, and transparent way.
When we let go of being ‘right’ about our opinions and take responsibility for our experience, we can speak our truth from a much deeper and more authentic place. Speaking this deeper truth will not only liberate us, but it has the potential to make a difference for others and bring us closer together with them.
If this strikes a discordant note, well, it should. According to my Oxford Dictionary of Current English, ‘truth’ is defined as follows: ‘1 quality or state of being true. 2 what is true.’
Perhaps more significantly, the word ‘true’ means: ‘1 in accordance with fact or reality (a true story). 2 genuine; rightly or strictly so called. 3 (often foil, by to) loyal, faithful. 4 (foil, by to) accurately conforming to (a type or standard) (true to form). 5 correctly positioned or balanced; upright, level. 6 exact, accurate (a true copy).’
In its literal meaning, the idea of truth is intimately connected to objectivity and reality. Something is true because it is true. It is proven not by feelings, but by what can be verified by observation – or by something else (we’ll return to that in a moment).
So, truth, properly defined, exists as a singular and complete and defined idea. ‘The truth’. Seen thus, to put a personal possessive pronoun before it – ‘your truth’ – contradicts its definition. Truth is not contingent on one’s perspective, and certainly not on one’s feelings.
One may claim, believe or feel that a cat is a canary (Jurassic World reference…), however longingly or sincerely, but that does not make it so.
Yet is this always the case?
In the 2015 movie Jurassic World, Dr Henry Wu – the master geneticist – retorts to his superior’s shock at the predictable consequences of creating a monster: ‘Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.’
In other words, while the tangible things, the binary, byte-sized answers to questions lend themselves to quick and intuitive definition – ‘the truth’ – there are any number of other things that do not. This is no trivial matter, since so much of what motivates our social behaviour is inherently a matter of perception and perspective. Whether something is ‘true’ or not is a matter of debate.
And perhaps that is really what Winfrey was getting at. How did Markle perceive what she had been through?
But then why use the term ‘truth’? Firstly, this has to do with recognising that one’s perceptions and feelings create a sense of reality. Whether this is an entirely accurate view of reality (what is objectively true, with regard to all possible information that might ideally be accessed) is less relevant than the fact that it informs one’s experience of the world.
Secondly, I suspect there is something ideological at work. Much of modern culture – let’s be specific here, contemporary Western culture, informed in various ways by such intellectual currents as postmodernism and critical theory – disputes the idea of universal and objective truth. ‘Truth’ is contingent on the viewpoint, value judgements and experiences of any given individual. In academic terms, this is epistemic relativism.
Thirdly, the self-actualisation mentioned above has come to occupy a privileged place in the demands we individuals make on collective society. We demand not only that our experiences be accepted by our peers, nor even respected, but actively validated. And social etiquette increasingly goes along with this, provided at least that these fall within acceptable parameters (what these are, though, is a changeable phenomenon).
Yet even while our intellectual culture moves towards denying the notion of truth, we still retain at least a vestigial attachment to it. Truth is a powerful signifier. It bespeaks integrity, reliability and righteousness. Hence, ‘your truth’ represents the appropriation of the moral force of the idea, while gutting a good part of its substance.
This is substantively what the American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez invoked some time ago when it turned out that she had been pushing fallacious claims about military spending. When challenged on this, she responded: ‘If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees. I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely factually and semantically correct than about being morally right.’
This is a remarkable assertion. The quantum of funds committed to a given purpose can (in principle) be established and quantified. It has a reality – a truth, something that is true – that can be verified, and exists independently of anyone’s feelings around it. How one feels about it morally is a separate matter. Ms Ocasio-Cortez claims in this regard amounted to a dismissal of the importance of truth, or at least its substitution by moral righteousness. There is a strong echo of the idea of ‘my truth’ in this.
There is something quite ironic in her stance. For her political nemesis, Donald Trump, has been widely and roundly condemned for his loose commitment to the truth. Indeed, there is probably no one who in popular discourse has come to be associated with the idea of ‘fake news’ quite like Trump.
Indeed, there has been much rumination about a ‘post-truth world’. While this idea has gained traction in recent years – the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2016 was ‘post-truth’ – the idea appears to have originated in a 1992 essay by playwright Steve Tesich in the left-wing American journal, The Nation.
It’s useful reflecting on his thoughts. His frame of reference was not only lies being told to the citizens of democracies, but the apparent complicity of those same citizens in their own deception: ‘We came to equate truth with bad news and we didn’t want bad news anymore, no matter how true or vital to our health as a nation. We looked to our government to protect us from the truth.’
Free people, in other words, need not be actively and malevolently manipulated, but can demand to be so. We have now arrived at a place where an argument for the very abolition of truth is on the table. Holding Trump (or Ocasio-Cortez, or Oprah Winfrey) responsible may be satisfying, but it’s wholly inadequate.
The words of an American freelance journalist, Ryan Martin, capture this well, and I cannot do any better:
Despite honesty now becoming a commodity, the word ‘truth’ itself has been continuously mishandled. Often-used phrases like ‘my truth’ and ‘their truth’, though said by the well-meaning, are poisonous in a society susceptible to misinformation and manipulation.
So, what does this mean?
Well, the mishandling of the idea of truth certainly makes public debate exponentially more difficult than it might be. For if each party is entitled to an own ‘truth’, then even basic and verifiable facts cease to matter very much. The invocation of evidence becomes increasingly pointless. It’s not so much that we lose sight of what we agree on, but that we lose the basis on which to disagree.
Indeed, I wonder whether those advocating the recognition of feeling as an expression of subjective ‘truth’ understand that while this might satisfy the individual’s ego, it degrades the prospect of living as a citizen within a community.
None of this is to say that questions of perspective or interpretation or moral conviction or indeed of feelings are irrelevant. They are, profoundly so. And we humans do not function by logic or rationality alone. But we must recognise them for what they are – the subjective understanding of things that is the (inevitable) product of lacking a comprehensive mastery of all information.
Remember this, and we can then accept the inevitability for debate and the necessity for humility in doing so. No matter how dearly we hold our views, they are our views, not an invulnerable and unchallengeable truth.
Truth – ‘the truth’ – needs to be reclaimed. Yes, establishing what is true is sometimes difficult and laborious. Sometimes painful. Not every issue may be amenable to an easy conclusion. But let us retain the idea, the ideal and an aspiration to find it. It is a value and a virtue we would do well to cherish.