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What is Truth?

The word “truth” is often used, in spoken or written discourse. It is a necessary word, but it is overused, and potentially misleading.

What is “truth”? Eternal verities, whatever that might mean? Unquestionable reality? “His truth”? “Her truth”? “Their truth”? Those terms are now in common usage, and I think that it merges a philosophical aspect with a cultural or political one. If one wants to refer to “the truth of Black people,” or “the truth of Native Americans,” that person is likely referring to a collective reality, how a particular racial or ethnic group might have generally perceived things here, and how they have been generally treated.

Such a collective reality is not intended to represent the views or experiences of every person of that identity or history. It is an attempt to summarize and focus upon the general experience of people of that identity, so as to try to give voice to people who it is felt have not been given it. So to say “their truth” does have an import that goes beyond a question of whether what this or that person feels or says, is exactly accurate.

But when someone says, as has lately become more prevalent in our culture, that “he or she is telling or speaking his or her truth,” t is a troublesome juxtaposition. What does “John’s truth,” or “Susan’s truth’ actually mean? That John or Susan is telling us what is true? What is true for them? What they think is true? That every fact they speak of is true, or just the general sense of it?

How do we know what we think we know? One could spend a century pondering that philosophical question, the focus of which has changed over the centuries. Is there a concrete, unassailable reality which we can all agree on? Less so than in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, where what the Pope said was considered canon, and the King’s word was law. Argue with the Church, and you were executed as a heretic. Argue with the King, and you were executed as a traitor..

Later in history, the concept of truth and even reality, became more amorphous. Skipping much of that slow but immensely important development, we now have the field of phenomenology, which deals with how a person experiences reality. No two people might experience the same event or vision as the same, although the variance may be slight at times. Is there an observable reality which all or at least most people can agree on?

Maybe with some things, those which science deals with. If someone said this object was a tree and someone else said it was a kitchen sponge, we could go with the consensus which would be overwhelmingly in favor of tree. And we could use scientists: botanists, chemists, to tell us what the constituency of the object is, what elements it contains. That would settle the question for almost all people, though there are indeed those who, for whatever reason: to be different, to be difficult or scornful, or because they hate science, who wold continue to argue it. .”You say that it is a tree, I say that it is a sponge. Either of us could be correct.”

If that sounds ridiculous it, is not that far from some of the political arguments we have. The goal of those who do not accept the general reality, is to cause everything to be a matter of contention, until finally everyone gives up, and follows the reality propounded by the totalitarian leader. Trump said that no one should trust anyone but him as to what the reality was. That is completely the dicta of dictators, particularly in the last hundred years. There is this line from Orwell’s novel “1984.” which said that the Party demanded that people give up their own perceptions, and believe everything the Party told them.

Back to the individual: How can we know if someone is telling the truth? We can first question, what is the truth? Phenomenology would suggest that one person’s experience of an event may be different than another’s. We are all familiar with the essence of the movie “Rashomon” (I have not seen it, though I should), where different people witnessed the same things, but saw or tell it differently.

In such situations, and they are more plentiful than one might think, how do we know who is telling “the truth”? By consensus; the story told by the majority of participants is the right one? By using our logic, what story seems most credible? By consciously or unconsciously employing our own perceptions and biases?

If the event is one which has been filmed (though films can be altered and mislead), or viewed by many people, there is a greater chance of agreeing on what happened. But if it is about conversations between two or three people, which no one else heard, how can one tell? Simply choose to believe one of them? Or in some cases, the only one of the participants who described the event?

Now, why would someone (and I am literally referring to any theoretical person, throughout human history) tell a story that was not “the truth?” Here are several possibilities: 1) the person misperceived what he thought he saw, if we are dealing with a visual event. 2) The person is correct on some particulars of what she saw, but because of “perception bias,” she focused on this aspect rather than another, whereas someone else may well have focused differently, and given it a different overall context.

3) The person is not telling “the truth,” Because he or she has an agenda; or because they like or dislike someone so much that their own vision of things does not comport with what an unbiased observer might say. And is there ever a truly unbiased observer? Or because that person has a difficult time in distinguishing what they see or hear, from what they are feeling or thinking. In a very extreme case,and to render it even more opaque, solipsism is a philosophy that contends that there is no reality that exists outside of one’s own mind.

Now, of course I realize that we strive to get by, by relying on sensory input which most others perceive in a similar way; and then making mostly instantaneous conclusions about how much we can rely on what someone told us. We tend to believe most people about most things they tell us, with regard to what happened to them, or what someone said to them. Usually, it doesn’t matter much; someone tells us at work about something that happened to them in their home, or what their parents told them thirty years ago. We nod sympathetically, and go on.

In these cases, it rarely matters much. In the workplace it can be more fraught with risk, you end up taking the side of one of two factions. Or you hear the other side, and change your mind, or think that “the truth” is not nearly as certain as this person, or the other person, seems to think it is.

If it is in the realm of public life: politics or the world of entertainment, perhaps, we have our favorites, and those we do not like; and we might have fun trying to decide who is telling the truth, and who is not; or maybe they both are telling the most favorable version to them. Amber Heard or Johnny Depp? Al Franken or Leanne Tweeden and some other women? This kind of thing now goes on each day. Sometimes the accused person responds, sometimes he does not. Sometimes there are literal trials, but then some people angrily dispute the jury verdict,

And sometimes, maybe more rarely, the person talked about, or accused of something in word or deed, does not choose to respond. Why not? Maybe because the accusations are true. Maybe because they are not, but the person does not want to get into a bitter fight in public view. Perhaps because “the truth” is a combination of things, including misperceptions, ongoing biases or beliefs.

Have a discussion with a family about a family argument, and no matter how light the discussion is, there are going to be all sorts of disagreements as to who said what, and what they meant by it. And if it is marriage counseling, the disagreements and possible misperceptions are going to be numerous. And if it turns into a divorce case, the two people involved, who might or might not both be generally decent people, are not only going to be accusatory and rancorous, they are going to have vast differences in accounts of what was said, and why, and what the person meant when he or she said it.

One certainly does no have to be an attorney to realize this, but attorneys see it all the time. Someone files a suit against an employer for allowing sexual harassment; or claims bias and unfairness in how they were treated; and you have to try to figure it out, in the maelstrom of angry people, people who don’t quite recall this or that; people who say, “Yes I said that but it is being taken totally out of context,” not only with regard to that conversation, but in the overall way that the person was treated.

In some cases where stress in the workplace is alleged, a possible defense is “the set stage,” where one tries to show, with the benefit of psychological reports, of course, which the other side’s doctors will completely disagree with, that the plaintiff came to that workplace with significant psychological problems which then played out in that environment. There is sometimes truth in that, but on the other hand, it is very difficult to prove, except in extreme circumstances, that the employer or other employees did not have something to do with the plaintiff’s difficulties there.

I tend to believe people more than not, but I am also aware of “secondary gain,” where someone knowingly or unconsciously benefits from claims or accusations, or blaming other people. And when money or fame or power are involved, one has to be wary of the motivations, rather than just simply taking the story at face value.

And “telling his truth” may mean nothing more than the old-fashioned term, “saying his piece.” And there are very many people who store up anger or resentment against their family for things that happened to them as a child, or against their siblings or spouse or workplace manager. If you are willing to listen,and evince some sympathy, they might recount these at length. And one may not think that there might be another story or stories out there, not directly contradicting this person’s, but putting it in a different frame and context.

In a childhood or adolescent classroom, or an adult courtroom, you get to hear many stories, often conflicting to various extents. Should we believe the first who speaks, because is is ‘his or her “truth”?. Should they be called “his recollections or revelations”? Maybe, Truth is a complex matter, and in one context, there are various gradations and differences as to what “truth” is. It can vary with the individual.

We strive to try to uncover the truth about many things. We don’t want to figuratively throw up our hands, and say, “Who knows? It is all so confusing.” But we should also be wary of accepting any person’s or people’s story, or version of events or history, just because they came out and forcefully said it. Some degree of openness to hearing someone’s story, combined with skepticism, and a wish to consider motivations and context, and so want to hear others’ perspectives, is important. “Truth” can actually be a fluid and sometimes ambiguous concept.. We all know that, but often we are inclined to not fully consider the aspects of motivations and consequences of the ostensible telling of it. Ultimately, of course, each person makes up his or her own mind. But even that can change, as we have learned from reading history books, or conflicting biographies.