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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.


11 Responses

  1. When my mother became seriously ill with rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease), I made it a point that she would never go to a doctor’s office or the ER without me. Yes, I served as her advocate but also as a witness. I asked questions and I took detailed notes of what transpired. I requested second and even third opinions if I believed they were necessary. I would advise any person going to a doctor or the ER not to go alone. Always have someone with you. There is a tendency to believe what professionals (doctors, lawyers, government agency officials, etc) say over what ‘ordinary’ people meeting with such distinguished and infallible (heh) people say. Have someone with you who can support you and remember what is said and done. It could save your life. It saved my mother’s more than once.

  2. Here is the context: there is a whole community of people in social media who thought they were alone but once they started sharing their experiences, they found they had a lot in common. There are well known patterns of behavior and now mental health professionals that study them. The problem is we have known for a long time is that people who have never been on the receiving end live in an alternate reality. They just have a very hard time believing what actually happens. That in turn is devastating to the victims because they can rarely get justice if no one believes them. In a way, it’s not unlike racism or sexism or homophobia. In this case, the target is assigned an unwanted narrative and told to deal with it for the rest of their lives regardless of the damage it has done.
    So, I think some biographies can have a clarifying effect. It’s not a matter of he said/she said. It’s more of a description of a formula that some of us know all too well that now finally has a high profile spokesman.
    By the way, you get an even more profound understanding of the truth when you have been both perpetrator and victim. When you come to realize how easily you’ve been manipulated to see another person as unworthy of empathy or respect, you are more likely to see the pattern.

    • Yes, that is profound . It happens in school, from lower grades to higher. Someone is assigned a role, and it is so hard for them to shake it, unless they go to another school. Everyone gets one, and some are more acceptable than others. But unless you hit the winning home run, or get the highest score, or go out with the best-looking person, you have difficulty changing that. Until people mature, or you are in an environment where there are many people, or you stay in a social or political set where most are of like mind, and you don’t have to win a popularity contest, Even if you cannot find that, you can often change the environment. But you can’t change your birth family, of course.

      I ran for student body president in high school, and came in what was probably a distant second out of two. The winner was a very nice and bright young man of Indian ancestry, very popular. At a fairly recent reunion, he got up and said that since ii did not win that election, the consolation prize was that I got to get to stand line first at the buffet. People laughed and clapped. I was rather embarrassed, though I know that he meant it in all good humor. Fortunately, I had been valedictorian, so that made up for being embarrassed back then, and later. Some people always carry with them the feeling of those days, being thin, or pudgy, or not good in classes, or any of a number of flaws which younger kids never fail to point out.

      Now, I know that you meant much more than that. I am sure that the social network does give people a chance to empathize with others who have had similar situations and to better perceive patterns in behavior, and victimizations, which one can realize more clearly because of the other people who share their perceptions and experiences, and how others assign roles to them, which they are not allowed to escape.

      I do think that with regard to the outer world of people, we usually do not get to see the entire stage setting, we focus on the person who is speaking. Not to go deeply into this, but I was actually studying encounter groups, and got to team-lead some of them; and I tried to look at the other people when someone was talking to see how they were reacting. In general, it seems that we all enter various public or private stories, in medias res., and we have to try to figure out what went before.

      • William, you and I have known each other for about 15 years now. Early on, I told you some of the difficulties that were happening with my mother when she was in the nursing home. But other than that, I realize you know nothing about traumas I went through in my life, although you may imagine you do. It is both interesting and strange to me that you actually don’t know me at all. That is the truth. Perhaps it says something about the shallowness of modern life.

    • RD, I’m glad you are finding a helpful community with others on social media. In my life, when I tell someone a bit about trauma I have suffered (something I do rarely because it is so painful) it is like my mind leaves my body. I feel I am telling a story about someone else. I know this is a result of many years of disassociation. I also worry that I will not be believed so I say very little.

  3. Advances in the field of neuroplasticity show that psychological trauma can be so severe that not only is a person unable to recall the trauma, it does not even imprint on the memory areas of the brain. The severity of the trauma means that “retrieving the memory” is impossible, because the brain has not recorded it. This is NOT a sign that the trauma did not occur but rather a sign of the extreme severity of the trauma. An excellent book on trauma and the brain is “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk. Warning: it is not an easy read, especially for victims of trauma. It will probably trigger people so have someone caring to talk to about it.

    • That is dreadful even if it is very rare, and we don’t know if it is rare, but hopefully it is, for the pain it must cause, and also, because it makes it difficult to help such people, or even know what happened to them, or to even know if their memories are accurate. I don’t know what kind of trauma might cause that, but we can think of the more awful ones. That said, there are some who use that as a defense in court. We’ve seen movies like that, in both aspects, not that movies ultimately mean anything profound about the mind.

      • It is true in my case. I went for grief therapy after my mother died. It quickly became apparent to my therapist that much deeper trauma had happened in my life. I was aware of some of it and did not want to talk about it, ever. In fact, I could not physically talk about it (no words would come out of my mouth). So I said no, I can’t go there, and if she wanted to probe any deeper I would not let her. She said trying to unlock ‘forgotten memories’ would not be part of my therapy since many of the memories had not ever been stored in my brain. I was still unwilling to go through more than a few sessions with her. I dropped out of therapy and will never go back. Some things cannot be healed. Yes, it is very painful and has impacted my entire life. I have to live with that.

  4. I want to clarify what I wrote above and then I won’t discuss it any further. I suffered years of severe childhood abuse, both physical and psychological. There were times when the abuse was life threatening. I have never forgotten it, although I wish I could. As a college student, I sought help for panic attacks brought on by my memories. I was seeking an end to the panic attacks, that was the goal of the therapy. But many years later, right after my mother died, flashbacks of the abuse returned with greater intensity. That is when I saw the therapist I mentioned above. She felt I had never dealt with what had happened to me as a child. That was true. I didn’t want to. It was too painful. According to recent neuroplasticity studies, memories of the worst childhood trauma may not even imprint on the brain. But what I do remember was horrific enough and I have no interest in ever finding out more. Also I want to make it clear that my mother was not abusive. She was not involved in the abuse.

  5. After reading the comments I wrote on this post, I think, “G-d, I need to get off the internet”.

    Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.

  6. What is truth?

    Truth is a little tweeting bird, chirping in a meadow.

    Truth is a wreath of pretty flowers–which smell bad.

    Oh wait, that’s logic. 🙃

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