Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Today's Word—More on Truth

Defining Truth (I know it when I see it…):

“There’s one word that exists in every language on the face of the Earth and in every society since man began to speak. And the word is truth. And in every language it means exactly the same thing. Truth is . . . what you get other people to believe.”

—Tommy Smothers, comedian, 2008.


  1. SO appropriate, thanks Ted! Thanks to those of us old enough to remember the outspoken radicalism of Tommy and company on "The Smothers Brothers' Comedy Hour," I'd like to share my nuance on the difference between true and truth.

    Yesterday, I watched two hours of Fox News and then two hours of MSNBC. Regardless of your political affiliation, I was once again disheartened to watch the same video of the candidates and then to watch not only the candidates but the networks spin events and responses so completely differently.

    I'm a professional writer and spin doctor with 20-plus years in public relations. I've done PR for a university, the state, a pro sports franchise, and a non-profit. I'm also a political junkie with a degree in political science -- can't get enough political news and information. OF COURSE, I'm biased in my political views. I'm a moderate liberal. I've also been a journalist and am proud that while working my biases were either not apparent or admitted up front.

    This election, I've finally got to say, is so full of BS -- on both sides -- that it's pretty hard to find what's true. A favorite teacher of mine once said, "Truth is what you believe to be true and is subjective. What is true is what's happening at this very moment and/or is universally known to be true." It's true, for example, that the Earth is spinning on its axis. My truth is that Fox News and the McCain-Palin ticket are full of it (at least a bit more than the other side).

    I've always found it interesting to know that a good bit of what is true was once somebody's (or nobody's) truth. That it's true that Earth spins on its axis is one of the few "spins" ever proven true. And in today's political atmosphere, I'm not sure that even that universal truth is accepted.

  2. Ross:

    Journalism--esp. TV and Internet--has morphed into pure spin. If you want your head to explode, (re)watch OutFoxed (2004?), which I just showed my students. Teaching not just the practice of journalism (print) but also media literacy and critical thinking skills these days is tricky: Students (even J students) aren't informed and have lost the NP reading habit; others don't know how they know what they (think they) know.

    So is there truth? I've never repeated the old bromide so often: If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.....


  3. Mimi writes:

    I have a very strong, negative reaction to this posting. Truth is not what you get others to believe. You can get others to believe a lie, and a lie is never truth. Truth is. It will exist long after man has ceased to exist. Whatever you "get" people to believe, true or false, good or bad, is propaganda.

  4. Mimi's post about absolute truth reminds me—with amusement, as always—watching two of my professors in a doctoral seminar at Ohio University slugging it out over whether truth exists, and is knowable.

    Prof1: There IS no truth, because it's always out there, just beyond reach.

    Prof2: Of course there's truth. What we know today may later evolve, but it's true until we know better.

    I've always like John Stuart Mill's version of truth and the imperative to require expression even of falsehood: Even if everyone agrees on what's true, it's essential to permit disagreement. because the solitary whacko with the off-the-wall idea of truth may, after all, be right (see the emporer and his lack of clothes....); or there may be at least a kernel of truth that helps nudge the rest of us that much closer to absolute truth. In any case, even if the solitary whacko is completely nuts, the process of reaffirming what truths we hold to be self-evident is an important exercise of reality checking.

    The press is full of half-truths, of course, like the solitary whacko. Smothers--like one of my two warring professors--believes that whatever the press can sell is true. That is (if you'll pardon the expression) true. Cynical, yes, but especially during a rancid political season, we see daily how claims can equal truth--at least for a while.


  5. Ted, I've seen "Outfoxed" and find it typically and purposely ironic of the Fox that Sean Hannity's mantra this political season is: "Journalism is dead." Last I checked, he still doesn't consider himself a journalist. I consider him an extremist and prefer Jon Stewart's (The Daily Show) mantra: "I have said this consistently; the country is run by extremists, because moderates have s*** to do."

    Dualistic thinking, especially about truth, frightens me. Truth is (sorry, couldn't resist), one person's truth is often another person's lie. Religion is perhaps the best example of this. Mitt Romney's candidacy underlined the truth to some that Mormonism is true and the truth to others that it's a dangerous cult. Is that relative truth or opinion/belief? To be appropriately Zen about truth, my hero Buckaroo Banzai said it best: "Hey, hey, hey. Don't be mean. We don't have to be mean because, remember, no matter where you go, there you are."

    Finally, I thought H.L. Mencken's cynical vision of the future was fulfilled the last presidential election: "As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." I'm hopeful that we've learned from experience and our nation's "inner soul" gets healed this year.

  6. Sahila ChangeBringerOctober 15, 2008 at 3:51 PM

    6 billion people on the planet, give or take several million...

    Each with their own point of view, their own 'truth' - none of it formed in a vacuum...

    Whose 'truth' is the 'real' truth?

    Will the real TRUTH please stand up and take a bow so that we all can recognise you?

    Is something 'true' only if it can be validated by empirical testing?

    What about morals and values and ethics - are they 'truths' and if so, how are they formed?

    Are we born with a 'feeling' for how things should be, or is this a learned belief?

    How do we get others to agree to share certain values - is that by 'spin', propaganda, programming, perhaps?

    Most of the values I am thinking about right now dont seem to me to have an empirical basis for their existence.

    If they did, then there wouldnt be so much diversity and so much disagreement between individuals and societies about what values should dictate how life is lived.

    If something is 'true' only if it can be validated by testing, that would leave us living only in a world of cold facts.

    And logically, all decisions about societal, economic and personal issues would have to be made taking into account only hard data.

    Which would make us no more than biologic computers? Which wouldnt be susceptible to 'spin'...