Those philosophers who have wrestled with the concept of truth for centuries can take a break now that politicians have taken over the issue. As an example, recently a CNN reporter was accused of “laying his hands” on a female White House aide at a news conference while she was trying to retrieve the microphone from him. We are fortunate to have actual video proof showing that this really “did not” or “did too” happen; in the exact same video, no less.
Some claim that the “did too” video was doctored to show the reporter touching the young lady aggressively. The “did not” video shows a firm but not aggressive touching as the reporter moves the aide’s arm away. So riddle me this: Which video was doctored, the first one (did not) or the second one (did too)?
Different people looking at the same event can form separate opinions about what happened. Even if there were a multi-angled instant replay set of videos—like baseball—we might not know the truth. A controversial play at third base seen from multiple angles might show conflicting views, so even though the umpire calls the player out the instant replay may show that from some angles the player was safe. What to do? Call the player 45 percent out, 45 percent safe, and 10 percent no opinion?
Before instant replays were developed, the play was what the umpire said it was because the rules gave the umpire the authority to make binding decisions. If the ump said a player was out, he was out. But even after the ump’s call, many people (one team’s fans) knew the ump was wrong and the player was safe. The other team’s fans, however, knew for a certainty that the ump was right and the player was out.
But the point is that the fans accepted the validity of the call and the game moved on. As far as the opinion of the fan who was under the stands getting a hot dog when the play went down, for all intents and purposes, the play didn’t even happen.
Effectively, truth is what we want it to be. There is an interesting personality type that illustrates the point nicely, called the Narcissistic Personality. For those so afflicted, the truth is not necessarily what happened, it is what they wanted to happen, even if in reality it didn’t happen at all. Narcissists believe in their particular fact so intensely that they are able to pass a lie detector test. Why? Because they sincerely believe they are being truthful.
There are practical methods of determining what is true, except they don’t always work that well. We have the “majority opinion” which works great if you side with the majority, otherwise it doesn’t. There is the method of creating truth out of a lie by constantly repeating it. This was developed to an art form by the Nazi propogandist Joseph Goebbels. It works very well. Maybe not for the good, but it works well.
A practical way of determining truth is to just hunker down, do nothing, and wait to see what happens. For instance, if in 30 years the glaciers don’t melt and the oceans don’t rise we can show that global warming was baloney. If, in that same 30 years, the oceans rise and what solid land that is still above water shakes like Jello we will know that it was true. The disadvantage of that method is that only a few people will know because the rest of us will be either drowned or cooked.
The purpose of truth is to discover what is real so that we can devise ways to deal with an issue effectively and in a timely manner. As superficial as this column may seem, there is a real concern here. If factual issues are argued into fake issues, real harm is done to mankind.
Truth can be inconvenient, uncomfortable and frightening, so we tend to see truth as whatever we want it to be, regardless of the facts. The challenge facing us is to be able to understand and believe things that we find difficult to think about, let alone understand or believe. We elect and expect leaders to help us deal with such issues, but our leaders have to be straight with us, good news or bad. Truth does not care who believes it, but those who do have an advantage in guiding the future of humanity.
Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.