Facts vs. Truth

Years ago, a very liberal media source interviewed my very fundamentalist Christian father about his very fundamentalist Christian views on homosexuality. The outcome was a well-edited mash of audio-visual tricks that made my father look like a buffoon, saying and responding in uncharacteristic ways that highlighted the stupidity of what he was saying.

I did not feel sympathy. Even if the interviewers were not directly and literally honest, they communicated the “truth” behind his words – that of judgement, of intolerance, of irrationality – which I knew, from living with him, that he actually did feel – calling gay people ‘fags’ and ranting about the ‘gay agenda’ in private. In a way, I thought the interviewers sacrificed literal facts in order to reveal a greater truth. After all – my dad presented ‘literally’ would have showed him selecting his words carefully, making use of persuasive rhetoric, making his position look reasonable – and I believed that his position was obviously not reasonable. So really the interviewers, through their artistic use of interpretation, were actually doing good work with their alternative use of facts.

Several months ago I was stalked and chased down some deserted alleys in Istanbul. When the man charged at me, I screamed, and he stopped and fled, without touching me. When I told the story to my neighbors (who were going to help me translate to the authorities) they insisted that I lie and say the man had grabbed me – because if he hadn’t touched me, no crime had been committed and he couldn’t be prosecuted. And since we knew he was bad, and that he should be prosecuted, we should be dishonest about the literal facts in order to truthfully illuminate his badness.

My point is that we have an idea that sometimes facts aren’t the same as truth. That even if you say things correctly, you might give a false idea, and that sometimes saying things incorrectly is necessary in order to creatively reveal the true nature of reality. We sometimes forgive dishonest portrayals as necessary, particularly if we feel strongly or morally about the outcome.

It’s why we tolerate/love mockery and satire, or impassioned and exaggerated speech. It’s why we’re okay setting aside the ‘rational fact checking’ parts of our brain when ‘badness’ is happening – because deep down, we feel the facts no longer matter. Facts, even if true, can be misleading, can slow us down, can catch us in petty arguments over statistics or history, can distract us from things like protecting gay people or prosecuting would-be rapists. They can be used as weapons against us – if you’ve ever had a debate with an obviously-wrong person who is more technically informed than you, you know this frustration. Facts do not equal truth, at least not deep down in our gut.

And I don’t mean to say that this is bad or good. Was it a bad or good thing that I agreed to lie to the police about my stalker in Istanbul? I don’t care about whether or not this was moral – this is not the question I am trying to answer. Shutting down “caring about facts” has its benefits and drawbacks. All I am trying to say is that we do this. All the time. And to pretend that facts are facts are facts and that we only care about facts is an outright lie. Facts are useful when we can wield them for good, and misleading or distracting when others wield them for bad. We frequently care more about the feeling of truthiness, not the feeling of factuality, because truthiness always feels morally right, and sometimes facts feel morally wrong.

And so when I see outrage and disbelief about how people can support Trump after he repeatedly lies, contradicts himself, or displays a general disinterest in factuality, I feel like those outraged fail to understand this key concept. People supporting Trump are sacrificing facts in order to illuminate their ‘deeper truth’ in the same way I was sacrificing facts when I supported the pro-gay interviewers, when I lied that my stalker had touched me. They genuinely feel that the liberal agenda is ruining the country, and that sacrificing literal accuracy is a minor detour on the path to saving themselves and America. They are doing exactly the same thing that we do, except against us.

It is not a war of fact against fact, but rather truthiness against truthiness, with facts being used as weapons against each side.

If we want to step away from this, we have to be consistent. If I want to condemn Trump supporters for being tolerant of his lies, then I have to stop sympathizing with the pro-gay interviewers and I have to defend my father’s presentation of his views as he gave them. I have to tell the police the truth, even if it means a would-be rapist goes free. If Trump supporters do not get to pick and choose their own truth, then I don’t get to pick mine either.

14 comments

  1. cecilia says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xJPtktjTWo

    I wonder why you didn’t seek out an answer to your question amongst those who could offer a legitimate response?

  2. Pete Schult says:

    Though much postmodernism seems like a crock to me, I think the postmodernists are onto something when they say that we’re all (including scientists dedicated to uncovering TRVTH, telling stories that may or may not be true. One of the things the scientists have, though, that makes their stories better approximations to truth is a tradition and practice of openness about the data.

    That idea of openness about all the facts gives me the inclination to thinking that the journalists were basically correct (though they might should have talked to someone who knew that your dad basically said things in private that matched their caricature of the words they actually heard from him to verify that they were speaking truth, if not facts).

    I don’t have as much insight into the Turkish example. Difficult cultural situations create the need for artificial workarounds to get justice, and that sort of need leads to truthiness since facts might end up serving injustice. It’s a hard problem.

  3. anonymous says:

    My biggest problem with this aspect of psychology is the us-versus-them mentality it exploits. People are constantly willing to look the other way if the lies even marginally support their side, because it’s only fair when you look at what That Other Side is doing. They’re the real monsters!

    Two years ago my parents would have called Trump a deadbeat and a moron. But when he ran for their side, and started winning, he could do no wrong. Of course, the same behavior happened with Obama supporters I knew, when it was impossible to criticize anything he did without being called a racist. It’s all coping mechanisms for cognitive dissonance.

    I just wish people could be more objective and discerning. You wouldn’t have had to lie to the cops if you had any faith in their common sense and due process. But we live in a world where people are happier doing nothing as long as they can get away with it — so lies and exaggerations are sometimes necessary, at the cost of your own morality. No one’s hands are clean in any of this.

  4. SnowWolf says:

    But, you don’t have to defend your father’s views, because they are just another form of “truth” – his. But his truth is based on incorrect or misinterpreted facts. You combat his truth with better facts and better interpretations. You do, however have to tell the facts to the police because there are real consequences.

    I have a story similar to your would-be rapist story, but from the other side:

    Years ago, I drove a van with no windows because I was doing sound for bands. One day, I was driving home and, nearing my street, I saw a young woman on a bicycle. We were going to get to the intersection at the same time, so I slowed to let her get through before I turned. She glanced back, saw me and panicked. She turned down the street – the street I live on – and began pedaling furiously. Having no idea what to do, figured I would just continue home. She kept pedaling and looking back over her shoulder, finally turning into a driveway. I kept on going home.

    I assume that in her “truth”, she was chased by a would-be rapist. When, in fact, it was just a guy going home trying to avoid an accident. Would it have been right if she had gotten my plate number, reported it to the police and lied, saying that I had attacked her? I’m not saying the guy who chased you wasn’t a bad guy, but if we start telling embellished stories to the police, sometimes there will be mistakes and people punished unjustly. Sometimes, the facts get misinterpreted.

    The ends do not justify the means. Better means need to be found.

    • Aella says:

      I think I agree. I was EXTREMELY hesitant to lie to the police; it went against everything I believed – but I kept thinking, ‘what if he gets away and actually hurts someone else? Do I have a duty to prevent this? What if the only way to prevent it is by lying?’

      In my situation, it was pretty clear that his intent was me (he actively turned around to follow me through basically a maze and then lunged at me). I do recognize that there are still possibilities that he didn’t mean to hurt me, even if those possibilities are small.

      And so I don’t know how small a possibility has to be before the risk of him hurting someone else becomes important? It’s just weighing weird, detailed probabilities by this point and I don’t think there is one right answer. I just know, at the time, I didn’t want anybody else to get hurt, and that was my motivation for ‘truthiness.’

      • SnowWolf says:

        Yeah. I think I agree, also. The line is very blurry and it seems to move. Sometimes all we have to go on is what we have at the moment, weighing good intentions with not so good actions. Theory and practice collide again.

        The main point in the post, though, seems much clearer. You are correct, we must try to be consistent. That’s what I meant by the ends do not justify the means.

  5. The solution, of course, is to get angry at the pro-gay journalists and be truthful to the Turkish police. We want all journalists to be truthful, no matter what their political affiliations; if they had some reason to believe that your father was a bigot, beyond his literal words, they should just state that reason. And if Turkish law doesn’t view aggressive stalking as a criminal offense, that’s their business. (Very glad you got out of that safe, though!)

  6. Thank you for this post. It got me thinking.
    Our human condition is complex, including our significant predisposition to social influence, our huge cognitive biases, and our regular difficulty with seeing and/or thinking clearly. This is why political systems that intend to protect freedom allow and require constant expressions of conflicting views.
    So, Aella, another frame for what you have thoughtfully described might be “identity politics.” We care enough about (or are comfortable enough with) certain people/cultures/ideas that the facts are secondary, and mass hysteria over the activity of one individual or group allows us to ignore our own or our group’s comparably devastating activities. The intellectual individual in identity politics can use the justification is that “facts” are almost always colored by perspective, so we’re sure there’s more to the story and ultimately that the real facts will justify our view.
    While we want to believe that logic and careful thinking guide the development of the civilization, what we are now calling “post truth” is not a new situation, as using appeals to emotion and self-interest to gain and maintain power and control is arguably one of the major unifying threads of history.
    The answer I’ve come to in my own life, both for trying to make sure I’m being diligent in my thinking, and for discussions with others that are emotionally-charged about an issue, is to ask questions. I can’t get at reality, or help someone else get there, if I’m more concerned with persuading than with actually understanding.
    Deep, penetrating, Socratic dialog is the only path I can see for the aware individual to address life’s hard questions; but we are in fact in Plato’s allegorical cave, and prying ourselves and others away from the comfort and familiarity of the shadow-plays, to seeing the puppeteers, and then to even seeing that we are in a cave, is not easy work.

  7. I think you raise some good points about truth, or cherry picking their own truth. I often wonder if there is any payoff in the media, or otherwise, to deliver truth when a visceral snippet does more.

  8. mikeadamson says:

    There’s a difference between truth and justice though. Your Istanbul story demonstrates the superiority of justice over truth and I think that your father’s attitude towards homosexuality, though not as cut and dried, also supports that relationship. Is Trump lying in the cause of a greater good? I don’t think so. Are some overlooking his lies because they see his program benefitting them? Probably although many supporters won’t recognize his lies as such because the liberals are out to get them. It’s an interesting situation.

    • Aella says:

      “Is Trump lying in the cause of a greater good? I don’t think so.”

      I don’t think so either, but my point is that other people do legitimately think so, and this is why they tolerate his dishonesty.

  9. Joe says:

    Hmm, interesting! I’m not sure I entirely agree though…

    In the examples you gave from your life, it’s hard to argue that the results didn’t seem to promote more of a sense of truthfulness than the facts. However, I think the problem lies in the subjectivity of that ‘sense of truth’ as opposed to the objectivity of a fact.
    Because of this, there are certain positions in society where the actual truth needs to be more important than an agenda or bias simply so we can draw our opinions from a purer source. Two people can look at the same facts and come to different conclusions, which is why if you introduce further subjectivity into the source it can only lead to a dilution of the reality of a situation.

    In the interview with your dad, they accidentally stumbled on your dad’s true feelings based on their own bias, which is hard to defend because it could so easily have not been the case. The media should place facts at the heart of reporting so we can draw our own conclusions – opinion pieces are interesting too, but should never be portrayed as anything other than that (which is often not the case).
    With your horrible experience in Istanbul, scary as it was, the man did not actually assault or rape you. I agree that your lie is more likely to protect someone else from this dangerous person, but that cannot be the basis of a societal legal system. The facts of the situation were already serious enough to alert the police, but the details of his crime should be accurately portrayed imo (I know you were advised to exaggerate by your friend based on their more intimate understanding of how things work in Turkey).

    For Trump, does his misrepresentation or disdain for facts bode well if it happens to stumble upon some (a factual minority) people’s idea of what is more ‘truthful’? I don’t think so at all!
    He is now in a position of power and should be able to be trusted with the most serious scenarios possible. He is interjecting his own, often delusional, ‘truth’ into the political sphere and worse than that will openly deny facts. How could anyone want the President of the USA to be distancing himself from the reality of the world? I live in England so it won’t as directly affect me, but it is honestly appalling to think about the potential damage one man could wreak in a small amount of time.

  10. Mike says:

    Just because we think some lies are acceptable doesn’t mean we have to think all lies are acceptable. If Trump lied for the sake of national security, or to protect a whistleblower, I would be ok with that, but he blatantly lied just because his ego wouldn’t let him admit the truth, and I have a problem with that.

    • Aella says:

      Sure – but I’m saying that people don’t mind his lies because they view it as poetic revealing of truthiness. The lies we view as acceptable tend to reveal what we think is truthiness, and the people we disagree with are no different.

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