Quid Est Veritas?

In 1970, the country music star, Johnny Cash, released a song entitled What Is Truth? A very good question. For an increasing number of people in the dying embers of 2022, the answer appears to be whatever anyone believes it to be. Let me explain what I mean, and point out how utterly absurd people’s thinking is becoming. Two examples of this kind of stupidity will suffice to illustrate my point.

On 20th January 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth president of the United States. Every media outlet, including those which were supportive of Trump, reported that the crowds attending the President’s inauguration were unusually small. Nobody questioned this. Nobody that is, except a gentleman by the name of Sean Spicer, the new White House Press Secretary. He stated that the crowds were much larger than they actually were.

Two days later, on an edition of NBC’s Meet The Press, Kellyanne Conway, a lady rejoicing in the job title of Senior Counsellor to the President, took it upon herself to defend Spicer’s demonstrably false claim. Of course, she could have said that he was given unreliable information, which would never happen again. Not a soul would have believed her, but it’s the kind of polite fiction which might have been, albeit grudgingly, stomached by the viewing public. But no. Mrs Conway decided that obfuscatory language of the most appallingly ridiculous kind was in order. She asserted, on national television, in the age of the viral internet video, that her colleague had been giving what she was pleased to call “alternative facts”.

She was immediately challenged on this point by her interlocutor, Chuck Todd. “Look,” quoth Mr Todd, “alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

Naturally, howls of derision followed the interview. She was accused of dishonesty, stupidity, and using Orwellian “doublethink”, which in turn caused sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, to rocket. Then there was the backlash from Trump’s supporters, that poor, dear Kellyanne was being victimised, and that alternative facts were perfectly reasonable, and that the mainstream media were poisoning public discourse by feeding us a diet of “fake news”. Oh yes. “Fake news”. That phrase beloved by Trump and Trumpians everywhere. What a way to shut down a lost argument.

Then there is my second example. This one is topical.

Unless you have had the good fortune to be living in a cave, you can’t fail to have become aware of the Sussex Circus. I’m not referring to any entertainment which may or may not be taking place in either East Or West Sussex, but rather the latest self-aggrandising and spiteful, not to mention lucrative temper tantrum of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, half of which has been delivered to, and the remainder of which is due to arrive at, a Netflix account near you. Of course, like me, you might not have a Netflix account, but they surround us.

I’m not going to comment on the veracity or otherwise of the claims made in the series. Partly because they are not relevant to this post, and partly because I wasn’t there. And neither, dear reader, were you.

Tempting though it is to focus on the staggering hypocrisy of the Duke in particular, I shall, instead, concentrate on the nonsensical language use of his wife, and the foolishness and double standards of her supporters.

The Duchess refers to “my truth”. “My” truth? No. Truth is not, indeed cannot be, subjective. No possessive or indefinite article can or should be applied to truth. Only a definite article, that is to say, “the truth”.

But Meghanites won’t have it. They cheer their heroine on, loudly proclaiming her bravery as she speaks “her truth”, and deposits a large cheque with her bank. Yet many of those who delight in this erroneous way of referring to her version of events, were complaining about the stupidity and dishonesty of Kellyanne Conway and her chief. And of course, there are Trumpians who are critical of the Duchess’s semantic contortions.

The Trumpians are quite right. There is no such thing as subjective truth, nor does the truth belong exclusively to any individual. Equally, the Meghanites are correct, a piece of information is either a fact or a fallacy. However, both of these fatuous factions are also wrong. Their respective poster folk are not tragically misunderstood victims of a pernicious establishment, but are, in fact, at least as fatuous as, and quite possibly more fatuous than, both sets of acolytes.

There is also a sinister side to all of this nonsense. If this fashion for flexibility really takes hold like some insidious weed, fact checking will be countered by “alternative fact checking”. The cruel lunacy of holocaust denial will have to be accepted as an expression of “someone’s truth”. Court cases will routinely collapse as witnesses swear to “tell my whole truth, and nothing but my whole truth”. The madness must stop.

We need to remind ourselves that however disagreeable or inconvenient facts might be, they are still facts, and that people may be telling the truth, but they are not telling “their” truth. Only then can we return to being the tolerant, reasonable, rational society we all miss.

So, Johnny Cash’s original question is still valid. What is truth? One suspects that JK Rowling, through her character Albus Dumbledore, answers that question better than anyone else. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and must therefore be treated with great caution.”

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