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Trump: lies, truth and post-truth

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What is truth? Pontius Pilate famously asked, suggesting its slipperiness. Twenty centuries later, the comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to convey the sense of statements that were not really true, but that nonetheless “felt right” to the speaker.  A dictionary, Merriam-Webster, chose “truthiness” as its word of the year for 2005. This year, another dictionary, the Oxford, has picked, for its own word of the year, “post-truth.”

They defined “post-truth” as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In announcing the choice, the Oxford Dictionaries referred specifically to Donald Trump as an example of the use of “facts” that are contrary to known truths, thereby rendering the concept of truth itself, as people have understood it for millennia, irrelevant.

A synonym for “post-truth” might be  “incorrect.” But there are fundamentally different forms of incorrectness. A statement of deliberate incorrectness would properly be called a lie. “I didn’t eat the last cookie!” insists the little boy, who knows that, in fact, he did. But incorrect statements may also be unintentional. I may be mistaken if I claim that the Sun will set tonight at precisely 6:34 p.m. in California, when in actuality sunset will be at 6:18; but, unless I am purposefully distorting the truth, it can’t be said that I am lying—merely incorrect or uninformed. Much misunderstanding between humans has arisen precisely because—since we’re not mind-readers—it can be impossible to know whether a person who utters a statement we believe to be incorrect is lying, or is simply misinformed.

Thus, we have to make inferences. When the little boy says he did not eat the last cookie, and all the evidence suggests he did, it may be safe to conclude that the little boy is indeed lying. In criminal courts, defendants have ample motive to lie. On the other hand, in everyday conversation, the experience of most of us is to hear statements from acquaintances that do not seem true; but we have to assume that the speaker is not lying deliberately, but simply has his or her facts wrong. In this past election cycle, such experiences were frequent. Many Bernie supporters I know insist even today that their candidate did not cause Trump to win the election by siphoning votes away from Hillary. I think they’re wrong, but I don’t think they’re lying. They’re entitled to their interpretation of events.

Along these lines, a famous quotation seems apt: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That was from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It is a statement that is self-evident; no one would seriously dispute it, because at the heart of being human—we are after all rational, thinking creatures—is the notion that there is a thing called “objective truth,” and no one is “entitled” to doubt it. The Sun rises in the east. The Earth revolves around the Sun. Two plus two equals four. If you dispute any of these statements, you are incorrect (although you may not be lying).

A problem, however, can arise with statements such as “Human behavior, particularly the use of fossil fuels, is leading to the perturbation of global climate, including warming.” It may be that this statement is true; it may be partially true; it may be false. We may not know with certitude for 100 years; we may know sooner; we may never fully know. Such is the proliferation of “facts” or, more properly, information, that sometimes, no consensus can be reached concerning their implications, even among intelligent, well-meaning people. The challenge for people who are well-meaning and intelligent is to decide what is true and what isn’t, especially when it comes to big, important issues, such as climate change, and their policy implications. Here, reasonable people may choose to disagree, although, as evidence one way or the other mounts, disagreement to the contrary becomes increasingly hard to defend. This is, indeed, the nexus of truth and opinion. We call it “politics.”

Here is a partial list of things Donald Trump has said that may be misstatements or that may be lies. (The list must necessarily be partial since it would take up too much space to include them all.)

  • There is no drought in California.
  • Climate change is a hoax.
  • Vince Foster didn’t commit suicide; he was murdered.
  • The real unemployment rate in the U.S. is 42%.
  • I have never sexually harassed a woman and reports of my doing so have largely been debunked.
  • Thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey following the Sept. 11 attacks.
  • Thousands of Americans have been killed by illegal immigrants.
  • I didn’t say more countries should have nuclear weapons.
  • Twitter, Facebook and Google are burying the FBI criminal investigation of Hillary.
  • Hillary Clinton wants to let [immigrants] pour in by the millions. You’d triple the size of the country in one week [if her policies were enacted].
  • 14% of non-citizens are registered to vote.
  • Non-citizen voters were responsible for Obama carrying North Carolina in 2008.
  • Obama is taking in 200,000 Syrian refugees.
  • Hillary was wrong when she said I mocked a disabled reporter.
  • When Hillary was Secretary of State, $6 billion was stolen or missing from the department.
  • There is large-scale election fraud happening on and before Election Day.
  • Every poll shows I won the second debate.
  • I always opposed the Iraq War.
  • Ted Cruz’s father helped Lee Harvey Oswald assassinate JFK.
  • Hillary was seen laughing at a rape victim, after helping the alleged rapist.
  • I never said that Alicia Machado had been caught on a sex tape.
  • Hillary wants to go to single-payer healthcare.
  • Hillary received $100 million from hedge funds for her campaign.
  • Mexican immigrants are rapists, drug dealers and criminals.

None of these statements, in my judgment, is true. Mostly, again in my judgment, they’re lies. Their falseness can easily be proven; where it cannot be proven, the statements do not pass the duck test. But tens of millions of Americans who voted for Trump don’t care whether he lied or was simply incorrect. Their interpretation of reality is less influenced by objective data than by their personal beliefs and emotions. Welcome, brothers and sisters, to the era of post-truth, of which Donald J. Trump is the commander-in-chief. May it pass quickly.

  1. Excerpts from author Joseph Epstein’s “Opinion” section piece in today’s Wall Street Journal . . .

    “Post-Election Tristesse[*]”

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/post-election-tristesse-1479427298

    “As for why the Trump election should be such a shock to the credulous, an answer was partially supplied years ago by the British conservative politician Hugh Molson, who said: ‘I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come.'”

    [An example of “confirmation bias.” ~~ Bob]

    — and —

    “‘It is useless,’ to paraphrase Jonathan Swift, ‘to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” Reason, alas, is not the first quality of politics.”

    [*Defined: “Tristesse” is a state of melancholy sadness.]

  2. Worth repeating in light of Trump’s tweets:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Op-Ed” Section
    (February 10, 2012, Page A19):

    “Syntax? Logic? Why?”

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2012-02-10/on-web-no-one-cares-if-you-write-like-a-dog-commentary-by-michael-kinsley.html

    By Michael Kinsley
    Bloomberg View columnist and
    former “Op-Ed” page editor of the Los Angeles Times

    It’s been going on for too long, right before our eyes. Inevitably, someone was going to blow the whistle, and wouldn’t you know it would be Felix Salmon, the famous financial blogger for Reuters?

    . . .

    Nothing, though, prepared me for the dazzling brilliance of Felix’s blog item this week [circa February 2012] about the quality of writing on the Internet. . . . his basic point is that on the Web, sheer quantity trumps quality. . . .

    [Section subheadline:] Facts, Schmacts

    … Felix’s blog post … argue[s] that all aspects of good writing — ACCURACY, LOGIC, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, WISDOM and INSIGHT, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what’s the difference between those two again?) – ARE ALL OVERRATED.

    . . .

    … Now one of our nation’s leading bloggers has confessed what we all suspected: that bad writing is inherent to the online world. . . .

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