It’s common to hear truth spoken of as something personal — “your truth” or “my truth.” That degrades the notion of truth to the point of meaninglessness.
Contrary to what might be implied in this post’s title, I am not going to be talking about Jesus (“Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” John 14:16). Instead, I’m going to be focusing on the incredibly irritating misuse of the concept of truth in today’s discourse.
The trigger for this post (yes, I was actually triggered) is the blog post that Stephanie Carter, wife of Ashton Carter, wrote to defend the famous — or infamous — photo that appears to show Joe Biden nuzzling her ear while rubbing her shoulder. You know the photo:
It’s one of the more famous photos making the rounds showing Joe getting very friendly with a woman. I’m not going to use this post to go into whether Joe’s touching is appropriate or not. That’s a subject I already covered here, in case you’re interested. Instead, as I said, I want to talk about the use and abuse of the word “truth.”
When Lucy Flores accused Joe Biden of grabbing her from behind and nuzzling her hair, although they’d never even met, the mainstream media finally took up the subject of Joe’s predilection for getting his hands, nose, and lips on women and little girls. With the above picture once again getting air play, Stephanie Carter finally stepped up to say what was really going on: Joe is a close friend to both the Carters. When Stephanie’s husband was getting sworn in as Secretary of Defense, she was unbelievably tense and her old friend Joe was just trying to calm her down. She was grateful, not upset.
That’s all well and good. Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing that with us. Hearing your facts about the picture was helpful.
That’s not what triggered me. What triggered me was this paragraph, in which I’ve highlighted the language that made me crazy:
Last night, I received a text from a friend letting me know that picture was once again all over Twitter in connection to Lucy Flores’ personal account of a 2014 encounter with Joe Biden. Let me state upfront that I don’t know her, but I absolutely support her right to speak her truth and she should be, like all women, believed. But her story is not mine. The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful. So, as the sole owner of my story, it is high time that I reclaim it — from strangers, Twitter, the pundits and the late-night hosts.
Stephanie Carter is not the first to confuse truth with facts. It’s just that her statement really hit me the wrong way.
Back in the old days, when we still learned things in school, we were taught about the difference between objective and subjective facts. The former are data points that can be proven and are not up for debate. For example, it is an objective fact that bees make honey. It is an objective fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It is an objective fact that dogs bark, cats meow, birds tweet, cows go moo, and sheep say baa. Don’t quibble with these statements. They are all objectively true.
Subjective facts are those facts that depend on a person’s perceptions. Thus, on a day when the sun rises in the east and continues to shine throughout the day, were you to ask me, I might say the day was hot while my sister might say it was pleasantly warm. Both of us are stating a fact as we perceive it. Both of us, were we in court, would willing take the oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and then proceed to state our subjective version of that fact.
And there’s the difference between facts and truth. Facts are data, whether they can be objectively confirmed or are run through an individual’s perception. Truth is an intention. The opposite of truth is a lie. Were I in court and asked, under oath to describe the weather on a specific day, if I subjectively perceived the weather as warm, but nevertheless testified that it was cold, that statement would have been an out-and-out lie, which is the opposite of truth.
By conflating “truth” with facts, whether subjective or objective, modern language effectively erases the notion of lying. If everyone has their own truth, there is no truth. And unlike a subjective fact, which one can challenge, it is impossible to challenge “your truth” or “her truth” or “his truth” or “my truth,” because we’re all entitled to whatever the Hell truth we want.
Regarding Lucy Flores, whether Biden grabbed her shoulders and kissed her hair is an objective factual matter. Flores is either speaking truthfully or not when she says it occurred.
Absent witnesses to the alleged behavior (or a photograph, as in Carter’s case), we may struggle to determine whether that interaction happened. Given that there are myriad photos and videos of Biden behaving in precisely that way with other females, that might make it easier for us to say that this event occurred and that Flores is telling a factual truth. On the other hand, given Biden’s reputation, this interaction may never have happened and Flores may be telling a bald-faced lie knowing that Biden’s reputation makes people more likely to believe her. We don’t know what the truth is. We can only guess.
When it comes to Flores’ perceptions about what happened, that is purely subjective. She could say it gave her a thrill. She could say it frightened her, or creeped her out, or didn’t bother her at all. What we don’t know now is whether she is telling the truth about her subjective facts at the time. Maybe at the time it thrilled her but now that she’s supporting Biden, it creeps her out in retrospect, in which case she’s lying about her past feelings but telling the truth about her current emotional state. When it comes to Flores’s truthfulness, it’s not “her truth” versus another’s, it’s whether Flores has a reputation for honesty and is in fact now speaking honestly.
The exact same analysis holds true for Stephanie Carter. The photograph definitely shows Biden with his hands on her shoulders and his mouth at her ear. I don’t think anyone quarrels with those facts. Carter now claims that she was good with it. Maybe that’s true; maybe it’s not. I don’t know Stephanie Carter. Do you? Do you know her reputation for speaking truthfully?
I know I’m sort of stumbling around in the verbal weeds here, but to the extent I believe in truth as the opposite of a lie, and as a different animal from objective and subjective facts, I’m very ruffled. I feel that our culture is losing something important if we blend all those concepts into one giant thing that is predicated solely on someone’s feelings.
Incidentally, my obsession with being honest about truth means that I’m not a fan of the fact that we no longer have people swear on a Holy Book when they testify in court. In California, the first-listed oath on the books still calls upon God as a witness: “Do you solemnly state that the evidence you shall give in this issue (or matter) shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” However, I’ve never heard anyone asked to swear under that oath. Instead, the norm in both courtrooms and depositions is the alternative oath: “Do you solemnly state, under penalty of perjury, that the evidence that you shall give in this issue (or matter) shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
To me, there’s a world of difference between the two oaths. The first puts your immortal soul in peril if you lie. The second says that you risk being prosecuted for perjury, something I’ve seen happen only once in 32 years of practicing law. The first says truth means something; the second says “yeah, whatever.”
By the way, if you think from this screed that I never lie, think again. I do lie, but I hope that my lies are about inconsequential things, not consequential ones. Or that, if there are consequences, they err on the side of good, not evil.
“Does this dress make my butt look fat?” “No, of course not. But I think the color makes your skin look a bit yellow.” (Of course the dress makes my friend’s butt look fat.)
“How did you like the soup? It was my grandmother’s liver dumpling recipe and took five hours to make.” “It was delicious.” (I thought I’d barf, but I’m not telling you that because you obviously went all out to please me.)
“Do you want to go out?” “Oh, I’m so sorry, but I have other plans.” (My plans are not to go out — and, depending on who you are, my plans are not to go out with you.)
Here’s the thing, though. I never confuse my lies, whether they are borne of expediency or kindness, or my specific perceptions, as “truths.” Facts are facts, although some must be understood to run through my personal filter. And I either tell the truth about them or I lie — always intentionally.