So we’ve read William James and come to understand that truth, out here in the real world, is often a willful interpretation of reality. Okay, but then, to paraphrase an old joke about the weather: now that we now that popular truths are often a thin veneer, what are we going to do about it?
One reason we debate and analyze the nature and meaning of truth is that it has such great power over our everyday lives. Both as individuals and as the collective “we” — population groups, communities, nations — we make decisions every day according to what we believe. But there are times when individuals or groups are swayed or snowed over by truths — “truths” — that are hard to rationally believe in. At times like these we ought to be able to deploy the understanding we’ve gained by reading philosophers like William James, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, so as to regain our own sense of power against these fraudulent quasi-truths. Yet we often stand powerless in the grip of popular delusion.
Part of the problem, I think, is language. Words are the primary tools in a philosopher’s toolkit, but we lack a vocabulary to help us easily categorize, reveal and identify the various contortions of truth that often plague our lives. I’d like to propose a few new words, a new “Pragmatist’s Vocabulary”, for several different kinds of quasi-truths. By creating these words, we will hopefully be able to discuss the intricate varieties of popular “fact” more handily in the future. I’ve got three new words in mind today, and since these are all varieties of truth, I’m going in for easy rhymes. Here we go:
A couple of days ago, Republican congressperson Michelle Bachmann declared on CNN that President Obama’s trip to India would cost taxpayers 200 million dollars a day. This myth spread wildly through the conservative news outlets, causing a vast outrage at the ridiculous expenditure. It turns out, of course, that Bachmann’s number was completely imaginary. But here’s the amazing thing: the story didn’t die. True or not, it got people riled, and conservative commentators continued to talk about it. Most of them admitted that it was false, but it didn’t matter, because the alleged $200 million figure could get people angry even if it wasn’t true. Just the idea that Obama might spend $200 million a day, the fact that such a thing could be imagined, was enough to fan the anti-Obama flames. On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly even spun the story into a new line of inquiry: now that the White House has confirmed that the cost will not be $200 million a day, what will the actual cost be? What is the White House hiding?
Our Pragmatist’s Vocabulary requires a word for a “truth” that is widely revealed as false and yet lives on, a truth that maintains its utility even when everybody acknowledges its lack of connection to reality. Barack Obama seems to be a frequent target for this type of quasi-truth; the popular notion that he refuses to display his birth certificate is another. Because these types of truths are often used as blunt instruments, I think we ought to call them bluths.
It’s not my goal today to beat up on conservatives and critics of Barack Obama (not because I don’t enjoy doing so, but because I’ve done that enough already). The importance of a Pragmatist’s Vocabulary goes beyond partisan politics, so I’m going to find an example for my next word — certainly there are plenty — that points to a fallacy of my own beloved liberal left. (Yes, as every good philosopher must, I do strive to be non-partisan, or else my efforts here are pointless.)
I’m a big supporter of the controversial health care reform bill passed earlier this year. When I argue with conservatives about this bill, they often declare that it will cost taxpayers a lot of money. When I reply that the Congressional Budget Office has found that the bill will actually save taxpayers money, my opponents often erupt in anger: how can I believe this? Who can predict the future? When has any massive government program not devolved into waste, corruption and mismanagement?
The fact is, my opponents may be right on this point. We don’t know if the health care reform bill will turn out to help or hurt American taxpayers. It depends on how well it’s managed, and many other factors. And yet, when I argue on behalf of the bill, I’ll keep citing the CBO’s conclusion, because it’s useful (pragmatic) for me to do so. I’ll openly admit right now that in doing so I am wielding a quasi-truth as if it were a truth.
We see these types of hopeful truths all around us. In my work as a software developer I am constantly asked to sign off on project schedules that pretend it’s possible to, for instance, build a large corporate website in four weeks, or conduct comprehensive testing and final approval for this website in three days. I usually know for a fact that these time frames are way too optimistic and that the project will run late, but I can’t prove it and I can’t identify exactly what will go wrong, and I know nobody wants to hear it anyway, so I give my reluctant approval. Four weeks of development and three days of testing: sure, buddy, go right ahead. These types of hope-based quasi-truths are fragile things; thus, let’s call them fruths.
Let’s back away from politics for the next one. I recently caught Night and Day, a 1946 film biography of Cole Porter starring Cary Grant, on late night TV. It wasn’t a great film, certainly not worthy of its subject, and it featured a strange spin on reality: in this story, Cole Porter was heterosexual. He was also (naturally, since he was played by Cary Grant) a handsome, debonair ladies man.
Of course, this type of truth-softening is common in film biographies; I mention Night and Day not because it’s an unusual case but only because it’s the first example of many that come to mind. What kind of mental attitude is required to watch and enjoy a film biography that blatantly changes the facts of the story it tells? If this film were better, maybe I wouldn’t have minded so much. A good story seduces us into suspending our disbelief. We suspend it often — different examples of this type of softened, sweetened approach to reality can be found at a family member’s funeral, when we willingly forget everything that pissed us off or outraged us about the dead person, and pretend they lived nearly perfect lives. Why not? They’re dead, and it makes us all feel better. For these sweetened quasi-truths, which we all rely on more than we like to admit, let’s use the word swuths.
Armchair philosophers and truth-seekers, what do you say — are these three words useful? Can they help improve the quality levels of our discussions and debates? What other new words should we invent for a philosopher’s vocabulary?