While at a coffee shop, I made a passing comment to my conversation partner that something or other was true and its opposite was false. I even did this without any of the apologizing customary for making a truth-claim—there was no “I just feel like …” or “in my view …” or “I just believe that …”
I was reprimanded.
“That’s just your opinion,” replied the beanie-wearer.
“No, it is my informed judgment. It is based on good arguments and my knowledge of that subject. And also it is easily verifiable.”
“But that’s your truth,” he said, pretending to be thoughtful. “It isn’t my truth. That isn’t how I see things.”
“On this topic your perception is irrelevant. What’s true is true regardless of how you see it. The laws of gravity, for example, are in effect whether or not you perceive them.”
“But Matt,” he said, leaning in close, pausing for effect, “don’t you realize that perception is reality?”
He leaned back satisfied that he had blown my mind. I suppressed a mighty eye-roll and changed the subject.
We’ve all had conversations like this so it is not surprising that we are now (apparently) living in a Post-Truth society. “That’s not my experience,” “this is just what I believe,” or “this is just how I feel about that,” are now seen as acceptable retorts to a well thought-out, carefully weighed, and properly worded argument. If you don’t like what someone else is saying and she is better at arguing for or articulating her position, then Truth can become whatever you’d like it to be.
If only that was how Truth worked. If it were, I could stop honestly confronting all the unpleasant things I’ve dealt with my whole life and just create my own reality untouched by what lies beyond my mind. What is that called? Some people call it relativism. I would call it lazy and stupid. Taken far enough, I would call it mental illness. I would call it that because people who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality are called mentally ill. Or children.
Post-Truth? More like Post-Sanity.
Yet here we are with a president-elect who believes only what he wants to be true, who regularly engages in magical thinking, and who demands that his followers mistrust anyone who doesn’t affirm his flights of fancy. It’s not exactly relativism, because no one is allowed to make things up except for him and naturally everyone who disagrees with him is just making things up. Of course, this is not new. The rejection of objective truth has been a staple of both the political left and the right for years when convenient—though never quite like this. There’s a society-wide conspiracy to live in denial of objective Truth when it suits us.
Is throwing out objective moral facts temporarily helpful for getting moralizing evangelicals off your back? Then throw them out! Was there a baby in that bathwater? Not in my reality!
Does serious investigative journalism undermine some of your political beliefs? Then watch Fox News and be confirmed in everything you already think! It’s not confirmation bias—it’s fair and balanced. Feeling scared of black people, Mexicans, and refugees? Check out Breitbart. It’s not white nationalist trash — it’s an information outlet, just like The Washington Post or The New York Times.
If there is such a thing as a collective mental illness, this is it. It should be identified and cured as soon as possible. There is too much at stake.
Losing Truth is bad enough, but there is an additional cost: justice. Justice is rooted in Truth. It is true that each should get her due. It is true that all humans are created equal. It is true that we are responsible to the poor and the weak before we are responsible to the rich and the powerful. Without these fundamental truths, how can we appeal to justice? Without these truths, what response is there to those who seek to enrich and empower the rich and the powerful?
Once Truth and justice are thrown out with the garbage, what is true and false or right and wrong will be decided not by arguments, but by powerful feelings such as rage, fear, and despair. Unburdened by the checks and balances that Truth and justice provide, those who are best able to arouse and direct these feelings will decide what is best for us—or perhaps just for their tribe. After all, why should they do what is good for all? Without Truth, without justice, there is only the will to power. When the fox is let into the henhouse, what can’t he do?
It is conceivable that one day soon a red-hatted, red-faced army of the duped will goose-step down the street demanding a Muslim registry or worse because they feel that all Muslims are inherently dangerous. On that day there will be no more appeal to argument, only the collective insanity of mob-rule. That is where the Post-Truth society is headed. Will you consent to going down that road? I hope not. I hope not because that is cowardly and stupid. I hope not because if you shrug your shoulders and say, “That’s just their reality,” then it will quickly become reality for us all.