This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on August 1, 2017.
That we want it to be so does not make it so. Truth is not so friendly. But that’s a big problem today. We have “filter-bubble” chat rooms, echo chamber television networks, algorithms that anticipate the images we want, and politicians ever so willing to pander to our philosophical predilections. So how are we supposed to know what’s true and what’s not?
It is not the ability to love that sets us apart from other mammals. I’ve had dogs I loved, and I know they loved me back. What most distinguishes us is our ability to invent symbols to communicate facts we perceive and the ideas they generate. These symbols free us from being trapped inside ourselves or being limited to purely physical means of expression. We incorporate memories with anticipations of the future and meld them into an idea of the present. Then we record these symbols, speaking from the present into the future. We call this language, and with it, as a species, we have changed ourselves and the world around us.
If you agree with me, then like me, you must also value truth. But truth needs precision. When I speak of the color “green,” the use of the word must always mean the same thing, a common experience of greenness. It cannot sometimes mean brown or yellow, and must always be referring to something I have actually experienced. When I use the word, I must be trustworthy. Those to whom I speak, or who read what I have written, must have a basis for believing that I saw what I described. My words are otherwise useless. This is the entire basis for science and for disciplines such as economics and sociology. It is also the basis for friendship, society and democracy.
If, at this point, we remain in agreement, then like me, you should also be concerned with Donald Trump’s butchery of language. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently wrote on the subject.
Trump’s usage, Blow wrote, is “a way of reducing language to the point that it is meaningless because the use of it is mindless, and in that compromised state, language becomes nearly worthless. As a consequence, truth becomes relative, if not altogether removed.”
“Listening to Trump speak is a dizzying experience for anyone interested in candor, clarity or concision. It’s as if he puts language through a meat grinder and what emerges is nearly unrecognizable, in either comprehension or certitude.”
I do not think this is accidental. Trump’s definition of truth is different from mine; truth as I’ve defined it is, to him, irrelevant. He is more concerned with what might be described as belief. The facts are as he wants them and therefore believes them to be. For Trump, knowing flows from believing. In this paradigm, whatever is believed can become fact — belief, not observation, being the gateway to truth.
Many Americans believe illegal Mexican immigrants are dangerous and that millions of them vote illegally. So, Trump echoes these beliefs, and in so doing validates pre-existing beliefs. In the relativist world of Trump this validation is truth enough. Indeed, in a Trumpian view, those in power will ultimately record what happened, and the record they make will become truth. Thus, truth can be whatever we want it to be, if only we have the will to make it so.
The foundations of democracy are literacy and an informed citizenry capable of understanding facts and making rational decisions. Against this backdrop the Trumpian idea that the will creates truth is not new; it has been common parlance within the last century. Read, for example, Benito Mussolini’s 1933 pamphlet on “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism.” To Mussolini democracy was an evil that Fascism despised. To him, belief is more powerful than reason; only belief matters. As Mussolini put it, truth is revealed by what men die for. Death is truth, and a belief men have died for is validated as truth.
Trump has been quoted as saying his financial worth is based upon his “own feelings,” that it “goes up or down based on (his) feelings.” His financial worth is whatever he believes its value to be. And, so it was for those who bought Trump brand tequila, or steaks, or college degrees, or condos. If you want to believe they are valuable, then they are. It is the way of all hucksters; what they sell is belief. In Trump’s world, if he’s telling you what you want to hear, he’s not lying.