In this presidential election year for the United States, what is truth became a daily question as I reluctantly watch and listen to all the election coverage – the ads, the debates, the spins on the debates. It became clear to me that I needed to do some exploring on the subject of truth so that I can get a stronger bearing for what I will do on election day.
At the end of the first Presidential debate, Donald Trump, on national TV, praised Lester Holt, the moderator, for a job well done. But then the next day, he complained that Holt was biased against him. An exploration of different kinds of truth may help us understand what happened.
There are different orders of truth. The most important is what I called Factual Truth or Forensic Truth. This is the truth based on observable, physical evidence. For example, we can say with certainty that there are 78 keys on the computer that I am writing with because I have it in front of me and I can count the number of keys. In terms of human interactions, I often use the analogy of using 10 cameras recording the same events at different angles. We would know a lot more of what really happened when we review the recordings as the factual truth.
However, when we don't have all the factual truth, we are left with what I call interpreted truth and experienced truth. These truths are subjective. In a court of law in the United States, after we hear the testimonies of people who share the factual truth and their experienced truth, the lawyers on both sides arrange the same evidence in ways that support their different theories of what actually happened — interpreted truth. The jury is asked to determine which interpreted truth is correct. The one presenting his or her version of the interpreted truth is more interested in winning than finding out what really happened, because winning means becoming the one who defines the truth, which then may be recorded and become part of history.
Alan Jones, in his book, Living the Truth, said, “What you think is the truth depends on what you believe. What you think is the truth depends on who you think you are.”
Now, back to Trump, I think right after the debate, he believed that he had won; this perception would be his experienced truth. That was why he commended Lester Holt. Then as the factual truth of the experiences of the viewers, in the form of polling, came in saying that over 60% of the viewers said that he had lost the debate, he reacted with trying to dispute with other not-so-objective polling results showing that he had won. When that didn’t work, he started blaming the microphone and then blaming Holt for being bias. I have my experienced and interpreted truth about what happened at the debate and I respect those who had a different experience and interpretation of the same event. I would be happy to have a civil and hopefully insightful dialogue about our differences. But when the facts come in, that changes the dialogue because factual truth always trumps (excuse the pun) interpreted truth.
Yet, time and again in this election year, many ignored the factual truth in favor of interpreted truth. I actually had a friend who said that Donald Trump really can’t be a racist or sexist because he grew up in New York. I decided to use factual truth to counter his interpreted truth. I said I could show you videos of Trump saying racist and sexist things. These are the facts I have; so I deducted that he is a racist and sexist person. I admitted that that is my interpretation but the evidence –factual truth - is pretty strong. My friend’s response was, “Oh, he really didn’t mean it.”
“Are you saying that he was lying when he said these things?”
To my surprise, my friend actually said, “Yes.”
“For what purpose?” I pursued.
Finally, I filled in, “To get votes?”
He said “yes” again.
So here is the logic: Donald lied when he said those racist and sexist things so that he can get votes from those who are racist and sexist. The other choice is: in the face of the recorded factual truth about his actions, he is in fact racist and sexist. Either way does not sit well with me as a voter. Ah, then there is the typical response to factual truth that one doesn’t like, we blame the equipment: the camera, or voice recordings, or say the twitter records were defective. Or we blame the messenger—the people who found these records are biased and we might call them names.
So what do we do? In this election year, this pattern of denial of the factual truth will continue to come from both sides. But based on my interpretation and experience, one side certainly exhibits more of this denial of facts than the other. Here is what I propose we do in order to make a sound decision with our votes in November.
- Pay attention to the factual truth first. For this reason, I listen to the fact checkers and I actually do my own fact-checking if possible. I would worry about a candidate that ignores the facts and continues to promote his or her interpreted truth.
- Watch for the reactions. Whenever you see the pattern of denial for the fact such as blaming the equipment or the messengers, pay attention because the complainer is trying to distract us from the factual truth that he or she does not like.
- Engage in constructive conversations with people with different experienced and interpreted truths about the candidates and their actions and promotions. It’s always good to begin with presenting the factual truth which should be the baseline of the conservation. A healthy robust discussion, without demonizing each other, will do us voters good. Try to understand (not necessarily agree) the other’s position and logic. When possible, provide feedback and reveal the logic of the other’s point of views for the sake of achieving mutual understanding.
We need to learn from history: when we ignored the factual truth about the holocaust, but continued to believe what the Nazi propaganda fed us, we had genocide. When we ignore the video prove of 5 policemen beating up Rodney King and not hold the policemen accountable, we had a whole lot of angry people expressing their disbelief in destructive ways—the riots. Factual truth is important, and with social media and the availability of cameras everywhere, we have more access to factual truth than ever before. Because of this, we must honor factual truth as the basic foundation of our understanding of the truth, because the truth will set us free and make us well.
Reflection Questions for Proper 23 (Year C)
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Eric H. F. Law
For competent leadership in a diverse changing world