The word “truth” may be the latest and most consequential word to be the unfortunate victim of a definition change.
While truth was originally based in objective reality, it has now been commandeered to represent a subjective reality, most likely because if you make meaning subjective no one can tell you you’re wrong. This redefining of “truth” shouldn’t be surprising given the emotionally-driven, solipsistic society we live in; however, this predictability does not in any way lessen the absurdity of treating truth as subjective.
Some events have been landmarks in reflecting the fundamental altering of the word “truth” in recent years. In 2016, for example, Oxford Dictionaries determined the word of the year to be “post-truth.” In 2017 Time Magazine’s front cover dramatically posed the question, “Is truth dead?” And at the 2018 Golden Globes Oprah Winfrey proclaimed, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”
Not speaking the truth, but speaking your truth.
Oprah Winfrey’s oxymoronic “your truth” comment is significant because it prompted a lot of talk after her speech. Some of the talk was rightly critical, but most was in favor of her choice of words. Her comment was in reference to the women coming forward in the #MeToo movement and came shortly after her lauding the press for their work. The context of her comment makes it even more interesting that she is praising personal truths, since in the areas of sexual misconduct and news reporting, the objective truth should be what is promoted, not one’s personal truth. Simply by examining the effects of relying on personal truths in these two instances, one can clearly see the dangers of substituting “your truth” for “the truth.”
It should go without saying that objective truth matters in stories alleging rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment. Oprah’s usage of “your truth” in reference to the #MeToo movement can best be interpreted as speaking about one’s experience and having this experience affirmed as truth. However this definition of truth is untenable.
Take for example the recent headlines regarding comedian Aziz Ansari, the latest celebrity to face sexual misconduct accusations. He went out to dinner with a woman, and they later went back to his apartment and seemingly engaged in voluntarily sexual activities. Only the next day did the woman make it clear to him that their activities had made her uncomfortable and she accused him of ignoring her “non-verbal cues.” She could have left anytime or verbally expressed her hesitation, but instead she went along with it only to later declare that she experienced this as sexual assault. This is her personal truth. In response to her interview, Mr. Ansari stated that it appeared to him that she was fine with what was happening during their interaction and he was surprised to learn she experienced it differently than he had. This is his personal truth.
It cannot be true that this instance simultaneously is and is not sexual assault. If we rely on personal experiences or feelings as truth, everything becomes true, and, therefore, nothing can be true.
Objective truth in the press is also of the utmost importance. As social media can spread news faster than ever, it is crucial that reporters are vigilant in reporting the truth. In a time in which instances of fake news run rampant and half the country believes the other half is objectively wrong, one must determine whether truth is subjective or not. If “your truth” is “the truth,” then there can be no fake news, as what is reported is simply “the news stations’ truth.” Additionally, we cannot claim that those who hold prejudiced beliefs are wrong because it is merely their truth—it is how they experience the world. As a result, the press cannot be wrong, nor can it report that someone is wrong.
Oprah thanked the press for helping expose “corruption and injustice.” However, going by her own logic, she only personally experiences these stories as corrupt or unjust. Another individual’s personal truth may be that these stories are perfectly moral and the media is incorrect. Who is Oprah to disagree with someone else’s truths?
Oprah’s comments and the public’s support of them are an ominous foreshadowing of a future in which anything is true and no one can disagree with anyone. To be clear, I am not saying people don’t experience or perceive things differently—they do. Instead, I am arguing that not all perceptions are representative of truth; consequently, it is dangerous to conflate the subjective experience of “your truth” with the objective reality of “the truth.”
(Photo by Paul Drinkwater)