In the Age of Donald Trump, what is truth? Is truth just a matter of opinion? Are your facts the same as my facts, or are they alternative facts? Is there any objectivity to the news? Can you pick the description of the world you want to believe? Does truth depend on who’s telling the story?
This is an old dilemma. "Quid est veritas?" (“What is truth?”) asked Pontius Pilate, as he interrogated Jesus of Nazareth, in a classic bureaucratic cop-out. Pilate did not want to know the answer to his question. He was a Roman appointee, a magistrate, just doing his job. Trump is a modern day Pilate, bantering irresponsibly over what is truth, a walking piece of epistemological contradiction playing his fiddle with glee like Nero while Rome has been burning. If nobody really knows anything, that is the moment when an authoritarian leader can gain traction, because not only does might make right but might makes truth.
But there is another type of truth, practiced almost instinctively by institutions – the government, politicians and military, but also churches and schools, as well as families – the kinds of truth that others should not know. These institutions regard truth as a sleeping dog which it is best not to awaken. Society has its own code of omertà. Those who violate it, e.g., whistleblowers, are punished and reviled. While in theory the truth may make us free, in practice speaking truth is dangerous. "Tell the truth," the Russian proverb warns, "and be chased through nine villages." George Orwell was more subtle. Truth is such a valuable commodity that it must be economized.
Societies cover up truth for many of the same reasons that individuals and families do. Perhaps the most obvious frequent motive is vanity. Nations — that is to say the leaders currently in charge — want to look good. Indeed, the roots of the word respectable have to do with not actually being virtuous but appearing to be so, i.e., able to pass muster. Looking good requires distancing oneself from acts that cast a bad light, even acts occurring long ago. Japan has no wish to discuss "comfort women" or the rape of Nanking. The United States would like to draw a veil over its history of slavery, nor does it ever refer to its virtual extermination of the native Indian peoples as ethnic cleansing. Russia is embarrassed over Stalin's role in the Ukrainian famine or the murders of millions in the Gulag, while Hitler's near-extermination of European Jews, too recent to be ignored or covered up, weighs heavily on Germany's public image.
No country's history can bear close examination. Individual wrong-doers may confess, repent and be forgiven, but nations can only deny or remain silent. Censorship is society's means of frustrating the need of others to know.
And what of the Emperor…
Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's New Clothes is ostensibly a fable for children. It is a story of a con game — a sting. The mark is no less a personage than the Emperor himself. Two con artists posing as master weavers offer to make the Emperor a magnificent suit of clothes from a magical cloth which will be invisible to a stupid person or one unfit for his office.
The Emperor falls for this scam — hard. He orders the royal treasury to disgorge the funds required to pay for the gold and silver threads to weave the cloth and the precious gems with which to encrust it — funds which the two scoundrels promptly stuff into their bottomless pockets. Months go by, expenses mount. Visitors to the weaving room, among them the Emperor himself, can see no cloth on the loom but dare not admit it. At last the weavers, with many voilàs, unveil a costume invisible to everyone from the Emperor on down. But all go along with the scam. Fortified by the feigned admiration of his courtiers, the Emperor takes his place at the head of the royal procession. Servants hold high his make-believe train. The crowd oohs and ahhs as he passes by.
But then! Suddenly from the crowd comes the cry of a little child: "But the Emperor has nothing on!" The crowd comes to its senses, echoing the child's words. The Emperor has nothing on! He is naked!
We are all parties to our own deception. Few are conned without the secret need or desire to be so. Every victim of a scam has a flaw — greed, pride, selfishness, credulity, fear — that the con artist is quick to ferret out and exploit.
Vanity is the Emperor's exploitable flaw; love of position and status, his courtiers'. But the Emperor's subjects are no less culpable. Their flaw is uncritical acceptance of the falsehoods that are the warp and woof of their society. Although the ostensible victims are the emperor and his subjects, done in by vanity, the invisible victim of this scam is a society itself, which tacitly accepts the pretenses which make society possible.
Might this tale have a secret meaning — a message Hans Christian Anderson is sending in fictional code? Like myths, proverbs and fables, a tale's meaning depends on its context. The Emperor's invisible clothes might stand for the illusion du jour. Or the target could be a particular tenet of the conventional wisdom. Perhaps the Emperor's invisible gold and gem-encrusted costume might be a satiric put-down of the reputed riches of the New World which Danish emigrants were just beginning to extol in their letters home, setting off waves of emigration that threatened to depopulate Scandinavia.
But suppose the Emperor was genuinely concerned about the welfare of his realm? Further, suppose that it is not the Emperor who is without clothes, but his subjects. What if the weavers are economic experts offering new policies, rhetorically disguised as clothes that will keep the restless peasants from taking off to more promising shores or maybe even challenging the social order? Wouldn't the Emperor himself need to believe the experts' promises of a better economic future? Emperors need subjects. They need to feel that they are good rulers. Poverty is bad for imperial prestige. And as advisors always do, these phony experts assure the Emperor that their policies are working! The material lot of the poor is improving as fast as the looms can turn out their invisible cloth.
The emperor is thus encouraged to announce that his country is winning the war on poverty. His courtiers spread the good news. There is jubilation in the Emperor's court. Poverty is on the verge of being eliminated! But in their hovels every day, people grow hungrier and more threadbare. Only the innocent child is not fooled. It is the people who have no clothes. They are poorer than ever.
Every society abounds in social falsehoods; in beliefs that cannot stand up to scrutiny; subjects which are referred to only in euphemisms, if at all; every society has questions which its members are careful not to ask. The people, too, are marks who need to be defrauded. This need is met by myths and social fictions affirmed by experts.
The imprint in our genes
Reinhold Niebuhr, a mid-20th century theologian and ethicist, has an explanation for acts of institutional evil so appalling to a nation's image that they must be protected by official secret acts and by imprisoning or executing those who show and tell. He believes that human beings as individuals are moral but society is immoral. By society he means collectives, institutions and groups. The need not to know, or at least not to publicly acknowledge, unflattering facts could partially stem from the individual's moral sense being compromised by the moral mediocrity of groups. As members of a gregarious species, humans seem genetically programmed to need the warmth and protection of a community — a troop, flock or herd. We are vulnerable to group pressure. Our need for social inclusion and acceptance, our fear of being shunned or cast out, imprisoned, attacked, even killed, seem imprinted in our genes. E.O. Wilson, author of the classic sociobiological text, The Social Conquest of Earth, has written, “In its power and universality, the tendency to form groups and then favor in-group members has the earmarks of instinct … Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong.”
Fears of negative consequences for going against the group are well-founded. We see evidence all the time that as individuals human beings are expendable. We learn as children on the playground that the weak are prey.
"It is surely true that no society — in the world at least — has ever been able to afford the luxury of facing squarely all the issues that divide its people," Homer Babbidge, historian and president of the University of Connecticut, said more than fifty years ago. "The use of fiction as an instrument of cohesion is an indispensable social tool."
Does that mean that truth is a luxury that society cannot afford?
The case for deceiving the people for the good of the polis was made by Plato in The Republic. He called it a "noble lie." (As distinguished from the Big Lie recommended by Hitler.)
Adam Walinsky, Robert F. Kennedy's speech writer and Kennedy confidante, in an extraordinary essay on the failure of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, explained:
"But the interesting thing about a myth is not whether people believe it, but why. Myths are not capricious inventions of story tellers, but ways of organizing and rationalizing group-behavior patterns or concealing the real interest of the society's constituents."
Which means that social power is the power to decide what questions society asks. I once advised a writer friend who worried about being relevant: discover what is taboo and write like hell about it! Because Academe teaches only recognized truth. Certified truth. But what about unrecognized truth?
Before we can change what a society believes, we have to ask what purpose this belief serves and why it is believed to be true. Society is architecture. Beliefs are its foundations. Beliefs have histories. They grow out of collective experience. They are handed down over generations. They become mores. But the meaning of this collective experience is interpreted by Power. Power determines the questions that society will ask. Or not ask.