Truthiness and lies
4 min read

Truthiness and lies

Truthiness and lies

I've been struggling with ideas of late. A combination of work, moving countries, and a kid starting school has been somewhat distracting. So I did what any respectful writer (?) does and turned to the library of civilisation: YouTube.

Amongst greatest goals clips, Japanese mascots running through explosions, and Orson Welles interviews, I came across an old video from The Colbert Report on 'truthiness'.

Real truth, runs the gag, is what is in your heart. Truthiness is your intuition, something not based on old fashioned and elitist indicators such as evidence or logic. It is the appeal to emotion over fact.

Truthiness was named word of the year in 2006 and has a thorough Wikipedia entry, which was extremely useful for me because I've managed to write four paragraphs so far.

"It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty." - Stephane Colbert

It was Colbert's rightful attack on what culminated ten years later in Trump's presidency, a world of narratives versus reality.

But now I might surprise you. I'm not going to criticise the lies but rather take a different turn and ask: might facts actually get in the way in truth?

A case against facts (kind of...)

Before I begin: I'm not suggesting we go out and start lying. Don't go out there and make stuff up. That said...

In my line of work, I am often confronted with the following question after discussing how best to interest and inspire people to take action:

"Yes but we have a lot of detailed and complicated information to share, how can we do this in a 3 second TikTok video?" - colleague A

Fair enough. The answer is you can't. So you should lie instead, right?

Well, no. That's not the right answer either.

The answer comes in story, in narrative. Storytelling is not realitytelling, because the details of reality are often mundane (unless you're Proust).

Oftentimes, Colleague A will not be looking to tell a story, she will be looking to tell reality, with buckets of evidence, examples, case studies, and academic papers to substantiate each claim. This is important to do in certain arenas of life, less so in others. It won't for example win you a presidential election.

Narratives are ever present social constructs. Let me give you a funny example.  

A dog goes woof in England, bau in Italy, and ham in Romania (and wff in Welsh). The truth is, dogs don't say woof or bau or ham (maybe wff), yet entire populations agree on a made up word because that makes life easier: it allows us to share common stories, constructs and beliefs. That's a narrative.

There's nothing wrong or immoral with not being able to perfectly recreate the sound of a dog. As long as my friends and family understand what I mean when I say 'woof', then we can all move along and listen to my sheep impressions. And that, when all is said and done, is the whole point of narrating in the first place.

So what might we do about this conundrum of story versus reality?

The first, obvious step is to go easy on the amount of facts you are trying to squeeze into some poor soul's brain if they're not, for want of a better word, geeks. I don't think I need to elaborate on that but here's a quote because they always make whatever I'm saying sound more truthful.

“Facts are like cows. If you look them in the face long enough, they generally run away.”- Dorothy Leigh Sayers

Another approach could be to tell longer stories.

Communicating online has made us all eager to compress messaging into soundbites and flashy clips. That leaves little space for nuance, for explaining. Neither side of the communications and policy aisle tend to be happy.

But the pressure to deliver soundbites eases when the pressure to hit big numbers falls away. The desire to always be seen no matter what could then reduce, and from that time and space is given to create stories with nuance, and come back with a bang.

I'm going to end now on an Emmys acceptance speech by the fantastically talented Michaela Coel.

It's less than a minute long but she movingly touched upon how the need to be seen impacts us all. Finding time and space for a bit of truthiness might be helpful to some of us.  

“Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you. In a world that entices us to browse the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible — for visibility, these days, seems to somehow equate to success — do not be afraid to disappear. From it, from us, for a while. And see what comes to you in the silence.”

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