Our social and political issues argued hourly in mainstream media outlets, and even in this journal (Huntington, WV Herald-Dispatch), seem to eventually devolve into one basic question - Who is telling the truth?
Whether one views MSNBC or Fox, reads Milt Hankins or George Will, the various pundits accuse some leaders of misrepresenting the truth while claiming others speak the truth: Is Donald Trump tweeting the truth? Did James Comey avoid the truth? Who is telling the truth about health care legislation? With these questions bandied about, the debate spirals to the pundits engaging in something akin to a schoolyard confrontation where one student screams “IS NOT” followed by the other retorting “IS TOO” which are volleyed until either a teacher steps in or punches fly.
When asked about the truth, our general inclination is to reach for the facts. We do this so much that we seem to conflate facts with truth. But, if fact and truth are equivalent, then why do we, in the English language, use two separate words?
According to my go-to source (etymonline.com) the word “fact” is derived from the Latin word factum, meaning an event, occurrence or achievement. In contrast, the word “truth” has a different origin, derived from an Old English word triewo, meaning faith, fidelity and loyalty. In recent usage, the two words have increasingly become synonymous. Perhaps it is time to unbundle them for the sake of bringing public discourse away from our present schoolyard spat and towards a civil and meaningful debate.
I humbly propose two ways of separating truth from fact.
First, let’s abandon the word “truth” from civil and political discourse. Truth is a deeply textured word running through theological and philosophical thought, engaging matters of faith and belief well beyond the realm of facts. For example, in my Christian tradition, the Passion of Christ includes a moment when Jesus proclaims that he came to testify to the truth. Pontius Pilate responds, “What is truth?” and then walks away.
Did Pilate recognize the futility of his question by walking away, or did he recognize that Jesus was the way, the life and the truth? One thing for sure–neither Jesus nor Pilate were talking about facts. Rather, there is an elusive quality in their exchange. Taking our cue from them, maybe we should leave the truth out of political and civil discussion and stick to the facts.
Second, we can continue treating fact and truth as equivalents, removing the word “the” which generally precedes them. Doing so removes the singularity of each word, making it less definitive. So, “the” truth become “a” truth and “the” fact becomes “one” fact.
This alternate proposition flows from the lesson I learned from the Indian parable of the four blind men and the elephant, wherein each man describes the animal from his own perspective, with one describing a tail, the other an ear, one a foot and, finally, one a trunk. Each blind man speaks factually and truthfully, but none perceives “the” truth or “the” fact due to his inability to perceive the totality of the animal. Likewise in our public discourse, we should question seriously anyone who thinks they know it all.
So, maybe we should hearken back to Joe Friday and ask for “Just the facts.” Or maybe we should speak of truths rather than the truth. No matter which route we take, it is better than the present, banal course of exchange presented in the news of the day.
[J. William St. Clair is a United Methodist Clergyman and Legal Aid attorney who lives with his wife and family in Huntington, West Virginia. This is his third contribution to Columnist with a View.]