If — somehow or other — you’ve missed it, there has been much in the news and elsewhere about truth, post-truth and fake news. This concern with what counts as fact, what is factoid and what is downright lies is nothing new, nor is the dissembling that goes along with it, though it’s certainly been in very sharp focus in recent days, weeks and months. Here are ten quotes or thoughts about Truth, offered in the hopes of clarity:
- What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.
Francis Bacon opened his essay On Truth with these words. Pilate, reports John the Evangelist, has been questioning Jesus, who in reply to being asked if he is a king replies that he was born to bear witness to the truth. Pilate asks the rhetorical question “What is truth?” — in the New Testament Greek Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια? and in the Vulgate Latin Quid est veritas? Then, being satisfied that Jesus is not planning a political revolt, Pilate in effect says that he is innocent of all charges of sedition. (Incidentally, Philip Pullman’s truth-telling device the alethiometer, in the trilogy His Darkest Material, includes the Greek word for truth, ἀλήθεια.)
- I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father if not by me.
Jesus, St John states, gave this cryptic answer at the Last Supper to his worried disciples, who were feeling lost after his predictions that the authorities were coming to get him. (Via et veritas et vita is the wonderfully alliterative Latin translation.) Jesus is saying that his followers can only get to heaven if they follow his teachings. Perhaps he was unaware that other spiritual leaders had promised similar things.
‘Let out’ clause when reporting rumour if there is a fear of being accused of slander, famously used by the BBC satirical news quiz Have I Got News For You. The modern equivalent of the phrase employed in a friend-of-a-friend tale or urban legend such as “They say” or “It’s said”. Subsequent tellings usually omit these qualifying phrases.
- Alternative facts.
After Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States his counsellor Kellyanne Conway said that Sean Spicer, his White House press secretary, gave “alternative facts” regarding the numbers attending the inauguration in Washington compared with those for President Obama’s inauguration. Let’s not beat about the bush: alternative facts are actually lies.
One definition of a factoid is “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” Generally, when coined in 1973 by Norman Mailer, it was intended to refer either to a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though not actually true, or else an invented fact believed to be true just because it appears in print. That distinction could be made more explicit: a factoid is an unintended untruth, but fake news is a deliberate untruth, either spoken or written.
This is a term I’ve often used though I’ve no idea if it’s in common usage. It’s a well-known concept however, from the following dialogue between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass.
— “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
— “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
— “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
I suspect this notion — using a word to mean just what the speaker chooses it to mean — is becoming even more common in modern politics (for example, changing the term ‘minimum wage’ to ‘living wage’).
Russian for Truth. The former official newspaper of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. This organ expressed the views of the party in power, increasingly dispensing ‘facts’ which were largely disputed or at least doubted by the non-Communist world.
The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this as a language “marked by euphemism, circumlocution, and the inversion of customary meanings”. George Orwell, who invented the term for his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, described it as “designed to diminish the range of thought.” By now we can also see it as alternate facts, fake news and Humpty-Dumptyism.
The modern usage derives from the notion of disseminating, in others words the spreading of ideas to a wider audience. Merriam-Webster helpfully gives us two definitions relating to the meaning propaganda acquired in the 20th century: (1) the spreading of ideas, information, or rumour for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; and (2) ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause [my italics]. Whether it’s the ideas themselves or the act of disseminating that’s meant, the negative intentions — rumour, injury, damage — are what tends to come to the foremost in most people’s minds. And it’s significant that while we think of friendly governments doling out information, it’s baleful polities (Nazi Germany, say, or Soviet Russia, or Trump’s administration) that we associate with propaganda.
- Terminological inexactitude
Apparently first used over a century ago by Winston Churchill, this phrase has assumed the status of a euphemism; the circumlocution is for a lie (or, if it sounds less unpleasant, an untruth or even misleading impression).
— Edmund Burke, a century before, had used the phrase “an economy of truth,” a phrase that seems to suggest, at best, a white lie.
— Thirty years ago, during the famous Spycatcher trial in Australia, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert ‘Roddy’ Armstrong was involved in the following dialogue while on the witness stand:
Lawyer: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?
Armstrong: A lie is a straight untruth.
Lawyer: What is a misleading impression — a sort of bent untruth?
Armstrong: As one person said, it is perhaps being “economical with the truth“.
Why can’t they have all used the one word that sums up all these veiled phrases?
These then are our ten quotes. I fear, though, we may be no closer to the answer to the question “What is truth?” after threading our way through a labyrinth of smoke and mirrors.
Perhaps, however, given the several examples above, we know exactly what a lie is.