A blog about systems and statements
What is truth these days?
What is truth these days?

What is truth these days?

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like recently there’s been more and more miscommunication, alternative news and straight up lies. Not only in the media with mythomaniacs like Fox, Breitbart and the likes, but also in person with arbitrary presentations, interactions with strangers, and even in conversation with friends. Here’s my theory about where truth really comes from in today’s world.

Take for instance this description a friend gave of someone she met at a party:

In the first few hours, he was the life of the party — dancing, playing games, and telling jokes that raised the roof. But here just past midnight the life was completely was sucked out of him — he was just silently sitting in the corner and judging everyone. It really freaked us out.

I was in the group discussion when this was said and I was also at the party in question. The guy being described was one of probably five serious extroverts that were strongly influencing the party’s atmosphere. He played half a round of beer pong, and I never saw him dance. At around 11pm, I noticed him sitting alone and approached him about it. He told me he just had a long day and exerted all the energy he had in the first few hours of the party. Soon after he was gone.

Now the question I pose to you is was my friend lying? Strictly speaking, she told a total of 7 untruths in her description, but they weren’t all-out lies. If you ignore the obvious exaggerations, it’s 5, but it still doesn’t seem intuitive to call her a liar.

She certainly coloured in the story a bit, but I wouldn’t say she did anything immoral. In fact, even if we don’t blame faulty memory, I’d say by putting her own spin on the story, she made it easier to interpret and more enjoyable to listen to. Just compare my paragraph to hers.

I mean surely you wouldn’t say someone using an idiom is lying. So why accuse someone that colours in a story? They’re doing the same thing — making it more entertaining and interpretable. And they’re still getting across the most important point — that which you’ll remember — the just of the story.

Whether you heard the story described above from me or my friend, you would still leave remembering the same thing — a guy that was full of energy, and then became tired. Just in my friend’s case you would enjoy getting that information more — and you would perhaps remember it for longer.

Compare this to e.g. one of Donald Trump’s latest controversial lines: “If the economic shutdown continues, deaths by suicide definitely would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about for COVID-19 deaths.”. In reality US COVID19 deaths (so far) already outweigh the suicides of last year by a factor of 3:2. This is only bound to increase.

So strictly speaking, Trump lied (big surprise). But would it be too generous to say he was just colouring in the truth? Or was he merely using rhetoric and technical mistruth to convey his position with more force — that is, his own truth. You could claim it immoral to use lies to assist in asserting a position, but I fear the morality of linguistic expression isn’t a big concern for everyday speakers that just want to say what they mean, with a little pizzazz. And yes, I honestly believe this was Trump’s intention — to say what he thinks, not to spread lies.

And I’m willing to say that colouring the truth, as it were, serves good moral purpose too. Take another common instance: suppose a stubborn man starts a public altercation and then expresses “I’m not leaving until I hear an apology.” Now, taken literally this isn’t true. It may well happen that for instance the police forcibly escorts him out. But is he lying? I wager not. In fact most would likely say he wasn’t even making a statement. He was merely asserting his position — that he wants an apology.

It has become more and more common for people to use classically logical propositions to idiomatically express opinion with emphasis. “I will have revenge” means “I want revenge”; “I will never speak to her again” means “I don’t want to speak to her again”; “He will die a thousand deaths before going back there” means “he really doesn’t want to go back”; and “deaths by suicide in lockdown will be worse than those by covid19” means “I really don’t like lockdown.”

Image credit: Timo Kuilder

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