Imagine, as some would have it, the prospect of the president under oath. There’s Mr. Trump, hand raised, as he solemnly swears “to tell the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.” Eyes roll as he spins yet another narrative. Perjury trial ensues. The defense opens with the president's own statement: “Listen, judge and jury, what are you gonna believe — my truth or your own lying eyes?”
And so this high-wire act might begin as the subject of the trial becomes not so much the man but the very nature of truth itself. Welcome to the world of so-called postmodernism. The focus article for Member Monday (2/26) is a NYT Opinion piece, “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?”
Once upon a time we had a pretty workable understanding of a lie i.e. an untrue statement made with the intent to deceive. Truth, back then, was pretty straight-forward -- ascertained through the direct experience (by oneself or by a trusted truth sayer) or otherwise established through thought, logic, and reason. Truth in the Age of Enlightenment was firmly rooted in the real world.
Then came the (pseudo?)-science of psychology and, with it, the philosophy and era known by that off-putting label postmodernism. The world in which it dealt was no longer that of physics and chemistry and logic and repeatable experiments. Its world was that of humans, not natural science.
Language accordingly became provisional, incorporating words like relativism and constructivism. That looseness allowed for lots of wiggle room. Truth and morality were relative. Truth was something made, not found. Making truth meant exercising power. The upshot: there is no objective truth, only perception.
With that, Mr. Trump rests his case.
Our discussion will be less about this imaginary trial than about the philosophy animating it. We will not, however, be dealing in abstraction. The implication of perception as truth is as real as tomorrow’s headline.
We held a session just over a year ago (Member Monday/Culture of Spin (2/13/17)) exploring the use of language in the management of perception. Governments engage in it (it's called propaganda) as does the commercial world. There’s a whole industry, in fact, that applies the dark art of perception management to the care and feeding of the consumer monster.
One demonstration of how perception plays with truth is in your wallet. Take out a Federal Reserve Note — also known as a dollar bill — and reflect on it. This note (i.e. purported debt extended to you, the note holder) makes no pledge of objective value. It’s secured by nothing, not to an asset, not to a balance sheet. The legal tender language is nothing but a construct. It might just as well read: "Let's Pretend." As such, the truth of its intrinsic worth is zero. Its value rests solely upon the conjured perception among the credulous.
And that’s the truth.
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