Lesley Brennan

"Truthiness" and the Political Persuaders


20 November 2015

There are three parts of the body involved in political thinking – the heart, the head and the gut.

Contrasts between two of them produced a famous exchange in the 1964 US Presidential election.

Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate suggested that atomic bombs could be used in Vietnam to destroy lines of communication with China.

The Republicans portrayed his stance as : “In his heart, you know he’s right”

Lyndon Johnston’s Democrats responded with : “In your guts, you know he’s nuts”

The three are involved in raising public engagement in political issues as politicians appealing to the head and to the heart , while TV interviewers ask political commentators :

“What’s your gut feeling about how the campaign’s going?”

In recent years a new type of thinking has been defined, where the status of commonly-shared concepts such as “a fact” have been downgraded .

From this change in status for facts has emerged “Truthiness”

“Truthiness" is a concept created in the last decade by the American satirist , Stephen Colbert, which he defines thus :

“ truthiness is ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination of facts.

"Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. What feels like the right answer as opposed to what reality will support”

At its core, truthiness dispenses with the classical model of reasoning based on objectivity, facts that are held to be universally true ; and theories and claims being dependent on facts for their credibility and reliability.

Instead, as Colbert states :

“Truthiness is the reality that is intuitively known without regard to liberal ideals such as reason and logic.”

He goes on :

“We are divided between those who think with their heads, and those who know with their hearts. … The ‘truthiness’ is, anyone can read the news to you, I promise to feel the news, at you. (his emphasis in italics )

In other words, whatever a person feels strongly about, for him or her that becomes the Truth.

Truthiness is ego-centric :

Colbert once more :

“Truthiness is : ‘What I say is right, and nothing anyone else says could possibly be true. It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true.’(Colbert’s emphasis in italics)

“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.””

“Truthiness” merited a place in the Collins English Dictionary where it was described thus :

“ the quality of being considered to be true because of what the believer wishes or feels, regardless of the facts”

It fitted comfortably into the world of the ever-expanding Internet, where traditional political news reporting was being challenged by politics presented as “infotainment” , and the rise of instantaneous social media, the sheer volume of which made it well nigh impossible to maintain standards of the information that it produced in terms of accuracy, its sources of reference and their trustworthiness.

However, society requires critical choices to be made.

These choices require factual information from authoritative sources to make people’s choices well-informed, and the constant supply of that information is the role of a responsible media.

The information has to be set in context that people recognise as being relevant to their daily lives.

It requires as well that those participating in politics don’t concede the political debate to “truthiness”.

The basis of classical rational thought - verifiable facts , publicly-available evidence, impartiality  - must prevail instead.

We cannot surrender political discourse to truthiness.