Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Culture of "Truthiness"

In a moment that should be forever enshrined in television history, Stephen Colbert coined "truthiness" on the premiere episode of The Colbert Report. In a single, albeit semantically ridiculous word, Colbert encapsulated the epistemological ethos of our time. Whether in politics, popular culture, or religion, opinions--no matter how baseless or otiose--rule supreme. Truth is utterly negotiable and fundamentally a matter of personal choice. In many ways, we have become a culture of delusion, in which perception feigns as reality.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. Political spin is now the parlance of governmental authorities with our current vice-president the primary offender, but epistemological fantasies are most acute in reality television. Contestants on Deal or No Deal who have just opened one case too many console themselves with a shared mantra: "That's okay, that's okay." Really? Your dreams of riches have just been crushed in front of a national audience suffering with you on the surface but truly relishing your loss. But "that's okay!" American Idol contestants whose pride surpasses talent dismiss critical assessments of their abilities as "just your opinion."

I am in no way a fundamentalist nor do I have much use for "Absolute Truth" (capitalized, of course). To be sure, I would argue that humans play an active role in the construction of truth, that we ultimately have to take full responsibility for those truths upon which we stake our lives. But a facile relativism that simply views all perspectives as matters of opinion and each as equally valid is just as dangerous as a rigid absolutism that claims to know the very mind of God in all matters.

The negotiated nature of truth is not an invitation for self-delusion but a vital avenue for honesty and critique. If truth is not absolute, then we must be honest about our own perspectives and biases and not simply hide behind the veil of objectivity. Yet, equally important, is that such truth requires constant critique. Absolute truth rebuffs attempts to be corrected; relative truth begs for the corrective of critical dialogue.

Though in a culture seemingly enamored with "truthiness," I would hope that we would not settle for the facile logic of opinion and delusion and yearn for the difficult task of crafting truth in our midst.