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The Imperiled Status of Truth in American Public Discourse and Why It Matters to You
By Jay R. Harman
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Jay R. Harman
All rights reserved.
Some Preliminary Remarks
In a discussion of this type, an early decision any author faces is exactly where to pick up the narrative, or where, basically, the story or argument begins. In this case, I want to open with a few introductory remarks about language and the notion of truth.
An essential facet of what make us all human is our capacity to think symbolically, which then helps make possible our marvelous communicative skills. While we each use these skills in pursuit of many different communicative objectives, in order for verbal communication of any kind to occur we must have mutually recognized definitions and syntactical relationships between terms. Such definitions and relationships are based on a wider consensus within our community about facets of our language, which is necessary in order for our communicative acts to be interpretable by others. Establishing the necessary community-based meanings and syntaxes, in turn, requires some method of verification so that disputes about them can be resolved. Normally, such verification has an empirical component that permits the meanings of our terms to be tethered to sensory experiences. For example, if you and I disagree about what an utterance that sounds like "table" means, one of us can point to such an object and establish the connection. Eventually, others would come to agree with this definition of the utterance of "table," and it becomes the accepted version. Through such a process, the notion of truth, that symbolic version of the objective world favored by most members of our community, ultimately emerges.
As straightforward as such an account may seem, just what counts as "truth" is in fact a contentious philosophical question today (at least among some quarters), and as a result one does not wade into a discussion of the term without some trepidation. In order to avoid getting entangled in it, I will ask your forbearance and sidestep much of this debate so that we can cut to the heart of the important issues. In so doing, I assume that we can agree, along with Frankfurt (2006, 11), on a commonsense understanding of terms such as "truth" and "falsity." The justification for this step is that, while we may not be able to exactly define these terms, we nonetheless share a common understanding of the difference between them and routinely trade in a vocabulary that requires us to draw distinctions of certitude and truthfulness, particularly when we work in fields such as science and law. As a result, I include here only some very rough comments on the matter to show where I stand on the debate so that the overall discussion in this piece can move forward.
Obviously, "untruthfulness" and "truthfulness" are different sides of the same behavioral coin, and the recognition of one requires that we be able to distinguish it from examples of the other. Fundamentally, it is a feature of transactions between cognitively competent humans in which an understanding of the objective world is assumed or conveyed. In this discussion, untruthfulness is used to denote deceitful communicative behavior or, more simply, communicative misrepresentation. This definition is intended to distinguish such communication from that which is merely erroneous (that is, it accidentally conveys a nonstandard truth conception).
Because our definition of "untruthfulness" concerns acts that are intended to convey partial or distorted (and certainly nonstandard) conceptions of things, in theory it could be expanded to include acts that are not primarily communicative in nature, such as the failure to keep expressed or implied commitments or even to be authentic with oneself. Indeed, most of us would likely hold these kinds of actions to be another form of untruthfulness anyway. Out of fear about getting off track, however, I want to focus on what are intended to be communicative acts rather than widening the circle to include other forms of behavior.
Most commonly, the motive behind untruthfulness appears to be personal gain or the avoidance of loss. As a result, it assumes many forms. Some forms can be deflective (to avoid blame-laying for wrongdoing, such as Bill Clinton's now infamous line, "I did not have sex with that woman ...") or embellishment (when achievements or actions are portrayed in better light than they warrant); frequently, it consists of "half-truths" when some details are willfully omitted to slant the meaning being conveyed, or of flat-out hyperbole or exaggeration spun, ultimately, to influence the behavior of others. Recently, for example, we have seen several documented instances when members of Congress distorted the nature of their military service in the presence of audiences that were likely to be impressed by such service.
"Being truthful" has both ethical and epistemological components. The ethical dimension arises because the "truthful" person intends to tell the truth; one would intend to mean what one conveys and intend that what is conveyed corresponds to a generally accepted objective state of affairs in some way. Epistemological considerations arise, as well, because the agent needs to have an accurate enough understanding of things in the objective world in order to produce an acceptable and intelligible rendering of it, an assumption that raises questions about methods of inquiry. In addition, she needs to be sufficiently intellectually competent to be able to communicate what is meant. If all these conditions obtain, then others can agree that she is characterizing it accurately and apparently intends to do so. In short, she is being truthful.
Such a commonsense analysis of these distinctions offers some interesting insights. We would likely regard someone who both aspires to be factually accurate and actually succeeds at doing so as "truthful," but absent factual accuracy and in the presence of good intention she would likely just be considered to be "mistaken." The act of making factually correct utterances without the intention to do so, however, seems to have no specific lingual denotation, probably because a pattern of accidental accuracy is an unlikely outcome in the first place. Meanwhile, factual inaccuracy coupled with the intention to be factually inaccurate would in most settings likely earn a pejorative characterization (perhaps as "deception"). Given the harsher characterization of intentional versus unintentional error, the implication seems to be that we are more willing to overlook failures of analysis than deficiencies of intent (associated with the willful purveying of factual inaccuracies, in this case). That is, we seem to be saying that only purveying bad information intentionally has an unethical dimension to it.CHAPTER 2
The Costs of Untruthfulness
Why should we care whether we are truthful with each other? Other than being an irritant or annoyance to us, precisely why should untruthfulness of a neighbor or, more specifically, a particular elected official or advocacy group be a concern? I think there are at least four reasons, and all derive their importance from more basic values. Fundamentally, untruthfulness does harm because (1) it may undermine a sense of trust among members in society that is necessary for the operation or observance of other social functions, (2) it distracts us from forming and holding true beliefs, (3) it risks undermining our mutual commitment to other moral values in something of a "ripple effect," and (4) adopting measures to offset it diverts resources from other pursuits, creating important externalities and opportunity costs. Obviously, then, the degree of concern we might have about this overall problem depends directly on how serious we think the consequences of untruthfulness are, that is, how much we esteem a trusting and trustworthy society, what the merits of holding and acting on true belief are, how we value other unintended effects of untruthfulness, and what we see as the costs of repairing its damage. In other words, the importance of truthfulness piggybacks onto these other social goods at least to the extent that its absence necessitates remedial costs, and one may argue that its importance is derived from and proportional to them. In a strong sense, these costs represent a form of collateral damage from untruthfulness rarely discussed or even acknowledged. Let's consider them each in turn.
Being truthful concerns a triangular relationship between ourselves, truth, and those around us. Briefly, if I acquire a reputation for being "truthful," others will trust me to fulfill certain behavioral expectations each time they interact with me. When broken down into its requisite components, this expectation amounts to an important and sizable set of functions. First, at a minimum, others will assume that I will continue to define words and use syntactical relationships according to accepted standards so that our communication may continue. Second, they will expect that the content of statements I utter could pass some truthfulness test; that is, they can depend on what I say as achieving some level of empirical reliability, or at least to logically cohere with other such statements that have met such a test. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they will assume good intent, knowing that the two previous conditions could not be routinely met without it. Thus, from truthfulness comes trustworthiness and, ultimately, trust. While no one would be justified in assuming that I always speak the truth (one can always be confused or have bad information, as noted earlier), based on my reputation they could trust that I would attempt to do so. In fact, social science research has shown that truth-telling is generally an assumed feature of our communication that we trust others to observe unless and until we have reasons to suspect otherwise.
We interact with those around us in different ways. Sometimes we physically encounter them or effect change in their lives by what we do at a particular place and time. Mostly, however, we communicate with them by exchanging messages about our feelings, expectations, perceptions, wants, and needs, and by listening to them about theirs. As a result, the realm of communication provides us abundant opportunities to cultivate (or undermine) a sense of trust with them—more so, perhaps, than in any other area of interpersonal interaction. Consequently, I think it is not an overstatement to observe that the communicative realm is virtually a crucible where society's overall sense of interpersonal trust is cultivated and nurtured, as Habermas (1990) seems to be arguing. That is, there is no more basic set of interactions between us than those directed toward communication, and because these attempts at interpersonal communication cannot go on without a sense of trust underpinning them, how we engage in this communication every day may be importantly related to the overall level of trust prevailing within our wider societal setting.
Unfortunately, a variety of national surveys suggest that trust is declining in America. The General Social Survey, which surveys Americans' values and moods, shows a ten-point decline between 1976 and 2000 in the number of Americans who believe other people can generally be trusted. Meanwhile, our trust in institutions is similarly declining; since the 1970s, it has declined from 24 percent to 11 percent in the press and from 26 percent to 17 percent in corporations, and it has even declined in organized religion (from 35 percent to 25 percent). Research conducted in 2001 at Harvard University by the GoodWork Project revealed an "overwhelming distrust of politicians and the political process" by teenagers. While all the causes of this trend are not entirely clear, the degree to which untruthfulness infects political discourse, especially at election time, cannot help matters.
The Benefits of Trust
Meanwhile, trust is the "glue" that holds a society together, and support for that view comes from many quarters, even anecdotal sources. For example, John Barry, author of The Great Influenza, in a recent interview on National Public Radio (broadcast on 5 May, 2009, as a part of "Morning Edition") observed that government attempts to play down the severity of the developing influenza outbreak in 1918, out of fears that it would distract from the then-ongoing war effort, left the citizenry feeling betrayed and sowed widespread mistrust, originally of the government, but eventually directed toward many phases of public life. At the level of the individual, furthermore, as we have seen, being able to assume that each of us will be truthful makes communication possible. Habermas, for example, in his elaboration on what he refers to as "discourse ethics," repeatedly emphasizes how "communicative practice of everyday life rests on ... shared propositional knowledge, on normative accord, and on mutual trust" (1990, 136) and on "reciprocity and mutual recognition" (130). At the same time, of course, I can also assume that you will keep your word. As a result, trust underlies virtually all ethical systems because it allows me to assume that (1) others will comply with the relevant principles, and (2) they will do so without coercion even when it sometimes conflicts with their self-interest (forced compliance with a moral code is not what is usually meant by "moral" behavior). Absent such an assumption, our default strategy becomes something akin to Ronald Reagan's (oxymoronic) observation regarding the former Soviet Union's compliance with terms of its nuclear treaties—that is, we need to "trust, but verify." Of course, genuine trust dispenses with the need to verify in the first place.
Obviously, the effectiveness of a democratic government depends on the election (and subsequent performance) of effective legislators, which in turn depends on our making wise choices in the voting booth. In order for us to do so, however, and assuming we cast our ballots for candidates based on an informed judgment about their likely performance once in office, electors must have access to accurate, complete information about both the issues as well as the stances of the various candidates with regard to these issues.
Obfuscation of the issues by equivocation or deception reduces the likelihood of both. Partisan, biased, or blatantly untruthful information challenges even the most informed fraction of the electorate, making it difficult even for them to cast informed votes, while negative campaigning (detached from the issues or based on irrelevant personal qualities of the candidates) appeals to the "gut feelings" of many in the electorate, making a decision based on careful objective analysis of the issues all the more difficult. We each have only so much surplus time and energy to devote to analysis of election issues before we feel overwhelmed by good information, let alone misinformation or campaign distortions. The fear, of course, is that absent good information and an informed electorate, election outcomes would then turn more on personal appeal or emotion than on a rational analysis of the issues or candidates themselves, or voters would disengage from the process altogether by staying home. Sometimes, in a campaign atmosphere already poisoned by negative messages and personal attacks and particularly when the issues are complex and require political initiatives that have both winners and losers, the candidates might be less than forthright about the negative consequences of an initiative. Legitimate occasions for revenue enhancement, for example, might be avoided out of a fear of reprisal by opponents complaining about "tax and spend liberals." As a result, the voters may be deprived of full disclosure or, worse, risk having legitimate political solutions to pressing problems taken off the table prematurely.
The push for health-care reform initiated by the Obama administration in 2009–10 illustrates the problem. What seemed to start as a well-intentioned attempt to address numerous problems in the American health-care delivery system (rising costs, a growing uninsured sector of the population) generated not only legitimate opposition from various stakeholders who saw themselves adversely impacted by the proposed changes but also deceptive and negative response from many Republicans who were bent on defeating such an initiative regardless of its form. While the bill scraped through in the House, where it garnered limited Republican support, its difficulty in the Senate, where not one Republican voted for it, was greater. Meanwhile, opponents were characterizing it in harshest of terms in the media, claiming that it would grow the national debt (an outlook at variance with CBO estimates), result in a government takeover of health care, take away choice in the market place, and increase our taxes. None of these outcomes were based on informed projections, but they certainly resonated with the fears of an uninformed public, one that was relying on what it heard and read in the media for its information. In the midst of the debate, after the Senate passed the bill and as it was about to be reconciled with the version passed earlier from the House, a special election in Massachusetts saw Republican Scott Brown win what had been Edward Kennedy's senate seat. This vote was construed by opponents to reflect deep public dislike for the broad shape of the overall bill; then House minority leader John Boehner referred to it as a bill that "working families just cannot afford and want nothing to do with." Although analyses projected otherwise, and polls suggested that when they understood what the bill would do for them most people were in support of it, the constant drumbeat of fearful rhetoric and misinformation from opponents swamped legitimate public discussion of the bill's many provisions and ultimately prevented, I believe, the public from grasping a thorough understanding of its benefits.
Excerpted from Collateral DAMAGE by Jay R. Harman. Copyright © 2014 Jay R. Harman. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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