For hundreds of years, mankind has conjured up fables and tales about the importance of truth, placing it at the cornerstone of our very existence. From the religious texts of the Abrahamic prophets to the timeless Disney classic Pinocchio, literature has always been saturated with a classic plotline about the defining duel between honest heroes and dishonest evil-doers. Society has always placed a high premium on truth, setting it as the gold standard, the model in which every facet of society should aspire to attain. Yet, recent political events have cast doubt on that.
It was no surprise that the world entered a frenzy upon the realisation that there will be a President Trump for the next four years. For the entire election campaign, the media and the political establishment were adamant that truth would get the better of the Republican standard-bearer. Like the scripted fables of our childhood, it was expected that Trump will ultimately succumb to his more ‘truthful’ counterpart, Hillary Clinton. Politifact, a non-profit organisation that judges dubious and controversial statements, judged a whopping 21% of Trump’s contentious statements as outrageously wrong, what Politifact calls a ‘pants on fire’ statement. Clinton is certainly no angel in this regard either, but comparatively has a considerably lower percentage of statements dwelling in the “pants on fire” category.
If the likes of Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama are the poster-children of the supposedly honest, trustworthy politician, Trump is the anti-politician, the stage actor who weaves stories to create his own dialogue and character arc. In many ways, Trump is like the politician who cries wolf. The only difference, however, is that he does not care if you know he is crying wolf at all. All that matters to Trump is that you heard him cry. In Trump’s world, truth has no bearing at all. He is a shameless liar; indeed perhaps a pathological liar. Lying was the aggressive strategy he adopted to beat his opponents and garner grassroots support, and it worked beyond his wildest dreams.
On the other hand, Clinton played the role of the law abiding politician, trying in at least most of her public statements to tread on the path of honesty, transparency and facts. Unlike Trump, lying for Clinton was a passive strategy, a last resort that is done so reluctantly. Based on the high premium we place of truth, the voting public should have obeyed the laws of logic and, hence, picked a President Clinton. This, obviously, they did not. So, do we really value truth all that highly?
Psychological studies argue that we perhaps might not. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are probably the two most famous scientists and researchers in the field of psychology of the mind and perceptions. One of their ground-breaking pieces of researches evolved around the biases in our judgements when it comes to decision making. The two proved that the human mind has mental shortcuts called “heuristics”, that allow for quicker judgements to be passed. However, these heuristics, while pivotal in the hundreds of split-second decisions we make daily, can also allow for deep misjudgements. These result in deviations from rationality.
Take the aforementioned case of the ‘shameless liar’, Trump, versus the ‘reluctant liar’, Clinton. It is highly likely that every single truthful statement from Trump carried more weight than his counterparts. At the very moment you hear something credible from Trump’s mouth, you will compare it to your pre-conceived image of Trump the liar. It is almost like a breath of fresh air for the mind amidst the continual rambling of lies. Suddenly, Trump’s truth seems more truthful than Clinton’s. Conversely, false statements and lies from Clinton are more significant than Trump’s multitude of lies. This can be evidenced by the media frenzy that occurred throughout the election campaign with regard to Clinton’s use of a private email server during her term as Secretary of State. The mind seems to cherry-pick data that is most convenient for them. All politicians utilise this to their advantage repeatedly. Over time, our positions on the matter may change, as rationality overrides our initial misjudgement. However, we are rarely afforded the luxury of time and hindsight.
With the abundance of technology available to us as of 2017, the plethora of information readily accessible should minimise the over-reliance of heuristics in the decision making process. Armed with a smartphone and internet connection, one could easily make decisions with hard facts and not our ‘gut instincts’. Unlike our North Korean counterparts, whose truth is distorted by the totalitarian dictatorship of Kim Jong Un, the American public had no excuse to say that the truth was hidden from them. The dawn of WikiLeaks and fact-checking sites such as Politifact provide ample opportunities for the public to engage with the truth. The government may conceal the truth, politicians may lie, and some may even argue that technology disrupts the truth. In the West, one does not need to risk public execution or assassination in order to uncover the truth. Truth is standing by our doorstep and yet there are times we choose to shove it away. It is time we ask ourselves, “do we take truth for granted?”
Perhaps the value of truth itself is overrated. Perhaps truth is like the tooth fairy. As a child, it means everything. Magical at its inception, the legend of the tooth fairy gradually loses its lustre as the years go by. We grow up and realise that while truth is still important, it is by no means the be all and end all. The harsh reality of life might even force us to choose the version of truth that most appeals to us. The spread of “fake news” on both sides of politics invites one to conclude that quite often, people will only what they want they want to see.
Like the age-old saying “the truth hurts”, truth takes no sides – it can leave some hurting and others exalting in joy. For Rust Belt Americans, beset by the loss of traditional coal mining and factory jobs, characters like Trump may not be truthful, but people still choose to follow him, because he tells them a story they want to hear. Jobs will come back. Life will get better. America will be made great again. Trump may be a liar, but his lies craft a narrative promising security and prosperity. People find a way of hearing what they want to hear — whether that be that a Tooth Fairy brings money to children, or that coal mining jobs will come back in defiance of economic trends and hard facts. Maybe the child’s fairy tale and the politician’s lie are not all that different, after all.