Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Truthiness

Stephen Colbert hugs this word against his chest, shouting "MINEmineMINE!" whenever anybody suggests that he didn't invent it. So I'm going to go with the flow and call the term "truthiness" Colbert's creation. It might well be his creation. He was certainly one of the first to popularize its use:

Colbert introduced the word truthiness on the premiere episode of The Colbert Report, on October 17, 2005. According to Newsweek, he came up with the idea of truthiness just moments before filming for the show began.[1] He used truthiness in a monologue that emphasized its role as an ironic political polemic compressed into a single word, as demonstrated in the following excerpts:[4]

I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight's word: 'truthiness.' Now I'm sure some of the 'word police,' the 'wordinistas' over at Webster's are gonna say, 'hey, that's not a word.' Well, anyone who knows me knows I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books.

I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. 'Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.

Consider Harriet Miers. If you 'think' about Harriet Miers, of course her nomination's absurd. But the president didn't say he 'thought' about his selection. He said this:

(video clip of President Bush:) 'I know her heart.'

Notice how he said nothing about her brain? He didn't have to. He feels the truth about Harriet Miers.

And what about Iraq? If you think about it, maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn't taking Saddam out feel like the right thing?

The word "truthiness" has had a great honor dumped on it: it is the Word for the Year 2006:

An online poll run by US dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster has found Colbert's term, 'truthiness', best sums up 2006.

The satirist, who stars in The Colbert Report and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart as a not so sharp right-wing commentator, has defined the word as "truth that comes from the gut, not books".

I have trouble with "truthiness" because it sounds like "toothiness" to me and then I start thinking about chewing things quite thoroughly and ripping them apart fiercely and that has contaminated my ability to analyze truthiness with my usual analytical clarity. Luckily Colbert can be used as a sturdy crutch here*:

Colbert gave an out-of-character interview with The Onion's A.V. Club, in which he responded to the question, "What's your take on the 'truthiness' imbroglio that's tearing our country apart?" by elaborating on the critique he intended to convey with the word truthiness:[5]

Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word...

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. People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?...

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. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.

This is interesting. Think of facts as the foundation for what we usually think of as truths, to be called brain-truths here. Then what is the foundation of emotional truthiness, or heart-truths? And what is the foundation for gut feelings or bowel-truth? I think the last one refers to the selfish quality Colbert mentions in the above quote, because gut judgements tend to be quick and easy and rarely require wrestling over difficult issues. A lot of prejudice comes from the gut, though good judgements may, too. When I feel something from the gut it makes me feel...more me, more open, more honest, even if I'm completely in the wrong.

It is this feeling of genuiness that people mistake for truth, I suspect, and it also applies to the heart-truths or emotional truthiness. There is something wonderful about decisions made from the heart, because they so often fight that fairly self-centered call of the gut and also the cold calculations of the brain. And I think humankind would be poorer and meaner without the emotional and physical reactions I've described.

But they are not facts, and that is where the importance of a ridiculing term such as "truthiness" comes in. It's not enough to make emotional or gut assessments about a phenomenon without understanding or studying it, not enough at all. Those assessments are based on sloth and laziness and inertia and they result in silly but sweeping generalizations. The last six years should have proven for good that intellectual sloth is a sin however well it may be wrapped in pious sentiments.

But of course truthiness isn't that new. It's what advertising has used for decades if not centuries, and that is why I'm not willing to forgive the sin of truthiness quite as easily as I might otherwise be tempted to do. For we all know that ads lie and they do it more convincingly than the current political regimes of this world.

*As an aside, the penultimate sentence in that quote might have a typo, because it would make more sense if the second "feel" was replaced by "want". Or we miss vocal emphasis.