In a now-infamous moment on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness’ to describe what he perceived as gut-level appeals to intuitions on the political right, especially with regards to President Bush’s rhetoric surrounding the Iraq invasion.
More than a decade later, it’s the left that has entrenched itself thoroughly in the realm of truthiness.
There’s nothing innately wrong with this strategy. As I outlined in a previous article, we cannot ignore the fact that subjective truths are a major factor in political discourse today, and these require more than just an empirically-based engagement with ‘the facts’. We cannot, like unfeeling robots, demand that people switch to a fact-based mindset when the reality of political engagement has become highly emotional.
In other words, I reject on the strongest possible terms Ben Shapiro’s formula that “facts don’t care about your feelings”.
However, the left is also responsible for identifying the degree to which emotions have become premium currency in their politics. Otherwise, I think they become guilty of a deep hypocrisy which is dangerous to their future political prospects.
Take for example the recent controversy surrounding a confrontation between a high school Trump-supporter and a Native American veteran last week. Before we even got the full details about the encounter, we were inundated with this picture on the daily news:
Immediately, the headlines descended on this picture with fanciful interpretations. ‘White student in MAGA hat taunts Native American elders’ reported Vox. Reza Aslan, a CNN contributor, remarked that the boy’s face was ‘punchable’.
It was only when people started looking into the full video, which provided the necessary context for the picture, that the truth started emerging. The student hadn’t confronted the Native American man it all; it was the latter who, quite literally, walked up to his face. The stare-down was not an intimidation tactic on the part of the boy: it was a banal, if slightly awkward moment caused by the circumstances.
Put clearly: the media simply got it wrong.
And what contributed to the media’s erroneous frenzy over this picture, I claim, is the fact that it is truthy. Sure, the actual circumstances did not support the idea that the Native American man was in any way harassed. The facts do not support the claim that there was any malicious intent whatsoever on the part of the boy. But his smug grin is ripe for projection: to the viewer, he becomes the archetype of the unjust oppressor, which is only intensified by the presence of his peers, who do seem to encircle the feeble Native American man.
In essence: social media transfigured this picture into a symbol of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in America today, especially in the midst of our conversation about Trump’s wall. The media was reporting in this symbolic dimension. By doing so, they weren’t operating in truth: they were operating in truthiness, and projected an interpretation of the events which was not beholden to objectivity, but rather their subjective interpretation of the world.
Again, ‘subjective truths’ like the kind exhibited by truthiness aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they can be useful heuristics for social issues. Take, for example, the ‘hands up don’t shoot’ symbol that became popular after the killing of Michael Brown. It was used to protest a number of publicized shootings of unarmed black men, and highlight issues of police brutality and its disproportionate effect on minorities.
One slight problem: there’s evidence that Michael Brown didn’t actually have his hands up during the shooting. As is frequently the case, witness testimony was highly unreliable; besides, there were some witnesses who emphatically denied his hands were up. This was corroborated by an autopsy, which did not support the hands-up theory. These are details that conservative commentators like Shapiro used to reject the core principles of #BlackLivesMatter.
But of course, it would have been foolish for protesters to abandon this gesture simply because it was marred in ambiguity. They can make a compelling argument that the empirical truth was less important than the symbolism: the gesture represented the vulnerability of minorities in dealing with police, and reflected the subjective truth of the fear and agitation at the system.
In other words: there can be some forms of truth whose validity isn’t hostage to the empirical facts of a situation.
However, when political commentators double down and try to enshrine these subjective positions in empirical truths, — especially when there’s clear evidence to the contrary — a deep and ugly hypocrisy is revealed to everyone.
And this, unfortunately, is how many people in the media have responded to their initially erroneous reporting on the MAGA student’s conduct. Check out this laughable euphemism from the Washington Post: the initial story was ‘more complicated than it first seems’. More complicated? How about: rashly and irresponsibly false?
And from NPR we hear that this is simply a case of ‘different narratives‘. As if the fuller video and proper context of the incident didn’t completely contradict the initial report (it did).
And the most shameful of them all: an MSNBC guest who refuses to acknowledge the reality of the fuller video: that the children do not appear to be chanting ‘build the wall’ and do not surround the Native American man.
These commentators have chosen to insist that there was something empirically true about their first take. They deny the emotionality and ‘truthiness’ that drives media headlines today. It was this that drove the media’s first take on this event: not an objective look at the facts.
As the left continues catering to emotions and subjective truths, we will continue to see truthiness take center stage in their politics. All I ask is that they acknowledge this.