“Truth isn’t truth” — Rudy Giuliani, NBC “Meet the Press”, August 19, 2018.
(About a 4 minute read)
In Western philosophy, the notion truth is relative dates back at least 2,400 years to the sophist Protagoras, who is stated by Plato to have said, “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.”
In the East, the notion goes back perhaps another 100 years earlier to the Jain teacher Mahavira, who seems to have been the first to teach Anekantavada, a doctrine that has been described as advocating religious pluralism.
Despite relativism’s ancient roots, at the start of the 1960s, the idea was confined to the lunatic bin. That is, the notion was espoused only by a small handful of marginalized intellectuals, and it was generally considered a crazy idea.
That decade, however, saw it uncorked and released upon the masses — mostly the young masses. Today, the notion rivals McDonald’s hamburgers both for popularity and for grease. For the fact is, the notion cannot be rigorously defended.
Or, at least, I myself have never seen more than confused defenses of it. Usually defenses that boil down to saying all truth is relative because people have different opinions about what is true or about what is factual.
It’s curious to me that anyone can look at the fact people have different notions about what is true or factual, and conclude that means truth is relative. I used to think people were kidding me when they said they thought that way.
I suspect much of the notion’s popularity today is due to the relief it seems to provide some people — relief from needing to take the sciences seriously.
Of course, to many of us, the sciences have been quite a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they have spun off technologies that both comfort and amuse us. But on the other hand, they have kicked around quite a few of our fondest notions about how the world works — or at least ought to work. Declaring truth is relative allows us to emotionally and psychologically escape the death of our unicorns.
When Rudy Giuliani recently stated that “Truth isn’t truth”, I quite doubt he had in mind the history of the notion that truth is relative. In fact, I even doubt he had in mind any philosophical augments or justifications for the notion.
Instead, I think Giuliani was simply acknowledging the fact that millions of Trump supporters today — and not merely Trump supporters — are at the very least untroubled by being lied to, and untroubled by lying to others.
I don’t assume they all hold the philosophical position that truth is relative. I would assume most of them do not. But I do think they have caught on to the “atmosphere” of relativity that has existed in the West since the 60s.
Now, Trump himself lies on an average of somewhere between four and six times a day. His press secretaries have each of them established themselves as exceptionally blatant liars. Huckabee in particular is willing to lie even when her lies are easily found out. Most of his cabinet isn’t much better. Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase, “alternate facts” in defense of Sean Spicer’s lies. And — capping it — Trump’s hard core followers couldn’t give a damn.
Perhaps that’s because so few of them stray beyond their echo chambers. Surrounding oneself with the faithful does mean in practice that your lies — and theirs — are seldom if ever reality-checked.
In my opinion, about all that can be done about this mess is to not allow this sort of thing to defeat you. We should not cease to call out the lies. Nor should we cease to identify the liars. To give up would be to turn the county over to the likes of Trump himself.