Is It What It is? A Crisis Year for Discerning The Truth

“You can’t handle the truth.”

Perhaps Jack Nicholson was right in the scene from the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men,” when as Colonel Jessup he screamed that iconic line. It seems this past year it has never been so hard to decipher and accept assertions of truths.

Particularly so if it is a hard or difficult truth. Yes, especially then.

This was a year where we saw the truth crucified in the name of fairness, where we refused to see what we saw and heard and we allowed realities to masquerade as interpretation.

This was also a year where a University of Virginia former student claimed to tell an explosive, sympathetic truth about a brutal gang rape to a Rolling Stone reporter. And no one checked; until after publication. The unbearable price to pay is that fewer victims will be believed in the future on the truths that have imploded their lives.

As if we could forget, it was the year of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — and so many others— and the refusal to hold anyone legally accountable to the truths of their deaths.

In Garner’s case, even the running video capturing without interruption the escalation from the policemen’s initial approach to their carrying of his limp-armed corpse onto a gurney, some contend is not what it appears to be.

But how can it be that we are not to believe what we see? Is not truth what we see with our own eyes?

As all the surveillance cameras on street corners and atop homes, buildings, banks, schools and barracks purport to serve as virtual stand-ins for eyewitnessing an event, it cannot be the norm that when convenient, we claim what they show in digital, grainy images is not true. That its images are open to interpretation.

Just as in Garner’s videoed death, we allowed ourselves to use rhetoric to explain Ray Rice knocking cold his then fiance in an elevator. We were passive, watching as he and the usual pundits negotiated the scene away from assault and into the realm of private marital behaviors. A career-halting discussion bloomed about football teams, owners and National Football League administrators.

We discussed it away from the violent truth that it was.

This was the year that if we are not to believe what we see on video, then we also are not to believe what we hear on audiotapes. The language of racism from the mouth of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling does not mean he is racist, he proclaims. Alas, our ears deceive us as well.

Two dozen women emerging from the silence of the past several decades demanded to be heard and claimed to have been drugged, raped or sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby. That is apparently not truth, he says, as he clamors to discredit each one of them.

So it seems this was the year of rampant and unapologetic denials of sworn truths. As cynics, I guess, we are then to parse out facts in deliberate, manageable doses, twisting the pepper mill once, twice, not to overpower the status quo, the taste of what is true too bitter to contain.

Apparently we can’t handle the truth. So we manhandle the truth into what we can handle— snippets and bytes small enough to dismiss so we can sleep well.

We bristle and stiffen, arguing facts are merely a byproduct of perspective, and that truth cannot be known, certainly not from a he said/she said or they saw/they heard finger-pointing dissection of seconds, minutes, hours and lives.

We mimic the distortions of truth coming from those Sunday morning pundits Calvin Trillin so cleverly labelled as the “Sabbath Gasbags,” in a classic 1998 Time magazine essay.

But beyond rhetoric, the real harm is that we consistently disbelieve the stories of others and cast doubt on the facts. That makes us complicit in the erasure of truth.

Immanuel Kant wrote that there is no absolute criteria for truth, but instead a reliance on objective empirical judgment and also a transcendental idealism. But, an understanding of truth would eventually emerge, as he wrote, “Truth is the child of time; ere long she shall appear to vindicate thee.”

So perhaps we must wait for history to decide for us the truth of today, of this past year of torturous claims and insistent dismissals.

But is there ever a comfortable truth?

Certainly lies and misrepresentations have eroded the integrity of the human condition since the dawn of time. Perhaps it is human nature to deny the truth about ourselves, as a German study recently found that overall only 63 percent of nearly 500 individuals truthfully responded to a survey asking if they had been convicted of a crime.

A more conclusive study on honesty and lying in the December issue of Journal of Economic Psychology analyzed 63 psychology experiments with more than 18,000 subjects. What they found is that “honesty is not a fixed trait.” Under several different conditions and with many influencing factors, people fail to tell the truth. What a revelation.

Knowing that tendency in each of us to share what is true about ourselves, married to the fear of being hoodwinked, how do we as consumers of the latest vetted news, distillations of facts and aggregated truths discern what is real and what is not?

Perhaps we should doubt every morsel of a story, every anecdote in a healthy skepticism. Doubt all. Deny most.

Certainly in a free democracy, we are encouraged to challenge the stories we are told, luxuriating in the access to our own fact checking and unlimited resources for substantiation. Validate independently.

But as storytellers, we expect our truths to be believed, particularly when the evidence corroborates our insistence. When we show as well as tell.

Therein lies the painful conflict, each one of us suspecting the parable of the boy who cries wolf is playing our every day in every story of every digital digest. And each storyteller insisting he or she is bearing witness to the truth. It is clash for the ages.

Human nature guides us to crave validation by others, to want to be believed that what we say is true. We are motivated by the inherent drive to bear witness, to claim what we know and how we know it. And the expectation is that there will be salvation and redemption in the revelation of that truth.

It is also human nature to doubt another’s truth if it does not align with our moral framework of how we see the world and our expectations of behaviors. If it does not fit, we cannot believe.

There is a spectrum of trustworthiness, yes, a range of credibility we assign to storytellers. There is also the fact that we each arrive at the story with our own personal range of gullibility and trust.

That is the only explanation for the phenomenon that in spite of a preponderance of evidence— historical, physical, scientific, anecdotal and otherwise— many, after all, still do not believe in evolution or climate change.

In the past year when so many stories challenged what we know to be just, we searched for other answers, rationalizations and made excuses not to believe what we witnessed. And it creates the uneasiness of doubt. Even when we believe ourselves, the distrust of others in what we know is true creates a dissonance that is not only disquieting, but infuriating, enraging, maddening.

“Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning,” William Shakespeare wrote in “Measure for Measure.”

As long as we fail to reconcile that what we read, see and hear is truth, we all lose. For all time.

Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, emerita professor of journalism at Northwestern University and director of programs for Illinois Humanities Council. Her latest book, Escape Points: A Memoir, will be published in September 2015.