What Happened to Truth?


“Facts are for Losers”

Charles Blow in The New York Times was non-plussed about the “lies” that came out of Paul Ryan’s mouth last week in Tampa. And he cited a number of journalistic colleagues similarly dismayed: “Business Insider called it “factually shaky.” A Washington Post blog called it a “breathtakingly dishonest speech.” Salon’s Joan Walsh said the speech was “stunning for its dishonesty” and contained “brazen lies.” Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic used the headline: “The Most Dishonest Convention Speech … Ever?”

That led Blow to lament, “Honesty is a Lost Art” and “Facts Are for Losers.” (See, “The G.O.P. Fact Vacuum.”)
Ryan may come to regret claiming he ran a marathon in under three hours. That falls more clearly in the category of boasting, particularly if it’s not true. Some of the other statements were wrong, and some closer to the kinds of distortions not unusual in a heated campaign. It does seem as if, as some commentators have suggested, we are living in a “Post Factual Age.”

But maybe Ryan knows something we easily forget. The mind does not hunger after the truth. It is not inherently logical. Essentially it looks for confirmation of what it already thinks so it can make a snap judgment – and move on.

Those who write advertising copy understand that their job is to stuff certain ideas and images into our brains, because once they are in there they will influence our behavior. Good or bad, right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, so long as it registers.

We were reminded of that before the Democratic convention when some of the President’s advisors hesitated to answer the question “Are we better off than we were 4 years ago?” I would have hesitated myself. It’s a complicated question, and one could be forgiven for thinking it requires some thought.

But hesitation proved fatal, because in a political campaign you have to be clear, convinced and unequivocal. It’s a battle. There’s no time for thought.

Having quickly realized their mistake, the democrats found a new slogan. WE ARE BETTER OFF! What better way to suppress an error than to shout out the desired answer again and again, and repeatedly try to push it into people’s minds.

Slate polled Americans on the issue last week. Did they think
that “Ryan’s speech [containing false and misleading information] will harm Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s chances of winning the election in November?”

The result: “Incredibly, 45 percent of those surveyed didn’t think that a candidate delivering a speech littered with fibs would do any harm to Romney and Ryan’s chances.” (See, “How Did Mitt Do? Will Paul Ryan’s Lies Hurt Their Chances?”)

To be sure, Slate is not neutral. Covering the story is yet another way to keep it alive and to emphasize the moral shortcomings of the candidates you oppose. And yet the survey undoubtedly revealed that people do believe the truth hardly matters anymore.

Perhaps, bombarded with slogans, endorsements, ads, testimonials, and rival claims, people defend themselves with cynicism. It may even feel like a form of stubborn integrity to affirm what you believe even in the teeth of “facts.” Perhaps, our access to so much information cheapens the facts that are true.

But if so, that means that increasingly we will only notice the truths that upend our world.

— and then it may be too late.