We need to pay close attention to short words that name big concepts. These words are often capitalized, words like Justice, Freedom, Love, Beauty, Duty, Honor, Judgment, Wisdom. Truth is one of those big concepts, and we need to be careful about how we use the word. I’m hearing a phrase used more and more frequently that is worrying me because it seems to stretch and distort the meaning of truth.
The problem shows up in these kinds of constructions: She’s sharing her truth, he’s living his truth or that’s my truth. It’s the possessive pronoun that is the source of concern. Truth doesn’t belong to any of us. Or to put it more precisely, truth belongs to all of us because one of the prime characteristics of truth is this: if it’s true, it’s true for everybody. Truth is public.
This may seem like nit-picking to some, but one key characteristic of critical thinking is clarity. There are excellent reasons to be clear with this word rather than ambiguous. In the 20th Century, we saw a number of examples of what can happen when people think they are in possession of truth. These are the people who create human tragedies of the worst magnitude. If you are in close contact with someone who believes they own truth, then you may want to put a lot of distance between the two of you before the war crimes trials start.
Truth has three characteristics that must be present in order for us to be sure we’re dealing with truth and not something else. As we’ve seen, one characteristic is that
truth must be public—the same for everyone. The other two characteristics are that truth is independent and it is eternal. A clear understanding of these three words helps us avoid the sort of definitional dispute that goes on in a college dorm hallway until three in the morning. Definitional disputes can be a waste of time because we have a ready authority standing by to help: the dictionary. A useful discussion ends when we are not clear about the meaning of the words we are using.
Truth is public. If it’s true for you, it’s true for everybody, or it isn’t true.
Truth is independent. In other words, truth is true whether you believe it or not. It is not dependent on what you happen to believe is true.
And Truth is eternal. That’s to say if the claim being made is true, then it will continue to be true ten years from now. The claim remains true in its context, and nothing will come along to change it. If it is true that it is 60 degrees outside today, then ten years from now it still will have been true that it was 60 degrees today.
It may be helpful to think of truth as a journey rather than a destination. I feel more comfortable with people who say they are moving closer to the truth than I am with people who seem to say I’ve arrived at the truth and it’s mine. Political views, identity issues, statements of belief are not necessarily true unless they meet the three characteristics we mentioned: public, independent and eternal. I think that in the case of constructions like her truth what is meant is not truth but experience. Still, it seems the phrase her truth has greater rhetorical resonance than the phrase her experience. Which is why I suspect I’m fighting a rising tide. It may some day be true that the words truth and experience are synonyms, but it isn’t true yet.