Why is “my truth” not “the truth”?
My friend Rachel Fulton Brown will on Sunday at 2pm EST participate in a webinar titled “Dialogue with Dignity: Across Liberal-Conservative Divides.”
The goal is admirable: people with different viewpoints will engage in a civil and respectful exchange of ideas. Several of the panelists are psychotherapists, but in a society that’s gone nuts, it’s a plausible lineup. It should be an interesting discussion.
To keep the conversation on track, the panel agreed on three ground rules:
- “To speak for ourselves and from our own experience, using ‘I,’ not ‘you,” when expressing our thoughts.”
- “To refrain from criticizing each other or attempting to convince each other that our viewpoint is correct.”
- “To listen with resilience when we hear something that we find hard to hear.”
To those three rules, I suggested a fourth rule:
- Phrases such as “my experience,” “my sense,” and “my viewpoint” are fine. However, use of the phrase “my truth” is forbidden since it implies the non-existence of “the truth” (whatever the truth might be).
One of the panelists posed a fair question, amounting to “What’s wrong with using the phrase ‘my truth’?”
“How might these two people speak to one another? Can they get beyond the particular phrase to a more substantive conversation?”
The short answer is this: If they merely want to say how they feel, and how the world looks to them, then they can indeed have a substantive conversation. There is value in simply being heard and acknowledged by other people. But in that case, the phrase “my truth” is both superfluous and misleading.
It’s superfluous because it’s just a fancy way of saying “my experience,” “my feeling,” or “my viewpoint,” all of which are explicitly allowed.
It’s misleading because it suggests that they are talking about truth, which involves a reality beyond their subjective feelings and perceptions.
What Is Truth?
Just for fun, let’s start with a quote that many people think is from the Bible but which actually isn’t:
“’What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”
That’s actually from Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) essay “On Truth” in his book Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral. Bacon, in turn, was riffing on the New Testament’s Gospel of John 18:38:
“Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.”
Pilate probably meant “What is the truth,” asking about the facts of the situation. If Jesus answered Pilate’s question, the Bible doesn’t tell us.
But here, we’re interested in what truth is, itself. What is it that makes some beliefs true and other beliefs false?
Philosophers have various theories about it. However, they all agree on one thing: Truth is a relation between a belief and the reality to which it refers:
- You believe that “there is a pencil on the desk.”
- In fact, there is a pencil on the desk.
- Therefore, your belief is true.
If “my truth” means something other than “my viewpoint” or “my deeply-held feeling,” then it is either:
- Useless because it’s entirely subjective and solipsistic. It refers only to the speaker’s private experience of the world. People cannot even “agree to disagree,” since nobody can know what anyone else is talking about.
- False because it seems to refer to a fact beyond the speaker’s private experience, but it does not. There’s “no there, there” to which “my truth” can be true.
- Something other than truth, which leads us inexorably back to “my viewpoint” and similar expressions.
Sure, it’s quite possible to have a conversation with the phrase “my truth.” But it’s like eating spaghetti with a hammer: it’s inefficient and you’ll get a lot of it on your shirt.
With spaghetti, your goal is to eat, and your choice of utensils makes a difference. With discussion, your goal is to communicate, and the same principle applies. If you use phrases that are ambiguous or misleading, it’s inefficient and you’ll get a lot of it on your shirt.