Truth. It’s in the news – including the ‘fake news,’ which begs the question of what the fake news is reporting truthfully – about the truth. No one even really agrees on the definition of ‘fake news.’ Its etymology is missing from mainstream sources, which is somewhat ironic given that the most vocal critics blame the mainstream for its existence. In referencing one such standard source, I found no accepted etymology of the term. According to this dictionary, it doesn’t exist yet.
Separate definitions of the words ‘fake’ and ‘news' do exist, of course:
Fake: of unknown origin; attested in London criminal slang as adjective (1775, “counterfeit”), verb (1812, “to rob”), and noun (1851, “a swindle;” of persons 1888, “a swindler”), but probably older. A likely source is feague “to spruce up by artificial means,” from German fegen “polish, sweep,” also “to clear out, plunder” in colloquial use.
The term ‘fake news’ entered the public lexicon late in 2016, but it has actually been around much longer, except for those who think ‘history’ is just the list of bookmarked sites in their browser. In the first half of the 20th century, the term was used to describe some components of wartime propaganda, specifically the “impact that false information could have on societies.” (Leetaru, Forbes)
The relative importance of the term over the past 100 years is illustrated in the following graph.
The original definition of fake news was briefly replaced by one more useful to the digital age and probably coined by Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. It was intended to refer to malicious and “willfully false clickbait.” (Leetaru, Forbes)
But in the light-speed virtual world, even etymology is forced to evolve at a pace only a superhuman network of computers can keep up with. Interestingly, it was the US President-elect who sent it spiraling into the future with its past definition intact – the one it had earned as WWI and II propaganda. The less mainstream and more nimble Urban Dictionary (Vantius, December 2016) has since proposed a dual definition:
WARNING: FAKE NEWS
This is an editorial, an opinion piece, a personal perspective. This is what I have chosen to communicate about my very subjective perception of recent events, after having given the topic much thought.
Back to Truth. Contrary to popular opinion (pun intended), there is no consensus as to what constitutes Truth. Yes, the definition of this word is brief and readily available, and we would probably all agree that truth does exist, and that there is a difference between the truth and a lie. Truth is real. Lies are false/fake.
Humanity has given a lot of thought to what truth really is. The concept of truth has been discussed and debated by thousands of thinkers in diverse contexts across millennia (fact-check THAT). The notion should give one pause, though:
What IS Truth, when truth itself has been questioned for so long, and by so many?
On the other hand, even Wikipedia easily excludes certain spheres from modern debate: “Many human activities depend upon the concept, where its nature as a concept is assumed rather than being a subject of discussion; these include most (but not all) of the sciences, law, journalism, and everyday life” (my emphasis). Examples of the latter include the environment, judges, reporters, and the rest of us.
In the Western intellectual tradition, there are numerous theories proposed by philosophers, but perhaps one of the most succinct and practical definitions for our age can be found in Avicenna's Islamic proposition restated by Aquinas:
Veritas est adæquatio intellectus et rei.
(Truth is the conformity of intellect and thing.) –
In other words, a generalized correspondence theory wherein truth in thought/communication is equated with our observation of the actual state of things around us.
And that’s where it all falls apart, because in-between ‘thoughts’ and ‘things’ is a process referred to as perception. Perception is not opinion, which is opposed to fact, and passes through thought before being born into the world. Perception is base, it’s visceral, it’s knee-jerk, it’s utterly subjective. Perception, without the filter of thought and the humility of opinion, allows us to let ourselves off the hook individually and as a species as to what constitutes reality.
And then there is paradox, the idea that two (or more) conflicting truths can and will co-exist. For instance, we know (knowledge being somewhat different from truth, but close nonetheless) that throughout time humans have been both predators and prey, simultaneously. Naturally, this has had far-reaching consequences for perception. Our evolutionary history (perceiving and knowing that the world contains actual dangers) makes it understandably difficult to strike the balance between our nature as prey and our nature as predator. This unfortunate paradox is most visible in our notions of the Other, beginning with our conflated love and fear of animals or the natural world as a whole, leading into misconceptions of human individuals and different cultures. We control none of these; indeed, we are sometimes unable to exert much control over our own selves. Moreover, we are also taught from infancy to fear invisible forces – gravity, electricity, heat, cold, lack of oxygen. It does seem that the very planet that keeps us alive is also out to get us – the ultimate paradox.
Perception is both our greatest strength and our worst weakness. It is a dangerous and limitless power. In youth, it may lack objectivity and wisdom; in old age, it may fall short of full cognition – and there are many states in between.
People acting according to their perceptions, without reflection or consideration of another's perspective, can have a devastating impact on those they love and society: broken relationships, divided families, ruined livelihoods, impoverished communities, wars, loss of life. None of us has the right to act on perception alone. It is immature, inadequate and irresponsible.
Thankfully, we are in possession of an exquisitely developed tool to solve this problem – a network of conscious, thinking, feeling, communicating, ever-learning minds. It is possible to create a reality in which ALL can thrive.
In many languages, there is no verb for truth as there is for ‘lie.’ There are only approximations which, depending on the context, are open to interpretation: tell the truth, be truthful, be true, be real. Truth is a state of being, and the truth is, we can be in it. It’s time to embrace the paradox and wield its awesome power for good.
Be true. Not just to yourself. For real.
There, but for the grace of...
... go I.
This piece is dedicated to the children of the world, who have every reason to be truly outraged.
May we find a way.