“The truth is out there.” That's the tagline of the TV show The X-Files, and it's a good thing the show is coming back in 2018, because its premise couldn’t be more timely.
President Trump retweeted videos purporting to show Muslims committing acts of violence against Christians. Those videos have been widely discredited as false or misleading, but that didn’t stop White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders from defending the president’s actions.
"I'm not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you're focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that's what the President is talking about."
Here’s why the press secretary is mistaken, and why you should care.
The truth is that which is real. No one reasonably contests this claim. In fact, even the people who believe in hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other fancies of the imagination are convinced that those hoaxes and conspiracy theories are real.
It is impossible to envision a world in which truth is not a universally held value.
When President Trump derides as “fake news” a critical report by NBC, CNN, or The New York Times, he is implicitly saying, “That report isn’t true.” In other words, those news organizations got it wrong.
To say that a story is wrong is to say, at the same time, that there is a version that is right.
But simply because John or Jane believes that X is true doesn’t mean that X is true. So how do we distinguish truth from fiction?
You can believe anything. The moon is made of green cheese. Smoking is good for you. Takata air bags are safe. But not all beliefs are true. The way we separate true beliefs from false ones is through reliable evidence.
Thus, when someone says, “I believe X is true,” the logical follow-up question is, “How do you know?” There must be independent evidence that justifies us believing that X is true. This is what justification consists of: objective facts that support our beliefs.
Without such support, beliefs do not rise to the level of truth and do not warrant our full respect.
In the opening scene of the film Patton, the titular general announces, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”
Pay close attention to the way that George C. Scott reads that line. Listen to the passion in his voice. Watch the conviction in his face. Observe his intense body language.
That degree of passion and conviction is how honest people regard the truth.
Honesty, as I argue in my book The Good Ones, is above all else, an emotion. A feeling. A bone-deep, soulful conviction that truth is the basis of every meaningful relationship a person can have.
This is why high-character leaders are revulsed when they hear Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempt to downplay the importance of truth.
In a democracy, it is not sufficient to say, “I believe X is true because the president says it is.” In business, it’s not sufficient to say, “I believe Y is true because the CEO says it is.” Savvy consumers don't rely solely on advertisements to guide what they purchase.
The president uses a misleading, mislabeled video as evidence that Islam poses a grave threat to the United States, and his press secretary backs him up. The real threat to our democracy isn't a religion and its millions of followers but the Trump administration's abuse of power and utter contempt for the truth.
The Bottom Line
Sarah Huckabee Sanders has an impossible job: attempting to make the president’s increasingly unhinged behavior seem normal and even laudable. The White House Press Secretary is surely the most challenging and unwelcome job in America today.
It's hard to work up much sympathy for Ms. Sanders, however. She took the job knowing full well what she was getting into.
A bona fide casualty in the current administration’s disregard for facts is the Republican Party. There is a legitimate philosophical difference between the two primary political parties in the United States, but until recently, even the staunchest Democrats respected this difference, no matter how vehemently they disagreed with it.
We’re now living in a time in which the truth itself is up for grabs. The political landscape is indistinguishable from the mad world of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”
Whatever your role is at your company, your success depends upon which question you believe is more important: Alice’s or Humpty Dumpty’s.
Just remember which one survived the trip down the rabbit hole and which one wound up destroyed for good.