Does Truth Matter?

Donald Trump has told 4140 false stories, made 12,538 untrue statements, and proposed 1177 unfulfilled promises as of late May 2019, according to PoltiFact, The Washington Postannounced that Trump reached the “unthinkable milestone” of 10,000 bogus claims on April 29, 2019. Yet, Trump continues to have 42% popularity ratings and a Yale economist, who predicted that Trump would win in 2016, predicts he will get 56.1% of the popular votes in 2020. And he is not alone in that prediction.

Does truth matter? The obvious answer is yes. One of the basic fundamentals of the Enlightenment is the importance of truth. It is the basis of our Western educational system. It is what inspired the French philosophers to develop the Encyclopédie from 1751 to 1765. Its numerous articles on a wide variety of subjects opened a flourishing of reason that inspired the French Revolution. The Encyclopédists laid the groundwork for truth being an essential element in all aspects of our lives, including politics.

In a fascinating recent article, historian Yuval Noah Harari explains “Why fiction trumps truth.” Harari’s point is that “we humans know many more truths than any other animal, but we also believe in much more nonsense. We are both the smartest and the most gullible inhabitants of planet Earth.”

As opposed to the Enlightenment thinkers, Harari maintains it is not truth which is the basis of power. For him, fiction enjoys a comparative advantage over truth “in uniting people around a common story.” Since true stories may be disagreeable or even painful, fictional stories have the advantage of pleasing. “An American presidential candidate who tells the American public the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about American history has a 100 percent guarantee of losing the elections,” Harari wrote.

What to make of this argument? For those who were educated in Enlightenment principles, how are we to respond? Aren’t we programmed to search for the truth? We can accept paradigm shifts in science such as quantum physics because in science there are objective realities. In our daily lives, we try to separate virtual realities from other realities, as difficult as that has become with advances in technology.

But to accept that fiction trumps truth in bringing people together flies against our education. This is more than just fake news. Harari’s hypothesis is that we want fictional stories; they hold us together and bind us in a positive communal understanding beyond painful truths.

Do we have to choose between truth and fiction? What is the comparative advantage of one or the other? Harari concludes: “Even if we need to pay some price for deactivating our rational faculties, the advantages of increased social cohesion are often so big that fictional stories routinely triumph over the truth in human history.”

Donald Trump’s lies have not led to social cohesion. That’s for sure. There is still a considerable percentage of the American population who will not accept his lies and distortions. But, and this is a big but, the social cohesion or communal unity so missing in the United States and elsewhere will not be resolved by truth seekers. At least not according to Harari. Maybe they will not be achieved by populist demagogues either, although they probably have a better chance as the recent success of populist demagogues has shown.

Harari’s hypothesis that unity trumps truth, that fictional stories that placed unity above truth were more powerful than truth are a warning that truth seekers should be aware of their limitations. It’s not just that Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning were jailed or that Edward Snowden lives in exile. It is that truth can be disagreeable and even painful, and that fiction can be pleasurable and joyful. Harari has dared to say that the Encyclopédists were idealists whose writings led to revolution, but over the long-term fictional populists will have more power. Harari’s examples of the successes of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins and Communist ideologues are a stark reminder of how unifying certain stories can be.

Do we have truthful unifiers? Are they possible?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.