The truthiness of the paramoralism

Copyblogger ends a recent post with: “And that’s the truthiness, the whole truthiness, and nothing but the truthiness“.

Are you familiar with this concept? Popularised by the satirist Stephen Colbert, truthiness is:

-thinking with your heart not your head
-being convinced by perception not facts
-what you want to be true vs what is true.     

Originally truthiness was used to used to satirise President Bush who said in defence of his nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court: “I know her heart”.

(He also said of President Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul” – something many Russians found hilarious with regard this soulless ex-KGB man.)

Of course this president is not the first politician to be truthy. Nor the best – his predecessor was famous for resorting to empathy is order to convince/be convincing.

Truthiness is about claiming to simply know something.

Colbert’s own definition leads me to connect truthiness to paramoralisms:

Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.      

So, if I assert that I am convinced of X then that should be enough to convince you. (If not, you’re questioning not my facts but me.It’s not that I am all for ‘just the facts’. Rather, what I’m against is the undermining rhetorical force of this emotionalism. There are at least three corrosive effects of encouncountering another’s truthiness:

1. Truthiness cannot be combatted with truth – “I don’t care what you say, I know X to be the case.”
2. Thus disarmed, one is prey to the emotional weight of the truthy statement and weakens – “He really seems to believe X, maybe there’s something to it.” 
3. Hemingway recommended having a built-in bullshit detector. Truthiness disables it.     

The psychopath, of course, has far more tools at his disposal than just truthiness. He is more than willing to resort to the facts but in a ‘facty’ way. They sound like truths, but they don’t add up like truths.

Truthiness, like the psychopath’s lying, is extra-moral
When ‘truthiness was used in the Canadian parliament the official French translation made was: fausse vérité (“a false truth”). This is nice, but it misses something which I’ve been arguing in the last little while.

There is a way of using the language of truth and falseness which has nothing to do with either. The psychopath’s pathological lying and truth-telling are a case in point.

Here’s Colbert on truthiness: “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like the truth – the truth we want to exist.”

What’s your take on this?

15 thoughts on “The truthiness of the paramoralism

  1. I know the feeling (and it is a feeling before its a thought) – I just know something is right, or that something just ain’t right!

    In my experience as a sometime-truthifier I also know that directly appealing to logic won’t change my mind (is ‘mind’ the right word here?)

    Something emotional is required. Shame works pretty well. Not directly being shamed, but when someone says something obviously good and I think something like, “I should be ashamed of myself”.

  2. mensch – Interesting that the you mention shame. The psychopath is incapable of feeling shame, the narcissist can feel it.

    This doesn’t help us decide whether a ‘truthifying’ politician is a psychopath or a narcissist…but it does get me thinking.

  3. Mensch’s comment has me recalling Eyes for Lies lie detection; a feeling’s there she can’t identify, but it’s there. I assume it’s like walking into the familiar surroundings of a friend’s house and knowing something’s missing, but not what. When the friend prompts you–“Could it be . . . ?” you know what it isn’t, and what it is as soon as it’s named.

    Consciousness (at least in the form of attention behavior) is over-rated. If we had to depend upon it, we could never jump back on a curb, out of the path of a car, before we’d attended to the fact it was a car we jumped out of the way of. That’s a grotesque sentence, but you know what I mean.

  4. dumuarier-smith – How to use both well is the problem. When to use the one, not the other; when to integrate both…

    Thinking about the traffic when a car suddenly appears out of the corner of one’s eye is wrong; acting on impulse is right. Relying on the lottery to solve one’s debt because you feel sure you’re going to win is wrong, spending a little less than you earn is better. (While on that subject, do you know Tony Robbins – yes, the personal growth guru – secret to increasing your wealth? 1. Spend less than you earn. 2. Invest the difference. 3. Re-invest the profits. So simple!)

    It occurs to me that you’ve provided a nice example of using both when you say, “That’s a grotesque sentence, but you know what I mean.” A felt sense, I’m guessing, alerts you to the sentence not feeling right; your conscious thought tells you that it is comprehensible nevertheless.

  5. Two things I have realized after being involved with pathologicals:

    1. The pathological leaves a lot of BLANKS in his behavior & rhetoric. The prey or target’s conciousness leads them to fill in the blanks – in a positive manner.

    2. Vulnerable people, like me, can NOT rely on our gut or perception. If you have been abused over time, perception is distorted. We must rely on other clues… external ones.

    You also touch on the heart of NLP. “truthiness”

  6. barbara – Two powerful points!

    1. We fill in the blanks, indeed. I have a notion that regular folks have an assumption that other people are fundamentally decent (see my post on Will Smith). Thus they cut psychopaths all kinds of slack. The psychopath banks on this and so, as you say, leaves blanks for the other to fill in generously.

    2. Absolutely. I read on a con artist’s victim’s blog – the dumbest thing you can do id to think that you’re too smart to be caught out. Intuition plus evidence should be our motto!

  7. Barbara: about your #2 statement. I highly recommend the book “Where You End and I Begin” by Anne Katherine. It has proven step by step exercises to regain use of “gut”.

  8. I think you have the wrong idea about feelings. Just like pain has a purpose, and opposable thumbs, feelings serve a purpose too. That’s what this book is about. Rational thought & feelings are not mutually exclusive. They can work together.
    The book isn’t some far-out new-age supernatural ritual book or anything if that’s what you’re wondering.
    It’s a practical guide for learning how to take better care of oneself.

    I found it very enlightening about how many people go astray and kind of betray themselves at one time or another. I didn’t relate to any of the stories in the book really, but I did find out exactly where my ‘boundaries’ were lacking, why I had trouble with certain types of people. I always tell people not to be put off by some of the very tragic & disturbing stories mentioned in the book, about child sexual trauma and stuff like that, because I don’t think it’s necessary to experience some heavy trauma to have some boundary issues. I now recognize boundary problems in various people at times, just regular people out in the world.
    The basic premise of the book is that if you take care of yourself, and pay attention to your own needs, and know what your feelings are telling you, you won’t have to over-think things.

    But then I’m a big fan of the book “The Gift of Fear”, and I’ve heard that some people criticize that book as dangerous ooga-booga, when I can’t see anything but common sense in that book.

    I’ve talked about this a lot with people. Lots of people in various situations. And it seems that just about every time someone has some kind of serious problem with another person, there WAS some kind of warning signal at the outset. Something that made them wary. Red flags that they, for whatever reason, wound up ignoring & suppressing, and going ahead anyway.
    And I truly believe that if someone says they felt no wariness at the outset, and saw no warning signs, it’s likely because they’re just that out of touch with their feelings.
    (Kind of like the bruises of a leper.)

    One of the favourite quotes is from Anne Katherine:
    “We have sometimes been so schooled in being polite that we sacrafice ourselves on the alter of courtesy.”

    I think that sums up the problem of denying oneself one’s own care, by either the suppression of, or failure to recognize, one’s own true feelings.

    If it’s not rational to take care of oneself, I don’t know what is.

  9. chloe – Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll certainly read it.

    In Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’ he is talking, I think, about something similar: that immediate knowing that experts know to take seriously and that many people brush aside out of politeness, or whatever.

    Interestingly, he also writes about prejudices in that book. He has one black parent himself and yet was amazed to see how prejudiced he was on certain psychological tests. I.e. his immediate, blink-experience is racist.

    So there’s have a problem. If I meet someone (say he’s black) and take an immediate dislike to him, am I picking up something from him that I need to beware of? Or am I picking up something from myself that I should push ignore?

    Solution: gut instinct PLUS rational thought. As you rightly say, they’re not mutually exclusive.

    This is only worth saying because 1. I find myself over-depending on one or other of these at times, and 2. some people tend to reify one and look down on the other. Do you meet such folks?

  10. If you have immediate racist thoughts. I sure don’t think you should break the law and put yourself in a position to criminally discriminate. (or morally treat someone poorly)

    However, if you meet someone, and you have an instant dislike of them, and when you take a look at what you’re feeling, and realize it’s racism… Well, I don’t know what the answer is. But it’s sure not to FORCE yourself to be intimate with someone of that race, because wouldn’t that just put you in a position to maybe subconsciously treat them ill?

    Gavin DeBecker suggests listening to your gut as an “instinct” in immediate situations involving a danger signal. There’s no time for “rational thought” in that situation, because quite frankly, you’ll be raped or dead by the time you go through some puritanical exercise in rational thought processes you’re talking about.

    Anne Katherine doesn’t suggest you do that with everything in every situation, quite the opposite. She doesn’t advocate that you have some vague feeling and then go with it willy-nilly.
    (That sounds like what you’re twisting it to be, which is WAY OFF.)

    Anne Katherine’s book is for people who have not, at least not completely, been in the habit of actually paying attention to their feelings, maybe not at all. It’s FOR people who don’t rationally think about feelings at all, because they might not even know they have them, or if they do, they haven’t thought them important. Or they just follow the most obvious ones, or the ones that seem intellectually convenient. Or, they “follow their heart” when all of their senses are telling them it’s a bad idea. Or they ignore their feelings because of material goals.

    The book suggests you get to know your feelings and what they mean, and by that means form better social boundaries with your fellows.

    Sorry, but the more you keep pushing “Rational Thought” – the more you’re sounding like you’re advocating for EXACTLY the problem that gets people into trouble – RATIONALIZATION.

    A little example story would be… The woman who meets a man. He’s a doctor. He’s active in his church. He’s an upstanding citizen with a fine reputation. He has plenty of money to provide for her and any children they would have. And he’s soooo handsome!!
    But they go out on a date. And she gets an uneasy feeling. He’s controlling. He’s got attitudes of entitlement. She feels yucky.
    But then RATIONAL THOUGHT comes along and says… But he’s a doctor. But he’s active in the church. But he’s an upstanding citizen and so many people admire him!
    She continues dating him, but pushes her worries aside. Because Rational Thought again… other women are after him too. She’s lucky to have landed such a catch.
    And she marries him… And it goes on.
    The rational thought… He’s providing for me financially! I have the prestige of being a doctor’s wife!
    Whilst meanwhile she’s dying inside emotionally because he’s distant and defended. He may push her around. He coerces her into sexual acts she’s not comfortable with, and she feels sick. He uses subtle threats to get her to keep up appearances.
    She feels deep inside that it’s wrong.
    But again – Rational Thought… Everyone sees them as the perfect couple. Other people are envious of their beautiful home. Other women weep when they find out he’s married. He’s such a good catch!!!
    Rational Thought.

    It’s certainly not better than gut feelings, is it now.

    And even if you say, “well they’re equally important”.
    Well then you’d have this woman making a list of pros & cons. And all the pros would be listed in rational detail. All of those benefits of this husband. And on the side con side would be the same thing over & over in essence, ONE con – “I don’t feel good”.
    And I could just see that woman thinking “Well the pros outweigh the cons, I should just get over these feelings”.

    When that’s just not the way things work.

    It’s not rational after all, is it.

    Because you can’t get over feelings like that.
    If I keep punching you in the nose, you’re going to continue to feel it until I stop or you get out of my reach.
    And it’s the same with emotional reactions.

    And that’s, in essence, what people do often. Rationally, there’s so much benefit to having this person around me. I need to just ‘get over’ or learn to put up with, or stop feeling… the punches in the nose.

    To me, TRUE rational thought is so integrated with healthy reactive emotions, that there is no distinction to me anymore.

    That’s not to say I don’t have unproductive anxieties at all. I do. (I have issues! haha.) Though I think it’s lessened greatly the more in tune with my healthy emotions I am. And at least I immediately recognize the difference these days.

    Next hope is the day when the anxieties are gone forever. I don’t know if that’ll ever be possible.
    And notice I don’t call it a goal. Because I don’t think it’s practical to work at getting rid of anxieties like a goal.
    Being more & more aware of the healthy emotions is the goal. And with that, the anxieties lessen.

    Gavin DeBecker does a good job of differentiating the difference between unproductive anxiety and productive fear, in “The Gift of Fear”. And how recognizing true fear & wariness works to lessen irrational anxieties.

  11. chloe – Sorry if it sounds like I’m twisting Katherine’s words – I haven’t read them and am taking the intermediate step of asking. Indeed, I assume she’s pretty subtle otherwise you wouldn’t recommend her so strongly.

    I see your problem with my line, I think. But there is a difference between rational thinking and rationalisation, right? Indeed rationaliztion is ‘rational’ wrongly led by emotions; it’s in the psychiatric manual as a defence mechanism. The woman in your story was rationalising her decision to stay with a man for his money and status – just like Carmella Soprano. This is not rationality, however.

    I love that you’ve brought up the pros-and-cons list. Now I’m on board with you! On important matters such a list will get you nowhere. You have to, as they say, listen to your heart.

  12. No, it’s not rational at all, being that she has feelings.
    But rationalization can work both ways.

    And if she didn’t have feelings, it would make perfect rational sense wouldn’t it?
    If you took feelings out of the equation, those things, however awful to people with feelings, wouldn’t bother her in the least, and the list of pros would indeed be weighty. As long as he didn’t physically abuse her in a way that was injurious to her physical health, what would be the problem, rationally?
    But if you’re a person with those feelings, it’s absolutely stupid to set them aside “rationally”. Because, of course you can’t!

    And yeah, I’m afraid I push the problems with pros & cons lists every time it comes up in conversation. I have a personal history with pros & cons lists. I think they’re very useful, but without assigning heartfelt weights to things on the list, they can often be counter-productive.

    I’ve never actually seen the Sopranos. I’m not much into mob or gangster fiction genres, and bits & pieces I’ve heard about the show over the years firmed up that disinterest. But from what I’ve heard, it sounds like the series has a percentage of dysfunctional characters as high as the show “LOST” – which “LOST”‘s characters are 100% dysfunctional. haha.

  13. The tragedy and comedy at the same time of Bush’s judgements based on gut feelings is that practically NO ONE besides himself took him seriously. This pre-rational mode of judgment, if unchecked, is dangerous and can lead back to Salem witch trials: “Ms. X doesn’t look like a good person, has a black cat…”

  14. cabbagejuice – Absolutely tight! On the other hand, prerational judgement can be such a powerful source of ‘info’. How to use both well is the trick, right?

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