Are we immune to lying in public life? During the Bill Clinton years, the president’s finger-wagging insistence that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” might have been the most egregious public lie, but it was hardly the only one. Today, we fear the scourge of “fake news,” with critics like Michiko Kakutani serving up their thoughts on “the death of truth” in the Trump era.
At the same moment the culture is bemoaning “the death of truth,” we are also being instructed that we must understand others and achieve empathy when they say things that may not be true—so long as what they are saying is “their truth.”
Perhaps conditioned by decades of personal memoirs, overwrought first-person essays, and reality television on the one hand, and identity politics on the other, citations of “my truth” are now taken as evidence of integrity when someone is questioned about his or her claims. Any challenge you might issue immediately becomes a challenge to that person’s identity, not merely a critique of his or her behavior. And if the person in question has a minority identity, or is a feminist, any challenge you might issue will likely instantly condemn you as a bigot.
Now consider Jill Abramson. The former executive editor of New York Times has been promoting her new book, Merchants of Truth; unfortunately for Abramson, Vice reporter Michael Moynihan found several passages she had clearly plagiarized from other sources. Initially, Abramson denied the charges, even using that passive voice canard favored by the busted, “Mistakes were made.” But she soon pivoted to a version of “my truth.” This weekend, during an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter, who said that what she had done was clearly plagiarism, Abramson responded, “That’s your position. I don’t see it that way”—an odd deflection coming from someone who wants the public to pay $20 to read her book-length insights on journalistic ethics.
What Abramson was communicating to Stelter’s audience with her remark was that by challenging her, Stelter wasn’t simply attacking her for behavior; he was attacking her, Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, and her entire perspective (“I don’t see it that way”). Moreover, by reframing her plagiarism as merely a matter of Stelter’s particular perspective rather than a proven journalistic sin, Abramson was attempting to use the power of “my truth” to deflect criticism.
Elizabeth Warren has been doing something similar with her continued apologies for claiming Native American heritage. When it was revealed last week that she had listed herself as an “American Indian” on yet another official document (her Texas state bar registration), she apologized in a “my truth” vein. “All I know is, during this time period this is consistent with what I did because it was based on my understanding from my family’s stories,” Warren said. By lacing her apology with caveats about how this had been “her truth” at the time, Warren is hoping the public will see her repeated efforts to falsely claim Native American ancestry as an act of sincerity rather than fraud. And in a “my truth” age, an appeal to cheekbones and family lore might have been enough if she hadn’t also commissioned a DNA test that proved her lack of Native American ancestry –and if tribal leaders hadn’t consistently challenged her claims.
“My truth” can have more pernicious effects when it is used as a weapon against others. Remember the Shitty Media Men list, a widely circulated spreadsheet that listed anonymous accusations of sexual harassment and assault about prominent men in the media? Its supporters hailed it as a kind of MeToo Magna Carta, but it’s also a document riddled with “my truth”-isms. Its creator, Moira Donegan, made no effort to check the validity of the claims; she simply trusted the women’s truths, as #BelieveAllWomen demands. Those truths might have been self-evident to the women who circulated them, but they are unverifiable (and some possibly fabricated). According to Stephen Elliott, who was named on the list, they cost him his job.
What happens when “my truth” is demonstrably untrue? In rare cases it can lead to lawsuits for defamation (Elliott is suing Donegan, for example). For politicians such as Warren, the loss of credibility might prove fatally harmful to her presidential ambitions. As for Abramson, it’s not yet clear if the plagiarism charges will do permanent damage to her reputation.
But the greater danger of a world cloaked in “my truths” is the erosion of our ability to tell fact from fiction and to separate personal experience from objective reality. If a lie can effectively be cloaked in a protective veil of identity and personal experience and hailed as “my truth,” and then retold and retweeted often enough, it might eventually become accepted as fact. Plato argued that the “noble lie” was justified when used by political leaders for the purposes of civic cohesion. “My truth” has no such higher purpose, but its effectiveness as a defensive weapon in an age of identity politics is growing—which means it’s likely here to stay. It has replaced patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel.