Stephen Colbert, brilliant satirist, unrepentant frankenwordsmith, and charismatic host of The Colbert Report, has recently added another neologism to the English language: wikiality. As strange as it may sound, this new concept, together with his previous creation, truthiness, can help us understand what's so wrong with the political economic discourse in the United States.
According to Wikipedia, "Truthiness is a humorous term coined by Stephen Colbert in reference to the quality by which a person claims to know something intuitively, instinctively, or from the gut without regard to evidence, logic, or intellectual examination. Mr. Colbert created this definition of the word during the first episode (October 17, 2005) of his satirical television program The Colbert Report, as the subject of a segment called The Word."
"By using the term as part of his satirical routine, Colbert sought to critique the tendency to rely upon truthiness, and its use as an appeal to emotion and tool of rhetoric in contemporary socio-political discourse. He particularly applied it to President Bush's modus operandi in nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and in deciding to invade Iraq."
Of course, the only way to appreciate Colbert's satire is to see it for yourself in this Colbert Report video: The Word Truthiness.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Word - Truthiness|
As he later told the Associated Press, "you don't look up truthiness in a book, you look it up in your gut." That is, unless you can look it up on Wikipedia, as I did... which brings us to Colbert's second great addition to the English lexicon.
Once again, paraphrasing the brief Wikipedia entry, wikiality is a portmanteau of Wikipedia and reality, referring to the representation of truth on Wikipedia that is determined by consensus rather than fact. As the next video reveals, Colbert expressed his appreciation for Wikipedia because it represents a philosophy similar to his own truthiness--in short, if enough people believe something, it becomes true: The Word Wikiality.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Word - Wikiality|
To anyone who understands Colbert's shtick, it is obvious that he didn't sincerely mean to denigrate Wikipedia nor to incite his viewers to vandalize some of the Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, some viewers did and some commentators don't understand why. What he did sincerely intend, in my opinion, was to use the familiar brand of Wikipedia to illustrate a larger political phenomenon in which the pursuit of truth based on the facts known by a few experts has been systematically co-opted by the construction of truth based on the values shared by a large populace. If the so-called democratization of knowledge has a dark side, it is perhaps this political phenomenon in which popular opinions override unpopular facts and become known to just about everyone as legitimate truths.
Beyond the Humor
At the risk of over-exposing my favorite social theorist, Jürgen Habermas, with this third reference in as many essays, I think we can once again find a useful application for his universal pragmatics. As I described in Inconvenient Truth and The Three Lenses of Threat Perception, Habermas has developed a powerful framework that explains the universal conditions necessary for reason, communication, and knowledge.
In simplest terms, when we reason and communicate we tend to at least implicitly, if not explicitly, raise a set of three distinct validity claims regarding what is true, what is right, and what is sincere. When either one of us has a problem accepting any of the validity claims raised by the other, we may through discourse challenge the claim and make an effort to come to a mutual understanding of what really is true, right, and sincere for each of us. In our ideal efforts to validate or invalidate one another's claims, we will refer to impersonal facts to determine what is true, interpersonal values to judge what is right, and personal intentions to appreciate what is sincere. All three types of claims made by both of us would have to be validated before we could declare a shared understanding--and even then, we would not necessarily have a mutual agreement on all three claims.
However, of the three validity claims, I think it is the truth claim, supported by impersonally verifiable facts, that holds the most promise for mutual agreement. This is what most people regard as knowledge and it is certainly the linchpin of the scientific method and the first best justification for political and economic policies of those in power. It is therefore no surprise that many of us should be so irritated by the communicative actions of so many politicians and pundits, executives and activists, which seem designed to frustrate all attempts to validate actual truth based on real facts. Stephen Colbert, meet Jürgen Habermas.
My Truth, Your Truth
In truthiness we have the essence of a philosophy that one's personal opinion, one's gut feel, is more true than fact itself and, furthermore, one has a right to express this personal truthiness without the burden of justification with impersonal facts. So if you don't agree with what I just said about this or that, it's just too bad for you--talk to the hand. The authority who relies on truthiness will tend to reject all attempts by others to engage in discourse to verify the facts in question, either because s/he is being deliberately deceptive or because s/he lacks the communicative competence to discern the difference between truth and sincerity.
Thus, people in positions of power can express what is at best a personal conviction, at worst a dishonest deception, in such a way that many people get the false impression that they are making previously verified truth claims. As long as they avoid an outright falsehood, a blatantly untrue statement, or a lie under oath that can be used against them in the future, they can hide behind the legitimacy of their office or their reputation and spread something other than actual truth.
Truthiness is a catchy term for what I see as the domain of impersonal, verifiable truth co-opted, colonized, and controlled by the personal, expressive domain of sincerity, which is not readily susceptible to critique on purely factual bases. Thus, my truth is mine, your truth is yours, and their truth is theirs--let's all just agree to disagree.
But truthiness could not exist on any large scale unless it was regarded as normatively appropriate by a significant portion of our culture--a sub-culture that refuses to reject such distorted or deceptive communicative actions on positive if not also normative grounds. What do we call a norm that says it is acceptable, even desirable, for certain people to express truthiness without accountability? The Appeal to Authority, which is a very powerful and all-too-common logical fallacy by which those people under its spell will accept the word of an authority who makes a truthiness claim based his or her power and prestige rather than the verifiable facts that might actually support the claim.
Therefore, truthiness manifests in all three domains of communicative action as systematically distorted reason and communication that precludes the shared understanding regarding what is true, what is right, and what is sincere that is its implied goal.
Right Truth, Wrong Truth
In wikiality we have a similar, but distinct philosophy that when enough people believe that something ought to be true, it seems to them as if it really is true. There is no Appeal to Authority among the ignorant masses. Instead, the masses determine for themselves what is true, even if it means that people with little justifiable authority are given seats at the table to forge the consensus. And why shouldn't they be heard? After all, each has his or her own special truthiness to express, just so long as we all agree with each particular truthiness.
What do we call it when the shared opinion of a simple majority or highly vocal minority trumps the factual knowledge of a small minority of genuine experts? One name for this is the Appeal to Popularity, a logical fallacy in which the validity of the truth claim is established by reference to its degree of popularity or the size of the population supporting it, rather than the facts or even the opinions of genuine experts.
The real power of these pseudo-factual wikialities is rooted in the fact that they are genuinely, but often subconsciously, desired by those who espouse them. They are therefore regarded by their creators as both true and right even as they are asserted as merely true. This colonization and control of the impersonal domain of what is true by the interpersonal domain of what is right sets up a very powerful, highly participative, even democratic defensive routine that allows the proponents of the right truth to reject challenges by other groups who offer what are regarded as wrong truths.
Moreover, the proponents of the right truth will also tend to engage the small minority of genuine experts, disingenuously appealing to their authority when it is aligned with the right truth and rejecting their authority when it is not. Because they are understandably threatened by the prospect of resorting to impersonal facts to refute authorities espousing wrong truths, the proponents of the right truth will resort to personal attacks on the character of those wrong truth authorities. With this third logical fallacy, called ad hominem, the right truth masses will undermine the credibility, the perceived sincerity and honesty, of the wrong truth authorities even as they assert their own rights to unquestionable, personal truthiness consistent with interpersonally legitimated wikiality.
Therefore, wikiality also manifests in all three domains of communicative action as systematically distorted reason and communication that precludes the shared understanding regarding what is true, what is right, and what is sincere that is its implied goal.
Now, as crazy as truthiness and wikiality may sound, they are similar to the results of recent neuroscience experiments conducted by Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University, which found that avowed Republicans and Democrats alike managed to systematically ignore, misinterpret, and rationalize the truth claims of presidential candidates in patterns that were highly correlated with their deeply held, emotionally charged, political predispositions.
The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making. "None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," Westen said. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones." Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.
And if you don't believe these "empirical" research reports, well, just look it up in your gut. My gut tells me that this is how people behave around political, economic, and religious issues. And if enough people feel their way to this truthiness, we won't have to waste any more time with these elitist academics. We'll have something far more compelling: a growing consensus about the wikiality of proto-human psychology/neurology that can eventually detach itself from the reality of proto-human psychology/neurology and reconstruct itself in its own wikial image. Um... well... anyway.
Real Me, Unreal Me
With all this in mind, I offer a new word: syncerity. It is a portmanteau of sincerity, which is the domain from which one expresses all that s/he regards as true and right, and synthetic, which has four different meanings with respect to sincerity:
- a deliberately artificial, dishonest, or disingenuous expression of what is true, right, and sincere;
- an accidentally artificial, self-deceptive expression of what is true, right, and sincere;
- an authentic, honest, or synthesized expression of what is true, right, and sincere, which returns syncerity to a sincerity that can communicate with truth and rightness without distortion; and
- a humorous or satirical synthesis of 1, 2, and 3 designed to critique artificial syncerity and promote authentic syncerity even while doing just the opposite.
It is often difficult to tell the differences, which is why truthiness and wikiality are flourishing and, ironically, even more so after Colbert syncerely critiqued both phenomena.
In my sincere opinion (not to be confused with verifiable fact or shared values), the dysfunctional side of syncerity is so very common in our society these days that it is hardly worth illustrating in any great detail. Just listen carefully to any political debate, whether it's between presidential candidates or media pundits who make a living expressing their opinions about politicians. There is so little personal sincerity and so very much deception and acrimony that it is a wonder we put up with it. Moreover, the fact that we do put up with it, that we are so easily deceived, or that we claim dishonestly to have been so frequently deceived, is evidence of our own dysfunctional syncerity, disowning the power we really do have to withdraw legitimacy from those who are systematically syncere, whether their syncerity is conscious and calculated or subconscious and incompetent.
Our appeal to their authority is often just a way to avoid taking more responsibility ourselves. When we deny this to ourselves, we are engaged in our own self-defensive, self-deceptive, and ultimately self-destructive syncerity. And why not? We've seen what happens when authorities actually do express some authentic sincerity. They get stabbed in the back and thrown overboard, often by their own political allies as much as their political enemies. Tasting blood in the water, the media sharks move in for a good meal while most of the rest of us just hold still and try not to get noticed. Far too many of the authorities we appeal to on a daily basis cannot be trusted to think clearly and speak freely what is sincere, true, and right because they have spent so many years being rewarded by each other and by us for feigning syncerity, spinning truthiness, and fomenting wikiality. They don't trust themselves, they don't trust each other, and they don't even trust us to receive what is really true, right, and sincere without killing the messenger.
So much for dysfunctional syncerity. What about functional syncerity? In the mind of a relatively self-aware and gifted satirist like Colbert, syncerity is expressed in what appears to be a self-absorbed, supremely confident, and highly articulate caricature of the dysfunctionally syncere pundits he is not-so-secretly critiquing through a synthesis of written commentary that contradicts or punctuates the nonsense that he's speaking and periodic exaggerations that signal to anyone who is not yet in-the-know that he is syncerely playing a role--not to mention the barely suppressed smirk on his face. It is an apparent mixed message that is really just several clever components of a relatively clear, functionally syncere message.
If Stephen Colbert were to become my 93rd subscriber, what might he do with The Word syncerity? I suppose he could lampoon as uncool, unpatriotic, and unnecessary the introspective, socially conscious readers and writers of the world who think actual sincerity along with truth and goodness are worthwhile goals... all us dreamers and wannabees who imagine we are thinking clearly and speaking freely, and who expect nothing less from our leaders... those same leaders who are actually in total control of us dreamers and wannabees, as they should be... the weak-kneed, thin-skinned, haters and doubters among us who aren't afraid to make mistakes, learn in public, be accountable... you know, the busy-bodies who want to fix what ain't broke: truthiness, wikiality, and syncerity.
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