A spirited defense of the word “The”
Have you ever heard a phrase that seemed innocuous, until it didn’t?
Like many non-sexual predators, I’ve been cheering as the #Metoo movement gained momentum in the recent months.
And I’ve been grieving as I’ve heard the stories of real-life harassment, sexual assault, and gender discrimination–some from women I know personally.
Time is up.
And with two young daughters, I hope the movement does some good.
But that doesn’t change the curmudgeonly frustration I’ve felt as a particular phrase has emerged as the “solution” to our #Metoo moment.
SPEAK YOUR TRUTH
What’s needed, we are told, is for women to speak “their truth” about such matters. Because only when you speak “your truth” will society begin to change.
We heard it yet again, from Oprah, at the Golden Globes:
What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.
Then again, just seconds later:
Their time is up. And I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on.
Oddly, we heard it also from Senator Al Franken, in his farewell address to the U.S. Senate.
While denying that he had done “anything” that would warrant dismissal, Franken said that he was resigning, in part,
Because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.
In other words, “their truth” is one thing, “my truth” is quite another. But who am I to question their experiences?
THE DEFINITE ARTIC(O)DECTOMY
The oddity here is how “truth” seems to have been permanently detached from its definite article.
It’s as if the concept has undergone a surgical procedure to remove the “the”—perhaps because it posed a previously unknown health risk.
It is no longer “the” truth, but rather her truth, my truth, their experience—all quite valuable, even if mutually contradictory.
But why talk like this?
At this point, some will claim that I am making too much of mere semantic differences.
Perhaps when Oprah says “speak your truth” she simply means to “tell your story.” After all, she spoke also of “the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.”
What’s more, no wise person would want to confuse their perspective on reality with an infallible and absolutist “God’s-eye view.” Last month I forgot my own address. So to say that truth exists is not to say that I always know it.
(For the record, I have no beef with Oprah. The speech was moving; she seems nice; and I hear her hugs cure cancer.)
But I still think this “your truth” way of speaking is, like, stupid.
ASK RECY TAYLOR
After all, If you had you asked Recy Taylor what happened to her in 1944, my guess is that she would have said nothing of “her truth.”
97-year-old women have no time for postmodern perspectivalism.
They’re about to die.
Recy would have simply told “the truth” – because it really happened. As Oprah noted, she was raped and left for dead by six armed white men while walking home from church. The men were never punished.
That’s the truth.
And Recy would never sequester such events merely to the murky realm of her “experience.”
So there’s no need to neuter facts by adding nonsense qualifiers (i.e., “my” and “their”).
WHY IT MATTERS
The subtle move to “my truth” also has real dangers.
The fallout from Nietzsche’s Will to Power comes to mind here:
there are many sorts of “truths,” and consequently there is no truth.
In this case, “my truth” does not necessarily depend on corresponding evidence to elicit the destruction of another person.
These days, the allegation alone may be enough to mobilize the mob.
One wonders, after all, how many of those men and women wearing black and clapping feverishly were actually complicit in the decades-spanning Weinstein cover-up? It’s said that after the Terror of the French Revolution, it was Robespierre’s enablers who were quickest to renounce him as a demon. Did they wear black?
ON HUNTING WARLOCKS
On the perils of the #Metoo moment , Claire Berlinski worries that the movement may have crossed a line and “morphed into a moral panic that poses as much danger to women as it does to men” (see here: “The Warlock Hunt“).
While championing the need to prosecute abusers and believe victims, she also issues a stern warning:
Revolutions against real injustice have a tendency […] to descend into paroxysms of vengeance that descend upon guilty and innocent alike. We’re getting too close. Hysteria is in the air. The over-broad definition of “sexual harassment” is a well-known warning sign. The over-broad language of the Law of Suspects portended the descent of the French Revolution into the Terror. This revolution risks going the way revolutions so often do, and the consequences will not just be awful for men. They will be awful for women.
Specifically, Berlinski worries that women will be passed over even more for hiring as corporate bean-counters fear the liability of accusations that may require no substantiation.
After all, “your truth” is true, and “all experiences must be taken seriously.”
As Berlinski asks:
Do you think only the men who have done something truly foul are at risk? Don’t kid yourself. Once this starts, it doesn’t stop. The Perp Walk awaits us all.
We should certainly realize by now that a moral panic mixed with an internet mob is a menace. When the mob descends on a target of prominence, it’s as good as a death sentence, socially and professionally. […] “Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime.”
I hope that’s an exaggeration.
Regardless, my argument is far narrower than Ms. Berlinski’s.
My hope is merely that we might champion both the cause of women (#Metoo) and the reality that “your truth” is only valuable insofar as it corresponds to “the truth.”
Don’t speak “your truth,” be truthful—and let the chips fall where they may.