When Academy Awards boss Bill Kramer recently applauded comedian Chris Rock for speaking “his truth” about being slapped by Will Smith at the 2022 Oscars ceremony, he used a turn of phrase that is fast becoming a part of everyday speech around the world.
Take Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, for example. Oprah asked, “How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?”
Or consider Samantha Imrie, a juror in the civil lawsuit over Gwyneth Paltrow’s role in a 2016 ski accident with Terry Sanderson. Asked about Sanderson’s testimony, Imrie replied, “He was telling his truth […] I do think he did not intend to tell a truth that wasn’t his truth.”
But what does it mean for someone to speak “their truth”? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how we use this expression, given it can be easily misinterpreted as endorsing a problematic view of what it takes for a claim to be true.
On its face, speaking about “my truth” or “your truth” suggests that truth is relative to an individual. Philosophers call this view “truth relativism”. It says that when someone makes a claim, that claim is made true or false by what they believe or how they feel, rather than by the way the world actually is.
A problem with relativism is that it seems to leave reasoned debate without any clear goal. Suppose, for example, we are discussing whether the New Zealand government’s Three Waters Reform Programme will “maintain and improve the water service infrastructure”.
Presumably our goal is to determine whether it’s true that the reform will maintain and improve the water service infrastructure. However, if there is no truth to identify here – only “your truth” and “my truth” – then it isn’t clear why we should have this discussion at all.
What’s the alternative to truth relativism, then? To reject relativism is to grant that at least some of our claims are true or false because the world – which exists independently of our minds, languages and cultures – is a particular way.
For instance, because lemons are more acidic than milk chocolate, the claim that lemons are more acidic than milk chocolate is true, and the claim that milk chocolate is more acidic than lemons is false. Likewise, since vaccines don’t cause autism, the claim that vaccines cause autism is false, and the claim they don’t cause autism is true.
Truth and respect
You can stick with this straightforward view about truth and still recognise that everyone deserves to be heard and respected. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in his book On Liberty (1859), if we fail to consider a wide range of perspectives, even those views that may ultimately turn out to be false, it is more likely we will be unable to discover important truths about the world.
This means that valuing truth should actually encourage you to engage with points of view that differ from yours.
It’s also worth noting that, in some cases, people who claim to speak “their truth” may not actually be endorsing relativism. This might be said of the announcement by Meka Whaitiri that she intended to join Te Pāti Māori.
Offering a heartfelt explanation of her reasons for the decision, she concluded by directly addressing her Ikaroa-Rāwhiti constituents: “I have spoken my truth.” But she also explained:
The point here, whanau, is Māori political activism. It’s part of being Māori. It comes from our whakapapa. And we as Māori have a responsibility to it. Not others — we. Today, I’m acknowledging that whakapapa. I’m acknowledging my responsibility to it, and it’s calling me home.
This suggests that in speaking “her truth”, Whaitiri was in fact outlining her reasons for joining Te Pāti Māori. Her main objective was to underscore the significance of whakapapa, rather than to defend truth relativism.
Whaitiri’s reasons are certainly strong ones, though framing them in terms of “my truth” could lead others to misinterpret them. Moreover, if Pākehā responded to Whaitiri by saying “this is her truth, not our truth”, then we would be back again with the problem of relativism.
We need to value people’s unique identities, experiences and reasons for doing things, and we also need to value truth. Truth is a central goal of reasoned debate, and that’s something we will certainly need when addressing the many pressing issues currently facing Aotearoa New Zealand and the world.