Opinion

The nasty rhetorical trick of 'her truth'

On Joe Biden, Tara Reade, and the nefarious possessive

"What is truth?" Pilate asked and did not, as Francis Bacon observed, stay for an answer. I have a slightly different question. What is Tara Reade's truth, and what is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand suggesting when she invites the former Senate staffer who has accused Joe Biden of sexual assault to enter a "space for all women to come forward to speak their truth"?

What does it mean to suggest that Reade and other women who claim to have been sexually assaulted have a truth all their own, one to which something other than a definite article is prefixed? What rhetorical work is being done by the possessive adjective there? Is there some implied distinction between metaphysical capital-T truth, the fact of the matter as it were about what happened between Reade and the former vice president, and whatever it is Gillibrand so kindly deigns to solicit?

Truth is not quite as difficult a concept as philosophers have been given credit for making it. Obviously human beings are capable of drawing different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence — Is it going to rain? Will the Patriots take Andy Dalton? — but Reade is not being asked to make a prediction about future events. She is being given permission (I do not remember her requesting it, but that has not stopped the senator from giving it all the same) to provide an account of the past. Our memories can fail us, sometimes spectacularly; it is possible to offer a good-faith account of our experiences — what we had for breakfast, what we wore last Tuesday, the first baseball game we remember watching on television — that can be proven false without being a lie per se. But this is implied whenever we ask such questions of one another. If I say to my older daughter, "Tell the truth!" and she replies that her brother was the last person to open the back door, I am prepared for the not-exactly-remote contingency that she unwittingly did so herself again five minutes after he did. This is simply what it means to ask someone a question.

When the junior senator from New York condescendingly bids a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted by her party's presidential nominee to tell, not the but rather her, Reade's, "truth," she is actually placing whatever Reade might have to say outside the boundaries of truth. What she really means to say here, with a pseudo-comforting pat on the head, is "Look, I know you have your little story here, and that's your truth, and good for you, sweetie." She is ipso facto dismissing the possibility that Reade's claims about her own experience could correspond, even by some mad coincidence, with the capital T-truth. But while doing so she is performatively giving credit (unasked for, one imagines) for something she does not actually consider virtuous. Gillibrand is availing herself of a totem (believe women!) while rejecting the possibility that Reade's story could be worthy of belief. It's Reade's truth, you see, not yours or mine or Gillibrand's or, least of all, Biden's. (The former vice president offered his own truth Friday morning in an interview with MSNBC's Morning Joe. He denied Reade's allegations.)

This little rhetorical trick of Gillibrand's is nasty. It has been made possible thanks to a cloying and idiotic slogan that, if taken literally, would reduce all of human social relations, indeed all of reality, to subjectivized nonsense. To speak of one's truth as something distinct from the bare noun is to imply that there are no facts of the matter. It is epistemology without ontology. We tell ourselves that this sort of windy rubbish is "empowering," whatever that means. In practice my truth and your truth existing alongside one another in some kind of free-floating non or even anti-judiciable contest of veracities means that capital T-truth becomes synonymous with power. The truth may well set you free, but your truth screams into the void.

At a time when widespread epistemic disjuncture — high-level disagreements about the objective nature of reality — is perhaps the single most distinctive characteristic of our public life, we should not be soliciting the truth with possessive prefixes. The verb most commonly employed alongside "your truth" and similar Oprah-isms is not even tell but "live." Like Reade, Biden is already living his truth. A better question is whether he is living with the real thing.

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