Sep 15

Fans of Stephen Colbert are probably familiar with the term Truthiness, which he introduced in the inaugural episode of the now extremely popular Colbert Report. He explains the word as what we feel to be true rather than what’s factually or arguably true. For instance one might argue that it’s okay not to report a little side income to the IRS because it was insignificant and not from one’s primary employment, and it just feels like found money rather than real taxable income. Your gut tells you so! Or, in one of Colbert’s examples, he explains that it may be possible to find holes in the argument to go to war with Iraq (keep in mind this aired in 2005), but that it felt right to take out Saddam Hussein.

 

It’s essentially a comical take on the tension we all feel between what we want to be true and what we can argue objectively. To be sure, we can justify a lot of bad behavior this way. We know all kinds of things from traffic violations to cheating on a test to lying about income are wrong, but we do them anyway and justify them with any number of rationalizations. These rationalizations have the flavor of truthiness, and we eat them up.

 

I think that the term truthiness gives us a way to distinguish this kind of behavior and to remind us to keep watch for it. Colbert mocks the truthiness politicians use to sell their ideas to the public; we can follow suit and mock the truthiness we use to sell rationalizations to ourselves.