Talking to Our Kids About Truth in the Age of Trump

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With an ongoing project called “The Definitive Donald Trump Fact Check”, the Toronto Star has been keeping a close eye on the U.S. president since his inauguration. Why? “Historians say there has never been such a constant liar in the Oval Office. We think dishonesty should be challenged. We think inaccurate information should be corrected. And we think the sheer frequency of Trump’s inaccuracy is a central story of his presidency.”

As of this writing, slightly over a year into his presidency, he has said 1101 “false things”.

False things?

The Star explains, “If Trump is a serial liar, why call this a list of “false claims,” not lies? The answer is that we can’t be sure that each and every one was intentional. In some cases, he may have been confused or ignorant. What we know, objectively, is that he was not telling the truth.”

But, all politicians lie, right?

On December 14 of last year, the New York Times released some staggering statistics. The writers did this to counter the defense of Trump’s lying they frequently heard from his supporters, “If you made a similar list for previous presidents, it would be just as bad.”

The perfectly mature “But, he did it too!” defense.

In this context, Trump is what he always brags about being, a winner.

Bigly.

Trump told nearly six times more lies in the first ten months of his presidency than former President Barack Obama did in his entire 8-year term.

But, what is “truth” anyway?

If you look up truth, it is defined as both “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality” and “a fact or belief that is accepted as true.”

Do you spot the problem with that second one?

How many times have you been in a squabble with an ideologue who has dug their heels in on a particular point? When cornered and unable to counter a fact-based argument that conflicts with their ideology, they will exclaim with exasperation, “Well, that’s what I believe!” or “That’s my truth!” or “I’m entitled to my opinion!”

Here’s an even more uncomfortable question. How many times have you been that ideologue in an argument? I know I have.

And you know what they say about throwing stones and glass houses.

Admittedly, lines can sometimes become blurred, like when scientific studies are paid for by a corporation who has an investment in a certain outcome. Exceptions like this aside, opinions, beliefs, and individual truth are not a substitute for factual truth. And coining terms like “alternative facts”, insisting there is no such thing as truth, or making excuses about how data can be manipulated, are all either blatant exploitations or lazy cop-outs to avoid doing the analysis required to back up your arguments.

To be clear, this is a non-partisan damnation. Though Trump is a serial offender tilted to the right side of the political spectrum (and by “right”, I don’t mean “correct”), so-called “progressives” can be as guilty.

We all live inside echo chambers of our own making and constantly seek out information that confirms rather than challenges our sense of truth. Nothing breeds ignorance more than our human inclination toward confirmation bias.

But, what about the children?

You can’t change the behavior of the President of the United States. But you can demonstrate to your children, by example, what it means to live a life committed to truth. The place to start is by consistently modeling truthful behavior.

Stay away from even smaller sins like exaggeration or “stretching the truth”. That is a lot harder than it may seem. Most of us are given to engage in embellishment or hyperbole now and then. It is easy to get away with, and we are often even rewarded for it. People are all too often willing to accept something that simply sounds right or believable.

You need to hold yourself to a higher standard, and your kids need to see you doing so.

As the Toronto Star is doing with Trump, when you see untruthful behavior, call it out, and encourage your children to do the same. Then keep doing it. Do not slip into an apathetic state of accepting our descent into an era of “post-truth”. It is too cynical of a legacy to leave our children.

It is too easy, particularly with social media, to limit our exposure to only those voices that mimic our own. If you tilt left, take in Fox News every once in a while. If you tilt right, open up your world by reading the occasional article from The Atlantic. Whatever you read, and especially whatever you share on social media, do so critically. If not, you are contributing to the problem.

Be open to change when presented with a compelling, fact-based, well thought-out, and thorough argument. Dig deeper. Think.

This is going to be uncomfortable.

You are going to read, see, and hear things that make you furious.

You are going to take it all in.

You are going to genuinely challenge yourself and your thinking.

And you are going to discover that, in some cases, you have been wrong.

But, why does it matter?

I am assuming you do not want your children to be liars, or viewed as confused or ignorant. It may be a blissful way to go through life, but they certainly are not going to contribute much to the world or affect any of the societal change we so desperately need. We need to teach them the important difference between opinion and truth and to expect better of our leaders, themselves, and us.

And a little side benefit is, by getting your own glass house in order, you can pick up those stones and start throwing them to your heart’s content.

Chaz Thorne