Why We Disagree on “Truth” in 2023 and How We Can Change That

Jessica Carpenter

Originally published on AllSides.com. This blog is in collaboration with AllSides, a nonpartisan media group focused on strengthening our democratic society with balanced news, media bias ratings, diverse perspectives, and real conversation.

In 2023, it’s not enough to just politicize ideas, people and identities. No, the newest frontier that politicization has seeped into is, in my opinion, far scarier, and it serves as the foundation from which all else is decided: the truth.

On March 16, the Atlantic released a new analysis of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that the disease most likely originated within infected raccoon dogs being sold in a Wuhan market. This research comes almost two weeks after the U.S. Energy Department released their own findings that COVID-19 was most likely caused by a laboratory leak.

To proponents of the lab leak theory, the findings by the Energy Department confirm what they have been saying since 2020. To those who dismissed that theory, the Atlantic story confirms their own belief that the outbreak came from natural roots. No matter which side you’re on, this type of discrepancy in what is “true” is dangerous and has been sinking into politics over the past few years, leading to disagreement on everything from COVID-19 and critical race theory to gun legislation and transgender issues. 

This gap in understanding is then being exploited by some media outlets and political pundits to push different narratives and spread fear and disdain toward the other side, leading to increased political division, and preventing us from having conversations and working together to create meaningful solutions. To keep “truth” from becoming another political weapon, we must understand the different methods we each use to find truth and learn how understanding the differences between them can allow us to better understand each other.

We first have to understand the difference between “truth” and “fact”. Fact is based on empirical research and quantifiable measures, meaning it can be tested, and proven through experience. Truth is the application of these facts, but is then mixed with our own beliefs or perceptions. Things like the media we consume, our social media feeds or the people we engage with can expose us to different facts and interpretations of events. Each of us then uses different methods of applying this information to form our own understanding of what is true and not. 

There are four types of truth, and depending on which type we’re talking about, different thinking methods are applied to find that truth. The first is objective truth, which is what can be proven in physicality (ex. The sky is blue). Where fact is anything that can be tested, objective truth is the recognition of the reality created by fact. Normative truth is what a collective group agrees is true, for example a tree is a tree because that’s what we decided to call it. Normative truth can change between different cultures, geographic regions, religions and groups of individuals. 

Third is subjective truth, which is based on one’s interpretation of facts or experiences. Subjective truth can’t be proven either right or wrong because it is based on one’s own perception of information or an event (many of us might remember the dress illusion from years ago that challenged our perception of color). For this reason, it can be easily mixed up with opinion. It is also a truth used often in politics. For example when President Biden says “The American Rescue Plan helped create nearly 10 million new jobs,” he is using an accurate number of 9.5 million jobs created since January 2021, but is also overlooking some conditions that laid the foundation for job growth before he took office and also the projected job growth that was already expected between 2021 and 2022. While the plan helped to create jobs, the other job growth is grouped in because it happened during his administration.

The last method of finding truth is complex truth, and it is the application of any of the previous three according to which is most useful at the given time. All four truth methods provide us with multiple perspectives and are needed to understand different contexts. When used together, we are able to form a better understanding of reality.

Because we are all working through different methods of deciding what is true, there is more room for disagreement, especially on definitions of words, pieces of fact and interpretations of experiences. We see this currently playing out in discussions across the country about transgender issues, where both normative and objective truth are being used to determine gender and sex; and abortion, where subjective, objective and normative truth are being used to decide if/when abortions should be allowed.

Disagreements arise because we are speaking past one another and using different methods for determining truth, therefore we are unable to have in-depth conversations about different topics.

Another reason we disagree on truth today is because we’ve thrown out the nuance that comes from different “truths”. Political discussions today force us to choose between one side or another and think along a binary, but we forget that two things can be true at once. 

It can be true that about 4 in 10 U.S. women have experienced gender discrimination at work, and also true that men are falling behind in the workforce due to economic, social and cultural shifts. Another example: Statistically, 90% of Black Americans support initiatives to improve relations between police and their community, but that doesn’t change the fact that many of them also fear police encounters more than White individuals. These two can be true at once.

Not to say any of this is good or bad, but when we take in information from different points of view along with our pre-existing experiences and perspectives, and allow room for nuance in our conversations, a broader reality comes into play. We find space for common ground and productive conversations.

So, how do we fight the politicization of information and have conversations across our different understandings of truth? 

  1. Research information for yourself. Before re-sharing anything on social media, double check the information and the source. Many times, people online will take sound bites or facts out of context, and  users take that information at face value. By being conscious about what you are sharing you can ensure you are not sharing misleading information and you are leaving room for dialogue with those that may understand the same information differently.
  2. Expand your news diet! Try watching news coverage from a different outlet than your usual one. The AllSides Media Bias chart and balanced news is also a great resource for easily identifying different perspectives and political leanings in the news so you can get the full picture and think for yourself.
  3. Accept when the extent of your knowledge ends, and you start making assumptions based on your perspective. We can speculate over pieces of information as long as we want, but sometimes we just don’t know the whole story and it’s okay to admit that we don’t know all the facts, even in a culture that wants us to have an opinion on everything.
  4. Have conversations with people you disagree with. Gaining different perspectives is necessary to fight the politicization of “truth” and understand the broader picture, even if you don’t agree with their point of view.

Sophie Holtzman

In September 2022, I received an email from Julia Jackman, an Arizona State University alum familiar with the BridgeUSA movement, with the subject line “Dialogue opportunity in Norway- BridgeGW.” 

The email explained Julia’s role in Norway’s International Student Festival in Trondheim (ISFiT) and the Dialogue Project, a sub-project of the festival for which Julia was recruiting 20 students from a focus region—this year being the U.S.—to participate in a dialogue seminar on ISFiT’s theme of polarization, before traveling to the festival. “There’s no way she’s offering me three weeks in Norway,” I said to my mom on the phone. “And what can I learn about polarization in Norway that I can’t learn at GW?” 

Four months later, despite lingering skepticism, I was on a plane with no idea what to expect out of the next three weeks. Little did I know, going to Norway would challenge everything I thought I knew about American politics.

The Dialogue Project took place in a rural cabin outside of Røros with 18 American college students from across the country and across the political spectrum. The first few days in the cabin were spent getting used to an isolated Scandinavian lifestyle–ice fishing, eating reindeer for dinner, and exploring abandoned mines in -20°F temperatures–while establishing a sense of shared values and trust that would lay the groundwork for our rigorous dialogue sessions. 

Unlike the approach to political dialogue many of us had taken at home in the U.S., the Dialogue Project began by challenging us to look into ourselves and each other. Together, we chose the topics for the dialogue sessions: abortion, individual rights, gender, culture, and a variety of other topics that fell under the umbrella of polarization. I promised myself I would head into the coming week of the Dialogue Project with an open mind.

A dialogue session is neither a debate nor a conversation, rather it’s a seminar-style round-table discussion with rules enforced by a moderator. The moderator keeps a queue of those who want to speak, and speakers cannot comment directly on a previous speaker’s point or ask multiple questions in a row. All of this serves to encourage dialogue about personal experiences and vulnerabilities rather than debates about political facts. The dialogue sessions would start off with a question, such as “What is a value you have learned from your community, your culture, or your class?” From there, we unpacked our values and how they inspired our opinions. 

Discussions and debates about United States politics are generally riddled with buzz words, preconceptions based on the labels assigned to us by the two-party system, and pressure to be as factually and politically correct as possible. As someone whose identities and values tend to be discarded by one party or the other, the style of political discussions most frequently had in the United States usually leaves me feeling unheard and unsatisfied. I often feel that discussions are all about which participant can silence the other with the perfect fact and that opinions are taken at face value without consideration of the participants’ regional, educational, and social circumstances. Working under the conditions, queues, and directions of the Dialogue Project alongside 17 other politically well-versed students required me to quickly develop an intense focus and self-control in order to prevent myself from falling prey to the toxicity associated with my usual political debates. 

During the first few dialogue sessions, I developed counter-arguments in my head for every argument I disagreed with, trying to find clever ways around waiting in the queue or loopholes to the one-question rule so that I could disprove others’ arguments and prove the validity of my own. This changed in our “individual rights” dialogue. In watching my cabin roommates be the first two participants to truly accept the rules that we were given and tap into the roots of their opinions and beliefs, I realized that what I thought was an open mind was in fact not that at all.

Rather than combatting other participants’ points about vaccine passports and hate speech with medical statistics or First Amendment quotes, my roommates shared deeply personal experiences with terminal illness and discriminatory speech that were far more moving in that moment than any fact could have been.

Despite the heaviness of that dialogue session, I think of it as a turning point. From then on, we were able to focus on pinpointing exactly where our beliefs came from, why they were so personal to us, and how our backgrounds affected our biases. These developments made our discussions beautifully nuanced, just as our country is, and allowed our group to truly represent a microcosm of the diverse American experience. 

After recounting the Dialogue Project to my loved ones, many asked me if any groundbreaking conclusions were reached. “Honestly,” I told them, “I didn’t change any of my political opinions. The consensus that was reached during our abortion dialogue, for example, was that our group would never be able to come to a consensus on abortion policy.” 

However, what I gained from the project was the knowledge that consensus shouldn’t always be the goal. Instead, we should be asking ourselves how we can move forward when no consensus is reached. Yes, many could argue that I only got along with the other dialogue participants because I had to spend 10 days in a remote cabin with them; but, the way I see it, we formed deep connections out of a lack of consensus. 

I used to think I was unique in my feelings of exclusion from the two-party system. While one party loudly fights for the minority communities that myself and many of my loved ones belong to, the other actively listens to those in rural areas such as much of my home state of Kentucky. In Norway, I saw for the first time just how many Americans have intricate, contradicting identities like mine. Seeing the passion for better politics that those Americans had hidden under their disdain for our government gave me some semblance of hope for our future. Existing in these identities and being so disheartened by American politics that your passion for progress becomes a passion for argument is a phenomenon that is not specific to me. Voters who don’t quite fit into a binary, two-party system are just looking for some sort of change. What is important is not that we agree on exactly what that change should be, but that we utilize our diverse opinions to make progress. The Republican Party is not a monolith, nor is the Democratic Party. Americans are diverse, driven, and capable of political change, and the key just might be dialogue.