Hector Macdonald’s recent book, Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, is ruthless in its timeliness. Over the past several years, a blend of technology, political events, and social change has attenuated the gatekeepers of knowledge and subjected us to a deluge of information. Macdonald has stepped forward to address our unease with a book not about lies, but about truth–how factual or unfalsifiable statements can be dressed up, reshaped, or displayed to lead us to almost infinite conclusions. It’s a breezy guidebook to the technically true, with aspirations of equipping readers to navigate unsettling times.
Macdonald helpfully provides his own terminology for the concepts he wants to articulate—he is not writing about falsehoods, but about “competing truths.” These are statements that may be factually accurate, but which can be shaped to create a variety of impressions and outcomes. The people who use such competing truths are Advocates (the people who tell selective truths ethically to accomplish good goals), Misinformers (people who have only gotten part of the story and are inadvertently giving false impressions) and Misleaders (people who deliberately employ selective truths in an unethical fashion). Through a series of anecdotes and definitions he catalogues the methods such people can use to make the truth serve their goals and influence others.
He makes it clear from the start that this is to be a practical book for the busy 21st-century world-citizen. Indeed, the structure of the entire book seems tailor-made for the executives that Macdonald serves in his profession of strategic communications consultant. Each chapter is stuffed with punchy anecdotes that would go over equally well at a party or board meeting and concludes with a helpfully highlighted box of takeaways, in case the reader is too busy to actually read. The strangeness of the juxtaposition–a book about the complexity of truth packaged for people who can’t or won’t read complex prose–seems to have floated over the publishing company’s as well as the author’s head without so much as a batted eyelash.
Ironically, if you’re looking for concrete suggestions on how to evaluate “competing truths” and avoid being manipulated without your knowledge, those end-of-chapter boxes are probably your best bet. The rest of the book is surprisingly light on specific advice for the wary and overwhelmed consumer of contemporary media. Macdonald seems better at describing how the truth can be used to manipulate or motivate than at recommending tactics for navigating a world of would-be influencers.
Macdonald’s determination to write a practical book may also explain his reluctance to dig far into history or to interact with the wider discourse around his themes. Each of his chapters deals with topics that have enjoyed considerable theoretical attention, whether in philosophy, history, sociology, or another discipline. However, Macdonald rarely gives more than a nod to how others have addressed these issues. Perhaps the most glaring example of this comes in his chapter on definitions, which he devotes to anecdotes about the developing meaning of words like “snowflake” rather than to explaining how definitions function. The relationship of words and their various meanings has been studied by philosophers, linguists, and others, and even a cursory investigation should have netted Macdonald several ideas with which to dialogue.
The chapter on beliefs, which he classifies as “competing truths” based on their unfalsifiability, shows a similar indifference to the wider discourse. The only work with which Macdonald engages here is Kathleen Taylor on brainwashing techniques. To say that this fails to do justice to the centuries of work amongst theologians and philosophers regarding the nature of religious truth claims is a vast understatement.
In addition to this isolation from larger conversations, Macdonald’s pragmatic approach also rules out (in his eyes) any need for philosophical considerations. However, the categories he uses are rife with philosophical implications–naming and definitions, truth claims, belief, determinations of value, moral judgments, and social constructs are all at least partly matters of philosophy. The upshot is that instead of avoiding philosophy he simply imports it unexamined. Macdonald himself seems aware of this, pausing to address concerns that he is advocating relativism. He insists that he is not; there are such things as facts, and there are moral realities. He simply does not explain how to recognize a fact or a moral truth, or on what basis such things exist, as he considers it beyond the purview of his book. This raises the question: how can a book that promises to help us recognize and resist misuse of truth deliver on that promise without providing any method for judging which “truths” are better than others? Macdonald declines to answer, but the problem remains.
This kind of soft relativism is nothing new. It derives from attempts to be pragmatic and inoffensive, which of their nature preclude strong truth commitments or rigorous argumentation that could provoke objections. Safety from provoking objections, however, also means safety from provoking reflection, understanding, or meaningful change. Without either strong truth claims or reference to a larger historical and theoretical context, Macdonald’s analysis is at best unsatisfying; at worst, it boils down to trivia. Occasional passages provoke reflection in the attentive reader. On the whole, however, they cannot persuade or provide any deep understanding of why these manipulation tactics work, what they mean for discourse, and most importantly how to discover truth in anything beyond the most superficial sense.
I have mentioned the anecdotes in passing, but in fact, they make up the majority of the book. Macdonald is a witty storyteller, and each anecdote is meant to illustrate some tactic of manipulation or critical misunderstanding. Some are more apt than others; many simply seem like good stories with a distant connection to the topic. The most unsettling element common to all of Macdonald’s anecdotes is the argumentative weight they carry, thanks to the slightness of his analysis. Telling stories to prove arguments is effective in part because the drama of narrative can serve to cover up logical inconsistency. We are used to filling in gaps in stories by inference, and as a result we tend to overlook holes in the logic of a compelling anecdote. It’s easy to attribute the persuasiveness of the story to the argument it illustrates, when the relationship is not nearly so clear. By relying so heavily on anecdote, Macdonald spares himself the difficulty of articulating himself clearly and rigorously.
Despite his claims, Macdonald does not seem interested in helping us avoid manipulation at the hands of competing truths. What he has actually provided is his own taxonomy of the genre (which he argues is enough to inoculate against misleaders), as well as instructions for manipulating others. His hope is apparently that if his readers learn how to manipulate others for virtuous ends, things will somehow work out. Without any clear sense of what those virtuous ends are or how we might discover them, this seems like a faint hope indeed.
None of this is to say that Truth is a bad read. It’s pleasant, actually; there are far worse ways to spend an afternoon than with legible prose, entertaining anecdotes, and the occasional moment of reflection. It is not, however, a book that promotes real understanding or one that succeeds at its own stated goals. You may come away with a few new insights on how our age of misinformation operates, but you will not be much better equipped to adjudicate competing truths or oppose manipulation.
Leslie A. Wicke graduated with a degree in history from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and artist whose work can be found at www.leslieawicke.com and www.tbjeremiah.com. She and her husband currently live in Virginia.