The Personalist Project

A friend linked a video rant on Facebook the other day called, "Dear Oprah Winfrey: there's no such thing as 'your truth'". It's full of snark. 

I so wish conservatives wouldn't do this! I wish we wouldn't behave as if the way to promote and defend objective truth is to deny and diminish subjective truth. 

There is such a thing as "your truth", and "speaking it" is really important. So is listening to others speak theirs. Oprah is right about that, however wrong she may be about other things. 

What is "your truth"? It's the truth of your experience, your thoughts, your feelings, your perspective, your interests, your priorities, your motivations, your interiority. It's not reducible to your opinion. For instance, "I get melancholy when I listen to Irish music" is a statement of fact, not opinion. I'm not sharing my opinion of Irish music; I'm sharing my experience of Irish music. To say, "I know what you mean when you speak of emotional neglect and abuse; I've been there," is to express a truth (or a falsehood), not an opinion.

A friend of mine recently shared that she hates her husband's habit of grabbing her out of the blue. Maybe the husband is trying to be playful. Maybe it's his way of expressing sexual desire. But his wife doesn't like it. It makes her feel disrespected in her body and in her agency. It makes her mad. That's important information for her husband, isn't it? It's important for the marriage that she "speaks her truth" and that her husband pays attention to it. 

Calling attention to subjectivity doesn't entail subjectivism any more than preaching community entails communism or emphasizing femininity entails feminism. As Karol Wojtyla wrote, long before he became JP II: "we must not forget that the subjectivity of the human person is also something objective." 

Imagine how bad it would be if a wife told her husband, "I don't like it when you grab me like that. I find it rude and off-putting," and her husband were to reply by saying, "You're wrong. It's not rude or off-putting at all. It's playful and sexy." He would be adding disrespect for his wife's feelings and preferences to disrespect of her body and agency. It would be a example of exactly the kind of egotism that ruins relationships. "My experience and feelings trump yours. Mine are reality; yours are subjective nothingness." 

It's really important that we understand that when we do that what we are communicating to the other is "I matter; you don't." It is the very opposite of love. 

Being open to the subjective reality of others is the beginning of everything good in the interpersonal realm. Without it there's no friendship, no love, no communion, no solidarity, no evangelization, no civil society. Remember that line from Pope Benedict that I've quoted before:

This is how the Apostles’ adventure began, as an encounter of people who are open to one another.  For the disciples, it was the beginning of a direct acquaintance with the Teacher, seeing where he was staying and starting to get to know him.  Indeed, they were not to proclaim an idea, but to witness to a person.

Being open to others means taking a genuine interest in them as individuals, as subjects—their thoughts, feelings, preferences, perspectives, and so on. It means, further, being willing to share truthfully about ourselves—our real, honest selves, not our false or "willed" selves, not our merely superficial or in-denial selves. Everyone who's been in a 12-step program learns this wisdom and tries to practice it. We regret when we fail to practice it. We understand it as a failure of love and truth—a failure that typically comes from fear and habit.

"Speaking my truth," for most of us, involves moral effort and virtue. It takes genuine self-knowledge (often hard-won), courage, integrity, humility, vulnerability. Until we start consciously making that effort, we typically don't realize how accustomed we've become to speaking (and hearing) platitudes or instructions or projections or evasions or half-truths or lies—things that protect or puff up egos; things that radically interfere with real communion. 

What's true on an intimate level between friends and in families is true on wider social level too. The goodness of "the marketplace of ideas"—the free exchange of real views—is one of the fundamental values of democracy. It's essentially linked to the dignity of the person. To be an individual is to have views. To respect others as individuals entails being open to and respectful of their real views.

When we stop living and acting from that fundamental truth, civil society breaks down, as we see happening all around us today.

Of course the fact that there is such a thing as "my truth" doesn't mean there's no such thing as the truth. Of course there are such things as objective facts and values. Nothing in a pregnant woman's subjectivity can alter the objective moral worth of her baby. Whether she wants the baby or not; whether or not she realizes that that baby is a person, that baby is a person, and it's not okay to kill it.

We can defend that kind of truth without pretending it's the only kind, just as we can believe in the immorality of the soul without asserting that the body is worthless.

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