It is almost 15 years since American TV satirist John Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness’ to describe, as explained by Wikipedia, “the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts”. Personally, I prefer the definition given by Stu Campbell of Wings Over Scotland, “things that sound as if they’re true, and which people will therefore be inclined to believe, even though they fall apart under any factual scrutiny”.
It is a useful word describing a very real phenomenon with which we are all familiar. Even if we are not acquainted with the term, I’m sure we all recognise truthiness when we encounter it. And we encounter it rather a lot. Every day, several times a day, we read and hear things said by politicians and political commentators which have the superficial appearance of truth, but which may only avoid being outright lies by virtue of some semantic technicality.
In any exchange, we are constantly looking for indicators of truth. When speaking with someone we pick up clues from their facial expressions, their posture and their gestures. When reading, we may judge the trustworthiness of a writer by their personal reputation, their academic qualifications and their experience as well as the standing of the publication in which the writing appears. But people can learn to control their body language. And even those with the most impeccable credentials are capable of deception and dishonesty.
We also look for evidence of truthfulness in the actual words spoken or written. The language used, the tone, the phrasing and more can be taken as signs. As much as anything else, the form of words used may persuade us to believe. This being so, it is only to be expected that an art and science will evolve of crafting words to simulate the qualities of truth the better to conceal dishonesty and effect deception. Thus, truthiness.
It occurs to me that what is true of of truth also holds for wisdom. If words can be crafted to give the impression of truth, they may also be contrived to have the appearance of wisdom. If truthiness, why not wisiness.
Truth withstands any amount of examination. Truthiness evaporates under any kind of scrutiny worthy of the name. Wisdom fits comfortably in a recognised and recognisable system of logic, knowledge and shared experience, while adding something new to that system or taking something novel out of it. Wisiness is just words selected for their associations and connotations.
A common manifestation of wisiness is the appeal for caution. Being generally risk averse, people are predisposed to find wisdom in any form of words advising prudence. The wisiness of the appeal for caution can be enhanced by the use of pejorative terms to describe a homogenised alternative. Anything which does not conform to the wisiness of caution is ‘hasty’ or ‘reckless’. It is entirely about the language. The words sound wise because they are chosen for that purpose. Were they genuinely wise, they would have been chosen for reasons that stand outside the words themselves.
Sometimes, of course, an appeal to caution may be truly wise. People may be generally risk averse, but they are also prone to moments of rashness. So, it may be wise, if mostly redundant, to advise people not to walk on motorways or eat unidentified mushrooms. Wisiness, however, attempts to paint wisdom onto what is actually no more than a rationalisation of fearful inaction or a cover for negligent unpreparedness.
We see much wisiness, too, in ill-informed or self-serving notions of human psychology. Notions which tend to be simplified to the point of caricature. We are told that people don’t respond well to this, or are put off by that as if human responses and preferences were amenable to mechanical explanations. But we are told this in language that oozes wisiness and sounds all the more plausible because of it.
Regular readers will by now have realised that, as I write this, I have in mind a certain trait within the Yes movement. Not that wisiness is exclusive or even particular to those associated with Scotland’s independence movement. If the concept has merit at all, it is as a phenomenon of communication generally, and not confined to a specific group or area of discourse. It is safe to say that, given a certain minimum linguistic skill, we all resort to wisiness at some time. It just happens that the Yes movement is the area of discourse with which I am most familiar. It is where I most readily and most frequently encounter instances of both truthiness and wisiness.
There is wisiness, for example, in Pete Wishart and others urging that the SNP and the Scottish Government hold off on action to resolve the constitutional issue until the arrival of some “optimal time”. This is wisiness, rather than wisdom because it cannot be amplified or explained in any terms other than its wisiness. We are asked to accept the wisdom of this advice solely on the grounds that it sounds wise. But it sounds wise, not because it fits comfortably in a recognised and recognisable system of logic, knowledge and shared experience, but because it has been expressed in terms selected with at least a little skill to sound wise. Ask even moderately probing questions about the reasoning behind the advice and the appearance of wisdom instantly vanishes.
There is little else but wisiness in the constant appeals for positivity and the condemnation of negativity. There is wisiness dripping from the pompous and vacuous rebukes delivered to those in the Yes movement who stray from the approved lexicon when addressing 2014 No voters and Unionists in general (see picture). A wisiness which presumes a profound understand of a psychology that is somehow both extraordinarily uncomplicated and common to all who voted No in the first independence referendum. By this presumption alone we know it to be wisiness and not wisdom.
Just as people need to be aware of the difference between truth and truthiness, so they need to be able to distinguish between wisdom and wisiness. Being cognisant of the devices used to manipulate perceptions and thus attitudes draws the sting of those devices. It makes us less susceptible to the blandishments of those who would mislead us – intentionally or otherwise and for good reasons or bad. Being aware makes us better consumers of media messages; better political actors; and better people.
In that last observation, at least, there is surely both truth and wisdom.
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