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Fork in the Road: Can the truth actually set you free?

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Opinion | November 4th, 2013

Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.
I want you to imagine the following scenario: you're a detective in a recent homicide case trying to get to the guts of what actually happened. You have conflicting testimonies from four key witnesses: two provide compelling evidence that the perpetrator had the necessary modus operandi to commit murder in the first degree, whereas the other two indicate it may have been a matter of self-defence, which would lessen the charges significantly, if not dismiss them altogether. Two of the witnesses were passersby who saw the incident occur firsthand, but from opposing angles. The other witnesses were acquaintances of the perpetrator and victim, respectively.

What you conclude as the “truth” (or at least the most plausible “truth”) will ultimately determine the outcome of how the perpetrator lives out the rest of his/her days — definitely not a responsibility to take lightly. How do you decide what to believe when all of the witnesses have passed lie detector tests with flying colours and have been confirmed of sound mind? The question you have to ask yourself is: is one “truth” more “truthful” than another? If so, how do you make this determination? Let's return a moment to the provided example to demonstrate just how complicated finding the “truth” can be:

Let's say, for example, that witness number one, an elderly religious fellow who maintains traditional values about the “place of women” in society, only saw the victim (a male) from behind as he was being attacked by the perpetrator (a female). The witness (though it was never confirmed prior to him delivering his testimony) assumed the parties were married. While there may have been evidence from the witness' angle that in fact the perpetrator was acting out of self defence, his pre-existing bias toward what is appropriate behaviour on the behalf of a wife distorted his perception of the events as they unfolded, leaving him to conclude that the perpetrator was lashing out inappropriately and with unnecessary extreme force toward the victim. His verdict: the perpetrator should be charged with murder in the first degree.

Let's now use the same witness, BUT switch the genders of the perpetrator and the victim. If witness number one viewed instead an angry husband “re-establishing his authority” over his disobedient and disrespectful wife, it's feasible that he may have instead concluded that no extreme force was used and the charge should be lessened to manslaughter.

Just for fun, let's add further complication to the mix! Let's suppose witness number one also maintained some unfortunate racist beliefs as a consequence of fighting in WWII. How would his testimony (and therefore his verdict) then change upon identifying that one of the involved parties was of Jewish descent? And let me remind you we're ONLY considering the testimony of ONE of the FOUR potential witnesses right now.

What I'm getting at is the fact that there is no such thing as “singular” truth (not even in science, folks. Don't be fooled. If you don't believe me, look up a little old thing called the “confirmation bias”). Moreover, one's notion of the “truth” is coloured by their preexisting beliefs, biases, experiences and expectations. In effect, “truth” as we know it is really nothing more than “perception of truth”. So when you hear the age-old expression that you should take everything with a grain of salt, it's actually pretty darn sensible advice!

Back to our example: in addition to all the psychological patterns and sociological environments that have prejudiced the testimonies of your key witnesses, as detective (given that it's your duty to be objective), you yourself would need to own up to your own personal biases and how they could also colour the “truth” before combing through the evidence and drawing any conclusions. This of course leaves one with some food for thought.

This month's lesson: Next time you draw a so-called definitive irrefutable “truth” about something or someone, step back to consider how your perception of that “truth” may have been distorted. If you're feeling particularly ambitious, try considering your “truth” from the perception of opposing counsel.
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