THE BLOG
01/13/2017 10:01 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2018

America Meet Rashomon: Donald Trump And Multiple Truths

A 1950 film classic Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon was about how a single incident could support multiple truths. The Rashomon effect is (according to Wikipedia) "a term used to describe the circumstance when the same event is given contradictory interpretations by different individuals involved."

The rise of Donald Trump demands that Americans become well acquainted with Rashomon.

Too many of us, regardless of where we live or who we voted for, seem to hold the deep belief that there is such a thing as "the truth" and that they have personal access to it.

The Rashomon effect says no - there can indeed be multiple truths - all valid depending upon the frame used to make sense out of a situation. Rashomon disputes the notion that there exists any privileged frame or any absolute truth.

In an America where our economic success has resulted from our willingness to favor efficiency over resilience, the simple over the complex, and the power that comes from rejecting ambiguity over the empathy that comes from embracing it - the Rashomon message was lost decades ago.

Americans of nearly all stripes operate under the conviction that "the truth will come out in the end" - with an emphasis on the truth singular.

A few examples suggest just how wrong that conviction is.

When the Mills at Jersey Gardens was evacuated by a swat team due to reports of gunfire, the gunfire was "truth" as far as the evacuees were concerned. After all, they fled for their lives. When "in truth" the sounds were revealed to be a broken chair, that piece of information did not change the direct personal experience each person had of fleeing the mall. They fled due to gunshots - not due to the news that gunshots were incorrectly reported. Just ask their grandchildren what story they heard about the incident when it was retold in 2050. Gunshots. And, the Rashomon effect.

When Meryl Streep spoke up about our President-elect "being" a bully, she spoke a truth which a vast number of people hold to be "the truth." But, that vast number does not happen to include Trump himself who rejects the label. Streep, in her speech, described an incident that again she and millions of others hold to be "true" - that Trump viciously imitated a reporter's disability in order to demean the person who the reporter is. The truth claims here are about what Trump intended. Millions claim the behavior illustrates Trump's "evil character." And, that label is then asserted as yet another "truth."

But, the story has some inconvenient holes. Trump indeed behaved in a mocking manner and was belittling the reporter's unwillingness to stand behind his own written column. To Trump, belittling what the reporter said was not the same as belittling the reporter as a person. Those who claim Trump was "imitating the reporter in a vicious way" need to overlook the simple fact that the reporter's disability does not EVER result in behavior that looks anything like Trump's flailing with his arms and hands. The reporter has a disability which prevents his right hand and arm FROM moving. If you believe that Trump is a bully, then perhaps the flailing arms were bullying behavior meant to intimidate. But, as an imitation, flailing flunks. Those same truth tellers need to also overlook another fact - Trump used the exact same behavior to belittle the words and deeds of two other people during the very same speech - Ted Cruz and a general. To impute vicious intent and purposefully unacceptable behavior to Trump is to filter the events through an already biased frame. There are other frames. The Rashomon effect.

When prominent Democrats protest that we are ignoring the "truth" that Russian hacking cost Hillary the election, they too are filtering out inconvenient data and demanding that others accept their frame as "truth." That frame ignores the fact that Clinton spent far too little time campaigning in the three states that mattered most -- Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania -- and instead spent far too much time in California, a state she could not lose. That frame ignores the fact that what the hacking revealed (regardless of source) was a set of duplicitous, evil, and other-than-noble behaviors by Clintonites towards Bernie Sanders. The frame says we are to ignore the message because the messenger gasp was the Russians. But, no one has ever claimed the messages revealed were faked or that the behaviors revealed did not happen. Somehow it is more important that the Russians "interfered." Not everyone agrees that that is what is important. Rashomon once again.

Rashomon is at work when some folks claim that Trump's character is "set" and he cannot "grow into" the Presidency. The only way that that truth will be known is in a few years time. It is not "truth" but belief. No different from the belief in creationism. It is not based on any evidence - just on the correctness of the frame of reference that produced it.

Those who believe in political correctness find a truth in the idea that we owe it to others not to potentially offend their sense of group identity. Those who don't believe in it find truth in the idea that group identity is far less important than in dealing with individuals as individuals who must be approached from their entire context.

The PC police ticketed Trump because the object of his criticism was a man with a disability. Trump responds that he was mocking the reporter's "wishy-washy" position trying to distance himself from his own reporting and that he had said nor done nothing against the reporter as a person. Two frames. Two truths. Rashomon.

America as a melting pot has seemingly given way to America the divided. The Blue versus the Red. Trump versus Clinton. Liberal coastal elites versus the rest of the country. Each divide with its truths. Each convinced it, and it alone has access to "the truth."

We need to embrace Rashomon. Each of us grew up and matured under different circumstances, with different influences, made different efforts, and achieved different results. We each have our own frames for interpreting situations. What we have in common is that we all strive to make sense out of what we encounter -- each from our own frame.

If we can learn to give up our claims to know "the truth" and instead can learn to ask the others to explain what their truth is based on...

If we can learn to explore the factors that go into our assigning something to a category and a label, instead of demanding that others agree with our chosen labeling...

If we can accept that each of us believes that our truth is the truth.

We might find a way to dialogue about our problems and actually act in the common good.

That will demand Rashomon. Not the hubris of self-proclaimed certainty.

Meryl Streep was right to declaim an America where millions perceive that its leader thinks that bullying is ok. But, she has no idea if indeed that is what he thinks.

Rashomon demands that we put the responsibility for interpretation back where it belongs: on ourselves. We choose what interpretations make sense for us. We need to learn to examine those choices, and we need to be willing to discuss the basis on which they were made.

And for none of us was it heavenly revelation. No matter how much you believe.

Rashomon. America needs you.