The Evaporation of Truth

Everyone agrees that public discussion has become divorced from reality. On the hard left people talk about capitalist propaganda, while the soft left, including most respectable journalists, complains about conspiracy theories, truthiness, fake news, and the post-truth era. At the same time, conservatives protest media omissions, distortions, falsehoods, and narratives, while the far right grabs attention by speaking of the Lügenpresse (“lying press”), which is not specifically a rightwing expression but in America counts as Nazi.

It’s not just a problem with political discussion. In corporate management, appearances rule. The sciences suffer from a replication crisis, in which publications promote careers but fail to present reliable results. In academic discourse influential theories reduce truth to narratives representing competing political interests. And in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, important acts and omissions of the pope downplay truth in favor of a questionable version of mercy that fits smoothly into destructive and immensely powerful secular trends.

Everyone agrees, with a few honorable exceptions, that it’s the other guys who are causing the problem and their complaints are bogus. If you don’t buy into the mainstream media narrative, you’re a conspiracy theorist. If you point out problems with Donald Trump, you’re a Hillary supporter who hates America and wants to destroy the Church. If you think something’s amiss in our intellectual life, including science, you’re a know-nothing yahoo and maybe a “denier.” And if you publicly ask His Holiness a few questions, phrased in clear and respectful terms, you’re an apostate who needs to be ignored so the Church can move on.

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The scope of the problem tells us it’s not some particular group of people who are causing it. All sorts are joining in, so much so that many influential people are betraying their callings as journalists, scholars, citizens, and Catholics. It’s evident our civilization has a truth problem from top to bottom.

But has it always been so? Man’s relation to truth has always been ambiguous. A Russian proverb tells us that “one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world,” but not everyone wants truth to prevail. Kipling notes that “truth is seldom friend to any crowd,” so it’s not surprising determined skeptics find ways to evade its authority, and many agree with Plato that it can be socially useful to lie about fundamental issues. Even so, until recently the most hardened cynic would have recognized the wisdom of Mark Twain’s injunction to “get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” After all, if you’re going to lie, aren’t you better off knowing where you’re lying and might run into complications?

Not in the current view. To all appearances, many people have genuinely stopped believing in truth, or at least come to believe it becomes inoperative when that’s what’s wanted. But why, and what can be done about it?

Solzhenitsyn came to accept the explanation he had heard from old people for the disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” The same explanation applies to truth: the concept of God lets us refer everything to an ultimate reality that is what it is, knows what’s what, and requires our adherence on pain of eternal separation from the truth that is the goal of all we are. Without God nothing can be settled because there is no ultimate context of interpretation. It follows that one interpretation is eventually as good as another, and anything can be made into anything. That’s not just theory: for detailed practical applications, consult any lawyer, salesman, political operative, or up-to-date scholar.

One result is magical thinking. If objects are indeterminate, because there is no privileged interpretation of what they are, then conformity of word and object—the definition of truth—can only come about through conformity of the object to the word. In other words, truth means that things become what we say they are. That’s why today there is my truth, your truth, the pope’s truth, his predecessors’ truth, and the truth of TV news. Who of us can judge among them?

The Internet aids the tendency by disintegrating everything into images and sound bites that can be picked through and assembled to make anything at all. Magical thinking becomes meme magic, and the world people experience during the hours they spend online—and thus the greater part of what now passes for public and even social life—really does become a social construction.

The result is that the truth of the powerful, who in a progressive age claim to speak for the powerless and shut up dissidents as dangerous oppressors, becomes irrefutable. In other words, ideological thinking triumphs. Such thinking is moralistic but not grounded in the nature of things. It can’t put truth first, so it puts what is wanted first, and tells us that if the right people deny something is so, then it can’t be so. If it’s politically necessary for Planned Parenthood to count as the model of honor and public spirit, then that’s what it is. In a careerist age, the resulting image of the world becomes absolute truth for everyone who matters.

To make matters worse, politics is becoming ever more centralized and global, and also more open-ended, because more aspects of life are subject to political decision. As a result decision-makers increasingly deal with things they don’t understand from personal experience or indeed at all. Since they must decide a myriad of issues they don’t understand they fall back on a simplified scheme of ideas considered necessarily true—on ideology. Whatever the question, ideology tells them what the answer is, and those who disagree need not be answered because rejecting the ideology makes them irredeemably bad people. If you voted for Brexit or believe men and women are different, for example, that means you hate “the other.” Why should anyone listen to you?

The public, of course, doesn’t understand the issues either. For that and other reasons public life today cannot be democratic—how could technocratic global politics be democratic?—but must nonetheless pretend it is to be legitimate. So decision-makers must secure the consent of people who have no grounds but trust to give it and no reason to trust rulers whose thoughts and concerns are so far from their own. The result is that what passes for public life becomes a matter of propaganda, slogans, images, sound bites, spin, and slander, all designed to beat down opposition and engineer consent.

Under such circumstances, who can be surprised by populist rebellions, or by their emergence from the world of reality TV, beauty contests, pro wresting, tabloid journalism, and splashy wealth symbolized by glittery buildings?

A crude rebellion against present-day public life is better than nothing, but Catholics have the resources to do better. To start, we can remember God, who underwrites a conception of truth absolutely independent of what anyone wants it to be. And we can take immediate practical measures: drop out of pop culture and the Twitterverse, achieve independence of thought by reading good books, especially old ones, and think through our own position well enough to argue for it reasonably, with an understanding of how the world looks to those who disagree.

Much more is needed of course. But the problem is the spell now cast by unreality, so the most important point is to recognize the problem, take it seriously, and take the first steps toward dealing with it. Once that is done, the spell is broken and we are already half-way to a solution.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)


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