The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” was “Post-truth.” The definition of post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This word was an apt choice in a year when we, the people, were asked to believe many different conflicting narratives about the world. However, the world has actually been in a “post-truth” phase for much longer.
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”
This exchange found in John 18:37-38 is certainly not the first instance of relativism in human history, but it is one of the most striking. It compels us to think about whether we find ourselves in the position of Jesus, speaking up for the truth, or in the place of Pilate, questioning the existence of truth.
At the end of the day, there is an objective answer to the questions and speculations surrounding the many truth claims flying back and forth across the political aisle and throughout the news media. Simple labels of “fake news” cannot fully capture the extent of the “truth problem,” nor can the vehement objections that someone who speaks his or her mind without a filter is “speaking the truth.” That being said, we are at a crisis point in understanding how to discern truth, and a “How-to-spot-fake-news” primer risks missing the much bigger point of the “post-truth” political crisis.
In American politics today, there are several significant roots to the problem of truth-telling. Three are especially worth focusing our energy on. These are ideology, or the set of ideals which motivates particular entities and their audiences either to explicitly choose or to focus in on their definition(s) of truth, power, or the ability to promote truths based on positions of privilege, and integrity, the presence or absence of which almost always determines whether or not the burden of objective truth will outweigh the allure of ideology and power.
People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election. – Otto von Bismarck
Ideology is more than a Democratic or Republican view of the world. It isn’t limited to the tug between large and small government, higher or lower taxes or the amount of American involvement in international affairs. When it comes to truth-telling about American politics, ideology defines narratives, adding or omitting key facts for the sake of promoting a certain viewpoint. How often do we read Fox News articles focusing only on the potential security threat posed by refugees or CNN articles on the subject of immigration that deliberately ignore the existence of some violent criminals among the population of undocumented persons? In the formal two-party system (the Republican and Democratic Parties) and the informal two-party system (the media), truth is a nice, supplemental factor in the course of telling a story, not an indispensable part of conveying facts to the public. Moreover, the public brings its own ideologies to bear when determining truth. In short, both the storytellers and their audience examine the world through pre-conceived worldviews; thus truth is slanted however it to be for either production or consumption.
It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise. – Joseph Goebbels
Power gives wing to ideology. In an era of overwhelming media saturation, replete with the phenomena of internet news and social media, stories have to be promoted in order to be heard. Which stories get told depends on the status of the storytellers. A media mammoth such as CNN or Foxnews, for example, can easily shove an independent investigative journalism team into the corner, while these large networks promote what they believe to be the most important news. Public officials can use the tools of government, such as the FCC, or their relationships with media organizations, public relations firms, or even internet search engines to promote or subvert key stories. Powerful corporations and their legal advisers can arrange to have their versions of stories told – all for the right price. Unlike in the case of ideology, where the citizenry can bring their own worldviews to bear as they read narratives, the role of power in story-telling leaves the masses of ordinary people completely out of the picture. The single mother on food stamps, the elderly man in the VA system, or the wrongly accused juvenile awaiting trial for the crime he didn’t commit all live under the system where the power-driven narrative sits as king. They cannot voice their dissent since they have no power.
A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people. – President John F. Kennedy
Integrity challenges both ideology and power in the realm of storytelling, for unlike these two too-oft twisted players, it is concerned with the real truth. It crosses over lines of politics and faith, breaks through barriers of race, ethnicity, and gender, and resists unholy motivations for the sake of doing what is right, not for the sake of gaining more power or for the sake of fitting a particular narrative, but because doing what is right is the ultimate story. There is a moral compass ingrained in us as human beings, reminding us that there is a “right thing” to do, even though so often we resist the pull of that moral compass. Why else should we celebrate when we witness remarkable acts of courage to tell the truth no matter the political consequences, the media fallout, or the public perception? Why do we celebrate the victories of Woodward and Bernstein in exposing the Watergate Scandal or the remarkable investigate work of the Suddeutsche Zeitung in bringing to light The Panama Papers? And on the other hand, why else should we grimace at the collaboration between Hillary Clinton and major media outlets to discredit Bernie Sanders or the constant aggression of Donald Trump towards the press, whether labeling them as “fake news” or giving them “alternative facts”?
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14
We long for the truth because we were created for the truth. Time and again, we will find ourselves disappointed by the story-tellers in chief because their allegiance to ideology and power tugs them away from their God-given moral compasses and its urging of them to act in integrity. Our world will continually tell us that the truth is relative, that it is what you make of it, or that knowing the truth is too painful. Like Pilate, our society’s storytellers live under the illusion that the many versions of truth they tell will satisfy their desire to be in control. But as followers of Jesus, we know that the truth will set us free (John 8:31-32).