WHY THE TRUTH IS OUT OF FASHION
The fashion for believing irreconcilable truths is taking its toll, making us prey to the most powerful, insistent or shameless
What should we make of the whole notion of post-truth politics today? The website PolitFact has found that almost 70 percent of Donald Trump’s facts actually fall into categories of ‘mostly false’, ‘false’ or ‘pants on fire’. Trump may be in the vanguard of post-truth politics with a relentlessly aggressive rhetoric designed to bully people into believing him, but he is not alone and the chances are he will be followed by others.
The use of the prefix ‘post’ usually says as much about the author’s desire to get noticed by saying something trendy and arresting as it does about the issue itself. After all, why say post-truth when you could just say someone is lying? Yet there is something sinisterly appropriate about its use. Lies no longer exist; we seem to be moving beyond tiresome binary distinctions.
Where is this all coming from? Post-modernism may have laid the philosophical foundation for a fast and loose relationship with the truth. The huge, binding ideologies which imposed themselves on the twentieth century – fascism and communism - coerced truth and subjected people to unyielding controls on their lives. A backlash was inevitable but the subsequent retreat from any kind of objective truth has diminished our shared life and values.
This retreat has been accelerated by information technology. So many voices are competing for our attention and people have so little time to choose between them that the moral commitment to establishing truth has become tarnished by weariness. We also tend to listen more carefully to people and arguments we agree with, making us more prone to error because our mind inoculates itself against alien views. In this way, public conversation is weakened and we become prey to alluring lies.
The role of expert opinion has been reduced. Appeals to emotion hold more power than appeals to reason and there are so many people, bodies and institutions claiming our attention that it is hard to know where to turn, especially when these bodies disagree with one another. This is sometimes worsened by the television news, where commitments to balance mean that both sides of an argument can expect to be aired, even where one may verge on the absurd.
The growing fashion for holding irreconcilable truths without embarrassment or discomfort is taking its toll. For one, it breaks the vital link between belief and conduct. If two beliefs contradict each other and we claim both, we can choose which to act on, depending on how we feel. Or we can ignore the moral imperative altogether. The causal link between belief and conduct is breaking down and strong currents of this are causing some turbulence in the Church itself, where it is possible the call to personal transformation has become more muted.
The other risk of believing things which don’t add up is to make truth prey to the most powerful, insistent or shameless. We naturally assume truth has an inherent, durable power, but when human beings interpret it, they are subject to a whole range of pressures which influence their judgment. Truth is more fragile than it appears.
The mission of the Church has been affected by these changes. In the modern era, great emphasis was placed on the rationality and plausibility of faith, based on the evidence of history. In evangelism, the resurrection was subjected to different scenarios as a way of leading people logically towards the truth; so too, the conversion of Saul. All this feels very twentieth century now. While the preference for personal experience in today’s culture allows all to tell their story – a development to be cherished – Christian testimony has always sought to be rooted in the evidence of history.
In our search for meaning in life, we are, if anything, pre-truth. Jesus claims to be the truth. So the truth is ultimately personal. It’s just not subjective.
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