Skip to main content

The Death of Truth

No one enters suit justly;
      no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
      they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
They hatch adders' eggs;
      they weave the spider's web;
he who eats their eggs dies,
      and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
Their webs will not serve as clothing;
      men will not cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
      and deeds of violence are in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
      and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
      desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
      and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked;
      no one who treads on them knows peace.

Therefore justice is far from us,
      and righteousness does not overtake us;
we hope for light, and behold, darkness,
      and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
Justice is turned back,
      and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
      and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
      and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

(Isaiah 59:4-9, 14-15a)

Oxford Dictionaries' word of 2015 was the "face with tears of joy" emoji. Well, I don't know about joy, but there's been tears and incredulous laughter enough in 2016, on both sides of the Atlantic. After the fabrications, distortions, disdain for expertise and appeals to emotion which characterised the Brexit campaign as well as the run up to the presidential election, the US and UK dictionary committees were again in agreement about this year's word: "post-truth".

The headlines at the moment, if they can be believed – it is increasingly in question to what extent we can trust even 'mainstream' outlets – are all about the role of fake news in the election outcome. Clinton is the ring-leader of an underground paedophilia ring; she sold weapons to ISIS; an FBI agent implicated in the email leaks was found dead in a suspected murder/suicide ... Meanwhile, the Pope himself came out in decisive support of Trump, even going so far as to forbid Catholics from voting for Clinton.

Many of these stories trace their origins to alt- (read 'far-') right message boards; they are harvested and converted into clickbait "news" items by (e.g.) politically-disinterested teens in lower-wage countries working for websites looking to make a quick buck from advertising revenue. Other stories were allegedly seeded by a Russian propaganda operation. Once the content is out there, web 'bots' (automated software designed to impersonate human accounts) help to launch it on social media and boost its visibility. Eventually, the credulity, dark curiosity, and wish-fulfilment thinking of real human users kick in to ensure broad spread and acceptance.

Analysis suggests that the most popular of these fake items received more attention (as measured by Facebook engagement) than the most popular output from 'reliable' (whatever that means these days) sources in the three months immediately previous to the election. This has led to heated debate around the extent to which social media platforms should be held responsible for the unchecked circulation of dubious material. Should Facebook, for example, intervene to flag 'dodgy' news sources? The moral delicacy, often subjectivity, of decisions about truth – not to mention the power inherent in the role of editorial gate-keeper – make such 'solutions' arguably no less undesirable than the problem itself. Ultimately, of course, we all need to acquire habits of appropriate suspicion, and learn to source-check before we share. (A year ago I might have joked that maybe I needed to unacquire at least some of my suspicion. Now, I fear I don't have half enough).

Devastatingly, stories that were not fake news include – alongside Trump's admissions of sexual assault, his defrauding of thousands of real estate students, his entertainment of the idea of forcing Muslims to be registered, his propagation of bizarre conspiracy theories about Obama's 'true' nationality, his persistent denial of climate change, and his links to alt- (read 'far-') right activists – the endorsement (with varying degrees of overtness) of numerous high-profile white evangelicals, culminating in an 81 percent vote in Trump's favour by the community that they serve.

It seems (to me, at least – panicked self-doubt notwithstanding) that key influencers of the US white evangelical church have submitted to be willing cogs in Trump's powerful propaganda machine ... cogs that I can't help but feel were together forceful enough to have turned events in quite the opposite direction, had they seen fit. They have watched as "Truth has stumbled in the public squares" ... and they have, seemingly, helped to trip it up.

My stomach knots at some of the messages that look to have gained purchase among Trump's Christian support base – a few of which I've even heard repeated on the lips of Christians in the UK. Clinton is a "godless witch" (is that what we're calling practising Methodists these days?) while Trump has been recently born again (I can't not hope he has, but the way he has spoken about his (non) need for forgiveness suggests a few short cuts along the "Romans Road" usually celebrated by evangelicals); Clinton is a coldhearted killer (i.e. having examined the evidence she came to the conclusion that less access to abortion doesn't contribute to a more just society) while Trump is a protector of life (i.e. having examined the numbers he came to the conclusion that he needed the Evangelical vote to win the election); Clinton is a criminal more fitted for jail than the White House (apparently the sequel story didn't play as well on Facebook as the earlier episodes) while Trump is a penitent entitled to Christian forgiveness (that's funny, I was always taught that "sorry means trying not to do it again"). Clinton literally smells of sulphur, but by all means hold your nose to vote for "the candidate Christians will at least have a voice with" (mentioning no names, of course; Franklin Graham has a duty to the non-partisan nature of the foundation which pays him so generously).

The position caricaturised by these examples may seem patently absurd to me, but I haven't had to live in its echo chamber. I undoubtedly have my own echo chamber though ... my own social networks of like-minded people, my own Google-tracked web history informing the tailoring of future search results and news feeds to ensure that I'm never exposed to any truth-claim or opinion I don't already know and approve ... and all of the terrifying self-reinforcing bias and blindspots it brings with it. One of the most dismal and shocking aspects of the Brexit referendum for many (on both sides) was the way it exposed the extent to which there was a 'Them' around about as big as 'Us', and that it had been so long since we talked we'd forgotten the other existed. Sadly, the ongoing atmosphere of resentment over the outcome and the outworking of it hardly sets a friendly scene for re-initiating contact.

Propaganda, clickbait, chat bots, echo chambers, self-interested mainstream media outlets and a flagrantly dishonest president-elect with authoritarian leanings who is not above seeking to intimidate and/or buy the press (nor is alone in that willing among other political actors and/or wealth-holders worldwide)... How can we ever hope to begin to unpick what is true and what isn't? And does it actually matter ... or would we be better off asking other questions ... like what is good, or what works for me ... what produces the best result, or does the least damage, or gets me through another day ... Isn't everything, after all, like the postmodernists have it ... isn't everything relative?

What is truth? For all that technology and world events make this question seem very current, it is far from being a new one. Someone once famously asked it of Jesus – rhetorically, bitterly (at least, so I read it) – as he, in his role as Roman governor of Judea, grappled with what to 'do' with this apparently innocent man accused by an insistent mob (see John 18:38). Perhaps if Pilate had waited for an answer Jesus would have repeated the same wild statement he earlier made to his disciples: "I am the truth" (see John 14:6). All of a sudden, truth is introduced, not as an abstract concept, but a person. A person conceived in a womb who was born and grew through childhood and puberty and walked the earth and ate and slept and joked and cried and healed and taught and stood for justice, mercy and compassion ... dignifying the marginalised and wielding power over matter, weather, demons, sickness, death and yet restraining himself in perfect and complete humility ... a person who loved with every fibre of his complex and uncommon being and said "you do likewise" (John 13:33-34). Truth is a person who confused, outraged, intimidated and offended ... who held sway with multitudes and socialised with outcasts and denounced the status quo, dishonouring traditions and attracting the authorities' censorious attention ... who urgently had to be stopped lest everyone believe in him and every cherished aspect of their culture and position be destroyed and seized by their ungodly occupiers (John 11:45-53).

But Pilate wasn't listening for that answer ... and although he attempted to advocate for Jesus, in whom he could "find no guilt", and by whom he was made rather nervous, he was eventually worn down: by the balance of popular opinion, by pressure from community spokespeople, acting on fabricated and distorted accusations, by appeals to his loyalty to Caesar and by insinuations about his own career prospects. In the end, the 'truth' that Pilate settled for was the pragmatic reality that the consequences of sentencing Jesus would be far more pleasant to live with than the consequences of releasing him.

So Truth was taken out and mocked in public view, paraded, stumbling under the weight of a heavy wooden cross; the friends of Truth concealed themselves, and held their tongues, afraid to make themselves a prey; they watched as things which once belonged to Truth were divvied up for profit; Truth was strung up as a blasphemy, and left to die; the world was plunged in darkness at the death of Truth, while those who'd sought that end congratulated one other; Truth was buried in the dim and silence of a cave and guarded to avoid a scandal.

But Truth will out, they say...

[Thumbnail image cc from We Are Social on Flickr.]