My son is at an age where he is able to quickly complete the calculus “is it better to tell the truth or tell a story based on ‘alternative facts’”. He is clearly surrounded by messages in the media that suggest that it is prudent for him to evaluate whether truth can be modified to serve his agenda. He is learning from our political leaders that truth may be more transitory than he has been led to believe by his parents, teachers, and clergy. To cite an example, a conversation between us may sound exactly like this:
Dad: “How was school today?”
Son: “Did you get an email from my teacher?”
Dad: “I don’t know, I haven’t had time to check>"
Son: “Great. It was a great day.”
Dad: “Excellent. I am looking forward to reading her email and hearing how well you did. What did you learn today.”
Son: “Wait. What? I thought you said she didn’t send an email.”
Dad: “I don’t know if she sent one or not. But, it shouldn’t matter, right? You said your day went great. I assume you mean everything was fine. Did you mean something else?”
Son: “Oh. I mean, ‘everything’ was great . . . Except, I may have had a hard time paying attention in Science.”
Dad: “That can happen. As long as you weren’t disruptive to the class or disrespectful to your teacher.”
Son: “Well. I may have been a little bit disruptive, but that was only because this other kid was bugging me. But, that’s it.”
Dad: “You sure? Is that all that happened?”
Son: “Yes. That is all that happened that was my fault. The rest of it was his fault.”
Dad: “Exactly what happened today?”
Son: “Let’s wait to see if you get an email from my teacher.”
Dad: “I think I would rather hear it from you.”
Son: “I think I would rather wait.”
I understand that my son is exploring the boundaries of truth versus expediency. We have all been on a similar journey at one time or another in our own lives. I know he is well equipped for his journey into the boundaries of truth. He definitely knows “right from wrong”. He learned to distinguish the two at a young age and he can be relied upon to get to the right side of a moral question given enough time, opportunity, and motivation. That isn’t the issue. The issue, or his current challenge, is that he is developing his personal philosophy of truth. He is learning how far he can – or should -- advance his own agenda in the face of inconvenient facts. What he does not yet know is that how he resolves this tension between truth and self-interest will define his character for the rest of his life. In this regard, I see a parallel. Our nation is on a similar exploration regarding the boundaries of truth in public discourse.
When I turn on the news or catch an article on the internet, my conversation with my son seems eerily similar to the conversations the press is having with our political leaders. Our political leaders seem to be exploring, and pushing, the boundaries of truth before our eyes. Like my son, they also seem to have a different relationship with the truth if they are confronted with facts that do not support their assertions. Like my son, they are evaluating how likely they are to get caught in a falsehood. When caught in the falsehood, they do not admit the error, they choose to parse meanings or challenge whether the facts are actually facts. Unfortunately, I am no more forgiving of their efforts to suggest that truth is transitory than I am tolerant of my son’s current penchant for alternative facts. I reject the notion that truth is malleable. I reject the attempts by shills to dupe us into believing that facts can have alternative meanings. This is an absurd assertion and a repudiation of the basic tenets upon which Western Civilization has flourished. Truth may be difficult to ascertain, but that does not mean truth can manifest itself in multiple guises from a single set of facts.
Truth and ideology are in opposition only when ideology tries to usurp truth. Ideology, by definition, is not truth. Ideology is aspirational. It defines how we would like the world around us to be. Ideology is our repository for how we wish to organize society to improve our relationship with our world and the people with whom we share it. Truth describes the world around us as it is, or as it has been. Truth is determined by careful examination of facts. Truth is revealed when multiple observers examine the same set of facts and reach the same conclusion. Beware of anyone who claims to know the truth, but refuses to hold up their observations and examination of the facts to the scrutiny of others.
I readily concede that the search for truth has one major deficiency: human beings. What is often asserted as fact is merely the result of tricks of persuasion and false syllogisms. Truth is different. It is rooted in the shared knowledge and experience of humankind. Long ago, our forebears created mechanisms to discern the differences between truth and ideology. They knew that human beings were the weak link in the chain to truth, but they developed the best tools currently available to us to arrive at the truth.
Socratic Method. Trial by Jury. Universities. Scientific Method. Checks and Balances. The Fourth Estate. Peer Review. All of the proceeding tools are mechanisms Western Civilization has invented to arrive at a shared meaning and identification of the truth. All of these methods have at some point been employed to defend individuals and societies from the tyranny of ideology and the oppression of ideologues. Throughout history extremists have tried to equate ideology with truth, or advance their ideology by obfuscating truth. Evil leaders have tried to demonstrate the inferiority of different races. Truth prevailed. Misguided clergy attested that disease of the body and mind was caused by demonic possession. Truth prevailed. The earth was considered a flat disc around which the Sun and cosmos revolved. Truth prevailed. Monarchs were considered divine beings among us. Truth, again, prevailed. Truth is under threat, again, in many facets of society. Truth is receiving stiff competition from ideologues who are trying to advance ideology and self-interest with distortion of facts. But, as President John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Truth, will ultimately prevail in this regard, too.
Truth and ideology are harmonious when we understand the boundaries and purpose of each. But, we must be careful to never confuse the two. When an ideologue purports to have a better or different understanding of truth than society has demonstrated through Socratic Method, trial by jury, university research, scientific method, investigative journalism, government checks and balances, and peer reviewed analysis of facts, then it is time to sound the alarm and be vigilant of our rights, liberties, and well-being. Ideology that requires a revision of the truth is not designed to advance the human condition for us all. It is directed to improving the lives of its adherents; who will sacrifice truth to advance their self-interested ideology regardless of harm to others. I am confident that my son will learn that Truth is the better path. I hope that humankind will, too.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik