I won't accept "post-truth"

The Bible cautions against repeating gossip in a several different places. In Romans, Paul writes a list of sins and problems caused by people’s turning away from God’s law. The list of sins includes gossips and slanderers (Romans 1:29b-32). There is a reference to gossipers who say things they should not in 1 Timothy (5:12-13). And there are several different sayings about the dangers of gossip in Proverbs. The main point of these teachings is that repeating false information can be damaging to the community and that wisdom involves discretion about when to keep silent and not pass on false information.

My mother’s father practiced as an attorney in Montana in the early decades of the 20th century. He was, as they said, a stickler for the truth. He believed in the power of words to accomplish good and to do evil. He asserted that the legal system of our country is based on telling the truth and that care had to be taken to discern who was telling the truth and who was passing on a lie. That high regard for the truth was passed on to his daughters. I learned as a very young child that I was expected to tell the truth and that passing on information that was false was wrong regardless of the source. If I came home from school with a rumor, it was quickly checked out to determine its accuracy. When it was false, I heard about it in no uncertain terms.

As a result it is distressing for me to read the words of the pundits who are describing our current situation as life in a “post truth society.” Wikipedia now has an entry on post-truth politics. Ralph Keyes has written a book called, “The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life.” In the book he argues that post-truth is beyond lies, it is the abandonment of a standard of truth. He also observes the basic concept that my grandfather argued so many years ago: a lack of truth erodes the foundation of trust that underlies a healthy civilization.

Much has been said and written about the role of social media in this pandemic of dishonesty. Recently I have also seen a few proposals for technological innovations to address the issue. Software that does an automatic fact check on an item before allowing it to be posted might be helpful, for I am sure that some of the passing on of direct misinformation and lies is the result of not knowing the truth. People pass on the stories that they want to be true without checking to see whether or not they are true. I’m all in favor of the development of those technologies, but the technologies that we do have already make it pretty easy to discover the truth if one simply takes time to check out a rumor before spreading it. What seems to happen is that people see something on Facebook and pass it on without any attempt to discern its truthfulness. “Like” and “dislike” seem to the the only standards of that particular media.

In our contemporary society there seems to be little penalty for passing on false information and very little reward for truthfulness. Getting caught with a drafted branch of the family tree, an unearned college degree, or a nonexistent award in one’s resume seems to be simply par for the course instead of a black mark that will affect one’s future employment. Passing on a blatantly false rumor is viewed as an acceptable political technique instead of cheating.

I hope to hold myself to a higher standard. I am not very active in social media circles to begin with, but I’ve resolved to simply refuse to pass on information that comes in e-mail, is posted on Facebook or appears as a Tweet unless I have done some independent fact checking. Mostly I simply don’t pass on the information, even if it is a cute story and even if the request of the sender reads like an old fashioned chain letter. Promising me blessing for sharing this with my friends or threatening a curse for not doing so is a pretty sure way to get me to move the story into my trash bin.

The problem is so evasive and such a threat to honest society, however, that I think I will need to go a step farther. Just as I am attempting to address the issue in this blog post, I intend to be more vocal in my challenges to false information and to call others to speak and convey the truth. When I discover obvious falsehood in the posts and comments of others, I have tended to be silent and simply not respond. That may not be good enough in a society that is threatened by this plague of gossip and lies. Being silent may be viewed as acceptance of the practice.

It can be tedious and it will probably annoy some of my friends, but the time has come for me to speak out for the truth and I hope that you will join me. When we observe obvious lies, let’s let the senders know that we are aware of the truth. Beyond that, I intend to ask people to stop passing on misinformation and lies. I’ll probably be unfriended by some of those who currently have me on their list of friends. On the other hand, an acquaintance made by sending a request over Facebook isn’t really the same thing as an actual friend. I’ve never paid attention to how many “friends” I have on Facebook and I don’t accept friend requests from people that I haven't met in person. As a result, my impact on that particular media is minimal and I don’t expect to change the way it passes on misinformation.

Still, I think it is important to take a stand for what is true and to hold the other people in our community to a higher standard than is currently the norm.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!