Truth is dead

Ruminations on the role of honesty in preserving democracy and the world

By Dick Sonnichsen
Reader Contributor

There is a pernicious, frustrating phenomenon sweeping across America: a disturbing escalation in the disingenuous manner we communicate with each other — a truth famine. Truthful discussion between rational individuals is decaying and may perish if meaningful change is not soon instituted. “Truth” has become subject to individual manipulation. Yet, truth is the only tool we have to describe reality. Reality just is and doesn’t care if we acknowledge it or not. 

The boundaries between truth and untruth have always been elusive. Yet, reality exists independent of human thought and individual interpretation. Truth can only be arrived at by observation, experimentation and rational evaluation. On the other hand, falsehoods are a complex tapestry of emotion, environment, education and political orientation. America’s future is in jeopardy if we do not quickly begin to honestly communicate with each other and employ our collective imaginations and ingenuity to solve thorny social problems. 

Today’s cultural wars — and the lies with which they are fought — have brought the nation to a political and social impasse. Our current political discourse is polarized by deception, distortion and outright falsehoods. Our politicians are notoriously agile at sophistry. The ideal purpose of politics is to improve the well-being of a citizenry and increase opportunities to share in the prosperity pie. 

There is a troubling elasticity in the way words are used in public discourse. We have become frightened of truth and retreated into a cul-de-sac of denial and ignorance, accepting fictions as truth. Many Americans find comfort and satisfaction in an alternate universe where simplistic bromides, superficial babble and excursions into fantasyland substitute for facts. 

There appear to be no negative consequences for using untruths or falsifying reality. “Truth” has become mutable, and available in many varieties: untruths, falsehoods, lies, quasi-truths, half-truths, distortions, misrepresentations, hogwash, claptrap, nonsense, baloney and bullshit. The flimsiest evidence supporting our favorite idea is accepted uncritically. Evidence is not critically evaluated but deliberately misinterpreted to confirm a preexisting belief. 

Truth is the lubricant that keeps the engine of democracy running efficiently — lies jeopardize its effective functionality. American democracy is spiraling into a rabbit hole of polarization and dysfunction. If liberal democracy is to survive, then some agreement on what constitutes democracy must be agreed upon. Writing in The Hedgehog Review, Oct., 23, 2019, Sophia Rosenfeld, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, defines the criteria: “Conventional wisdom has it that for democracy to work, it is essential that we — the citizens — agree in some minimal way about what reality looks like. We are not, of course, all required to think the same way about big questions, or believe the same things, or hold the same values; in fact, it is expected that we won’t. But somehow or other, we need to have acquired some very basic, shared understanding about what causes what, what’s broadly desirable, what’s dangerous and how to characterize what’s already happened.” 

The internet is a plague of dubious information, effortlessly spewing questionable content like a virus, infecting everyone. Social media platforms provide a hyperabundant smorgasbord of distorted ideas, biased opinions, warped ideologies, fantasies and distorted political platitudes that galvanize fringe thinkers into confused and sometimes violent action. Lies about vaccination extended the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Denial of global warming, in spite of overwhelming evidence that it is real, may hasten the extinction of human life. Outrageous assertions, brazen schemes and preposterous conspiracy claims go unchallenged by an intellectually impoverished citizenry. 

A comprehensive education is expected to prepare a person to function in the world, equipping students to read content closely, think critically, evaluate sources, and apply sound reasoning and judgments. It is a mistake to deprive young people of complete knowledge by avoiding or misrepresenting reality. Withholding information about how the world works results in an incomplete education. 

There is a schism between educators who believe children should be taught our authentic history, the effects of war, the essentials of sex and the realities of the natural world, and those who would withhold these facts. Educators are being pressured not to teach materials or truths that might be stressful or make students uncomfortable. Wrong-headed instruction impedes children’s ability to thoughtfully evaluate information and make reasoned decisions. A complete education should furnish students with all available information and critical thinking skills for evaluating that information. 

Before the current generations, the world belonged to someone else. We should respect, enjoy and understand their accomplishments. After we’re gone, the world will again belong to someone else. We are only temporary residents and have a moral obligation not to mess up democracy or the planet on which we live. The damage done by dishonesty cannot be understated. Truth is a core value in a democracy. It must be restored and preserved.

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