The news lately is full of phrases like “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “post-truth America.”
Charges of corruption, lying, stupidity and more fly in all directions, much of it politically motivated — but much of it also warranted. We seem to traffic in perception, not in truth. Who we “trust” (I use the term loosely) seems to depend more on our prior political commitments than on actual veracity.
I sometimes feel like I have whiplash watching people drop arguments they were making a second ago to argue the exact opposite, because now the argument works against them. My Facebook feed is sometimes a cesspool of competing fictions.
It’s getting worse, but this was not new in 2016 and 2017. (And honestly, it’s a bit much hearing the people who have for decades sold us moral relativism and postmodernism complaining about it now.)
I’m sure it wasn’t new even in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court gave us the most grotesque of contemporary alternative facts in declaring against all reason and science that an unborn human being is not a person. Post-truth America and four decades of fake news later, most people continue to make their peace with it, even though at some level they must surely know it for the lie that it is.
The litany of examples is endless. We recall some by their euphemisms — “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “marriage equality.” Some are associated with phrases uttered by politicians and burned in the national memory — “if you like your health care plan, you keep your health care plan,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” “read my lips.”
This is the sort of thing that wearies me, weighs on me, outrages me, depresses me. (I am probably a born journalist.) In the midst of it, I find myself going back often to a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas that is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another.”
It would be easy to pass over that sentence as if it were a platitude or maybe even a pious exaggeration, but when you stop and think about it, this is a profound truth.
In Christian anthropology — our understanding, based on faith and reason, of the nature of a human person — we are social creatures. We don’t just live together by accident; we’re made for that. We are born into a particular family and neighborhood, and certain relationships are givens for us. We are mutually dependent on each other. We have duties toward each other. We are in this thing together, by design.
What St. Thomas is pointing out is that in addition to all the other reasons we might give for why lying is bad — that it’s against the Ten Commandments, that it’s an injustice, that it’s a failure to love, that it mocks the whole purpose of our faculty of speech — there is one more: It breaks our common life. Without trust and the honesty upon which it depends, that whole complex web of relationships and duties and dependencies begins to come apart.
Honesty and trust are among the necessary ingredients for us to make friends with each other, build strong families, do business together, serve together, teach each other, support each other, pursue justice and all the rest.
From the most intimate family relationships to international politics to the most trivial encounters, like buying gum at the gas station, a whole web of trust binds it together.
When trust begins to break down across a society, when we begin to become so cynical that even speaking of honesty feels like a naive Sunday school lesson out in the “real world,” that to me suggests a civilizational crisis.
Suppose we could not trust elected officials to mean what they say and follow the law and keep their promises. Suppose we could not trust that police will treat people of different races equally. Suppose we could not trust judges to rule on important social issues based on the law rather than on their personal policy preferences. Suppose we could not trust schools to teach students the true, the good and the beautiful. Suppose we could not trust journalists to report certain issues in a fair way. Suppose we could not trust those we disagree with to have a good-faith conversation.
Wouldn’t that be a society in trouble?
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that for every one of those scenarios there are large groups of people who believe, rightly or wrongly, that we’re living that today. In fact, it’s not just America. A recent survey called the Edelman Trust Barometer revealed what was described as a “global implosion of trust,” finding that trust in business, government, NGOs and media had broadly declined.
Needless to say, in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal, this confronts us in the church in much the same way.
These institutions generally don’t go away. Newspapers still get put out, widgets get made and sold, judges rule on court cases, laws get passed. The institutions just become hollow and feckless, unable to be effective in serving the common good in the way they are meant to.
So what can we do? Obviously each of us have limited power to fix this problem. We cannot pretend real problems don’t exist.
But we can live in the truth ourselves. We can stop tearing down our institutions by getting all the facts before we condemn and not being content with denouncing what is wrong in them but also participate in rebuilding them and reminding ourselves of their important meaning and purpose.
Most of all, we can, by God’s grace, speak and act with integrity and be people of truth ourselves, knowing that it is the truth that sets us free.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.