As the doctors and scientists struggle to contain the coronavirus, there has been confusion and disinformation coming out of the White House. And still the partisanship and polarization regarding truth continues.
They say this is a post-truth era. But the truth is that human beings have never really been fond of truth. When was the “truth era,” exactly? During the “good” old days of racism, sexism, and colonialism? And what about the long history of religious superstition and scientific ignorance? Truth has usually been in short supply.
Given the long history of untruth, it is not really surprising that the Washington Post reports that President Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office three years ago. He is not the first liar to live in the White House, only the greatest. The President, of course, claims that the Post is fake news.
But so what? We’ve got other things to worry about. For many of us, life is good. We’ve got smartphones and Youtube, Instagram and all-star games. The consumer society is pleasant. We even get a perverse thrill watching the outrage flow from Washington.
Or at least we did, before the coronavirus. Maybe we are ready to return to truth, to a view that is informed by science instead of partisan spin.
But let’s face it, when it comes to truth, we mostly don’t care. If you put together a wish list of the things you want in life, would truth make the list? My guess is that for most people, truth would not make the list. We are mostly content to live with white lies, unproven superstitions, and unfounded ideologies. Very few feel compelled to challenge powerful lies or the lies of the powerful.
It is not that truth is somehow weaker than falsehood. Rather, the issue is that truth and falsehood are usually less important to us than other things. Mostly we want love, friendship, money, and peace of mind. A few idealistic people want justice or universal harmony.
But even the idealists will accept a few lies on their way to utopia. Many people are simply not motivated by the love of truth. And others subordinate the love of truth to their love of other things.
I have been thinking about truth, while re-reading Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless,” which is about dissent under totalitarianism. Havel was a Czech dissident. He was imprisoned for his views. But he went on to become the President of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia.
Havel advocates for living within the truth. But he explains how easy it is to live within a lie. While his focus is on Soviet-bloc totalitarianism, he offers a prescient warning about the combination of totalitarianism and consumerism. Over forty years ago, in 1978, he called out “the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption” fueled by advertising and a “flood of information.”
He also understood that most people simply play along with the prevailing ideology. Under old-school totalitarian regimes, the dissidents were jailed, tortured, and worse. But Havel points out that mostly, people play along because everyone else is playing along. We find a sense of belonging and purpose in joining with others under an ideological umbrella.
Havel explains, ideology as “a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use.”
This explains much about the power of partisanship and the failure of truth to capture our attention. We sense that life is out of balance. But rather than confronting our dis-ease directly, we retreat to a familiar ideology and find comfort within it. Truth is irrelevant when what we seek is security and a sense of belonging.
But Havel also gives us hope. At some point, people simply stop playing along. They stop repeating the party line. Someone points out that the emperor has no clothes on. And soon those who played along look like fools. Living within a lie only works if the lie is universally accepted.
The voices and symbolic gestures of the dissidents draw attention to the lies. Those dissidents will be punished, attacked, and suppressed. But in the long run, Havel’s own story reminds us that there is hope that the dissident can disrupt the system with the power of truth. And the present crisis reminds us that truth is often a matter of life and death.