The Power of Truth

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.

Gandhi, Judgment, and Truth

Fresno Bee, February 14, 2020

One local effort to dig deeper deserves our attention. The “Interfaith Scholar Weekend” (ISW) is an ongoing attempt to think critically about religion. This effort began in 1998. It has grown into an annual crosstown collaboration of religious and educational organizations.

The subject this year is Mahatma Gandhi. From February 21-23, the ISW will host Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, a professor from the University of Illinois. Professor Gandhi will speak at events at Fresno City College, Fresno State, Temple Beth Israel, and Wesley United Methodist Church (the Fresno State Ethics Center is a co-sponsor).

Jim Grant, the ISW chair and director of social justice ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, explained that the Central Valley has a robust and growing interfaith community. He shared stories with me of a number of examples of how people from different local religious communities have worked together to defuse religious tension, injustice, and hate.

The impetus for this year’s visiting scholar is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Gandhi is revered as a “mahatma”—a great soul or saint. Gandhi helped to liberate India. He developed strategies of active nonviolence that were employed in the American Civil Rights movement.

But Gandhi has his critics. Some say he did not speak out forcefully enough about racism and India’s caste system. Others blame him for not preventing the partition of India and ensuing violence among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

In light of this, it is worth noting that local Sikhs and Muslims are among those sponsoring the visit of Gandhi’s grandson. The point of this event is to think critically. What we might learn is that no one is perfect.

Gandhi’s grandson makes this point in his recent book, “Why Gandhi Still Matters,” where he describes his grandfather as a “fallible” man. But he points out that the Mahatma is held to a higher standard. Gandhi is blamed for not overcoming the challenges of his own time and for “not solving all of the problems of our age.” But his grandson reminds us that no one can solve all of our problems. Perfection is too high of a standard.

This message is important, I think, for efforts to develop tolerance. We often give our own preferred saint the benefit of the doubt, while leaping to condemn the heroes of the other side. This is a truism of the history of religious conflict.

It is also a feature of our fractious political life. Some applaud Pelosi. Others cheer on Trump. Some love Rush Limbaugh. Others hate him. Each side vilifies the other.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that nothing straight can be built from the crooked timber of humanity. Gandhi might agree. With regard to religion, the Mahatma said, “I hold that all religions are true but imperfect inasmuch as they are presented through human agency and bear the impress of the imperfections and frailties of the human being.” In simpler terms he explained, “All religions are true; all religions have some error in them.”

The problem, of course, is that we are quick to see the errors in other people’s religions while remaining blind to faults in our own. The solution is to look more carefully, dig more deeply, and think more critically. Gandhi gives us another clue. He said, “I claim no perfection for myself. But I do claim to be a passionate seeker after truth, which is but another name for God.”

We are all flawed. If Gandhi wasn’t perfect, then neither are we. But like him, we can seek truth by trying to learn more, think better, and judge less.

IF YOU GO

The Fresno Interfaith Scholar Weekend will be held Feb. 21-23. The opening event is a free lecture, “Truth in an Age of Untruth,” and it starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Administration Building at Fresno City College, 1101 E. University Ave. For the full schedule and to learn more about the featured speaker and activities, go to http://interfaithscholar.org/.

Luther’s Reformation: Conscience, Truth, and Modernity

A thriving democracy stems from understanding the power of protest

Fresno Bee, October 20, 2017

These are contentious times. We argue about athletes and flags, racism and sexism. We dispute climate change, economic policy, sex and gender, reproductive rights, and immigration. And of course we disagree about religion.

This is what it is like to live in a thriving secular democracy. The modern world is founded upon the value of individual conscience. We are encouraged to question religious and political authority. We understand the power of protest.

One important milestone in the evolution of the modern spirit occurred 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. That is when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. This legendary act is the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

FOLLOWING LUTHER, WE MODERNS TEND TO BELIEVE THAT TRUTH AND CONSCIENCE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ALLEGIANCE TO INSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY.

Luther’s protest was based on his Christian faith. But he also asserted a fundamental claim about truth and individual conscience. In the prologue to his Theses, Luther declared his love of truth. He published his Theses in an effort to bring truth to light.

Following Luther, we moderns tend to believe that truth and conscience are more important than allegiance to institutional authority. We believe that protests and questions can help to reform corrupt structures of power.

Truth has often been manipulated by the powerful. Today dishonest leaders deal in fake news, while feathering their own nests. In Luther’s day, crooked clerics enriched themselves by peddling indulgences—a scam through which rich people bought their way out of purgatory.

The antidote for corruption is honesty and decency. Luther suggested that without a commitment to truth and morality, authorities and institutions leave themselves open to ridicule, slander and doubt.

It is obvious that leadership requires respect for the truth and a commitment to virtue. But we also need bold protestors who have the audacity to speak truth to power. We need intrepid gadflies like Socrates and Luther who sting the powerful with probing questions.

When Luther testified at the Imperial Diet of Worms, in 1521, he asked for an open and honest debate about his interpretation of Christianity. If he was wrong, he asked to be shown his error. He declared, “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” His speech concluded with the legendary words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

Luther’s request for reasonable dialogue and his declaration of conscience are central features of modernity. We believe that progress is made when free persons debate the truth. But corrupt authorities are not interested in dialogue. They value conformity. And they occasionally resort to violence to enforce orthodoxy.

MODERN FREEDOM IS A REMARKABLE AND RARE ACHIEVEMENT OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT.

To say “here I stand” is to affirm that individuals can discover wisdom without institutional intermediaries. This invites attacks from those who prefer us to sit down and shut up. But progress occurs when we refuse to be silent and stand up for truth.

I’ve been talking about Luther with a group of scholars and clergy who will participate in a discussion of the legacy of the Reformation. One of my collaborators on this project is the Rev. David Norris, a Catholic priest who works at the Saint Paul Catholic Newman Center.

Father Norris sees similarities between Luther’s time and our own. He says, “Calls for reform soon became disrespectful argumentation, power plays and name calling, mutual condemnations and politicization of issues.” In Luther’s time as in our own, he explains, there is “an unfortunate disregard of factual information, as well as a decline in civil discourse.”

Despite these similarities, I think that things are better today. Our secular system respects freedom of conscience. We have established a wall of separation between church and state. And instead of repressing dissenters, we admire those who have the courage to say, “here I stand.”

The modern secular world developed out of long centuries of violence and intolerance. Heretics were burned. Wars were fought. Genocide was invented along with totalitarianism.

Modern freedom is a remarkable and rare achievement of the human spirit. Political and religious authorities continue to want conformity and obedience. But modern democratic people continue to question authority.

Truth is a fragile flower. But it is persistent and perennial. And it flourishes when bold individuals speak their minds and take a stand.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article180023061.html

Fake News and Media Literacy

It’s actually easy to tell real journalism from fake news. Here’s how

Fresno Bee, April 28, 2017

The fuss over fake news continues to unfold. In February President Trump accused The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN of being fake news and the enemy of the American people. This week he said the “fake media” were falsely reporting that he had changed his position on the Mexican border wall. He also explained away recent reports about his low approval ratings as “fake news.”

President Trump seems to think that stories he doesn’t like are phony. But truth is independent of our desires. Not liking something does not make it false.

Journalists – like everyone else – have biases and opinions. But there is an important difference between biased stories and bogus ones. Every story has an angle. But objective reporting rests firmly on the ground of facts. Legitimate news organizations avoid lies and fabrications.

The objective truthfulness of real news provides the template that fake news imitates. Fake news stories are counterfeit. They look like real news. They appear to provide objective facts. But they do not. Rather, they try to sell us something.

Infomercials are fake news. Internet “click bait” is fake news. Newspaper advertisements written to look like news reports are fake news. The tabloids lining the grocery store checkout are fake news. Political propaganda is fake news.

Professional journalists do not produce fake news. The journalist’s code of ethics has four guiding ideas. Seek truth. Minimize harm. Act independently. And be accountable and transparent.

Mainstream news organizations sometimes exaggerate with attention-grabbing headlines and titillating teasers. But real journalists want to get the facts right. When they get things wrong, they admit it – or get fired.

It is not always easy to differentiate fake news from real news. That’s why we need substantial training in media literacy. We need to teach kids how to read a newspaper and how to avoid being suckered by online click bait. Kids need to learn the difference between objective news reports, the opinion page, commercials and outright propaganda.

We all need to understand that YouTube and other Internet sources offer suggestions based upon what the computer thinks we want to see. Some tech firms are proposing a technological fix for this particular problem. Google and Facebook are working to combat fake news by changing how search and news notification functions work.

The technological fix is good. But the problem of sorting out fact from fiction will remain with us. Fake news is an ancient problem. Socrates was executed because false rumors were spread about him. Charlatans and quacks have always taken advantage of the gullible and the ignorant.

Wisdom teaches skepticism and self-restraint. A story that is too good to be true is likely not true. We are often beguiled by our biases. We want to believe things that flatter our egos and reinforce our deepest beliefs. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” But wanting something to be true does not make it so.

So while technological solutions can help reduce the proliferation of fake news, the real solution is critical thinking and self-examination.

The most obvious key is to seek out multiple sources of information. You should also compare what you read or hear against commonly held background knowledge. Critical media consumers also ask some of the following questions:

▪ Who is speaking, what is the source of their authority, and what biases do they have?

▪ Is the story trying to sell me something or advance an agenda?

▪ Who is the intended audience? What is included in the message or left out?

▪ How does this story connect to other things I already know?

▪ What more would I need to know to evaluate this properly?

These kinds of questions should guide our reading of books, our evaluation of scientific reports, and our understanding of speeches, sermons and sales pitches. The process of sifting and winnowing is liberating and edifying. Critical thinkers make informed decisions in all aspects of their lives.

Critical thinking is essential for citizens in a democracy. In order to effectively participate in the project of self-government, we need to be able to distinguish between the phony and the factual. Let’s hope that the fake-news furor stimulates a renewed commitment to media literacy, objective reporting, and basic common sense.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article147400744.html

Political Correctness and Free Speech

We need to hear bad ideas so we can argue against them

Fresno Bee, June 11, 2016

  • Free speech is the best cure for bad ideas
  • Political correctness gets in way of genuine dialogue
  • Americans don’t like political correctness

People don’t like political correctness. A February poll by CBS’ “60 Minutes” found that 55 percent of Americans think that political correctness is a danger to free speech. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans don’t like political correctness.

Donald Trump has made this a theme. In a January speech Trump said, “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.” In a recent response to the backlash about his criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Trump said, “We have to stop being so politically correct in this country.”

Trump supporters agree. In a story about a Fresno kid who was not allowed to wear a Trump hat to school, Brooke Ashjian said, “If he wants to wear the hat, he should. If people are disturbed, too bad. There is so much political correctness people are afraid to rally.”

Travel Trip Seeing Miss LibertyDemocratic dialogue depends upon liberty, honesty and accountability. Without sincerity and freedom we end up with hypocrisy and duplicity. This is not good in a democracy.

Nor is it good for the pursuit of truth. Philosopher John Locke once said, “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.” Speech codes that limit the free exchange of ideas undermine the pursuit of knowledge.

When people say what they mean and mean what they say, we have a basis for judgment and evaluation. Without free and honest speech, we do not know what anyone really thinks. That’s a problem in democracy, in business, and in life.

Frank and forthright speech is revealing and occasionally disturbing. Consider what Trump’s unconstrained speech teaches us about him. He has admitted he is suspicious of Mexican-Americans and Muslims. It is better that we know this than if he kept those ideas to himself.

WE SHOULD HOPE THAT LIBERTY PROVIDES THE BEST CURE FOR STUPIDITY.

Free speech allows for education and progress. Consider the case of Leslie Rasmussen, who wrote a letter in support of a friend who was convicted of rape at Stanford. Rasmussen blamed her friend’s conviction on political correctness. She wrote, “Stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”

To claim that rapists are not always rapists is a contradiction. The complaint about political correctness is a red herring. But that’s why we need free speech. If we don’t know what people think, we cannot evaluate their ideas – or criticize their logic. Nor can we change their minds.

Rasmussen’s remarks provoked a backlash. Her band was dropped from a number of concerts. Some may see this as an example of the stifling effect of political correctness. But it’s part of the free market of ideas. And the backlash allowed Rasmussen to clarify her position. She recently apologized for her remarks.

That’s an important lesson. Unconstrained speech can result in dumb things being said. No one is perfect. Sometimes our tongues outpace our brains. When we say something dumb we ought to correct it and apologize. Honesty and liberty require accountability.

WITHOUT SINCERITY AND FREEDOM WE END UP WITH HYPOCRISY AND DUPLICITY.

We learn and grow through free, sincere and accountable dialogue. When people say what they believe, we can evaluate them accordingly. We can even try to persuade them to think differently. But when discourse is constrained and people don’t say what they mean, we cannot have a productive dialogue.

In the best of all possible worlds there would be no hateful words. But in our flawed world, the next best thing is for bad ideas to come out of the closet. Political correctness can cause people to say the right thing for the wrong reasons, while remaining committed to dumb or indecent ideas.

Genuine civility remains an important good for social life. But genuine civility is not mere political correctness. Authentic civility is grounded in respect, compassion and commitment to the common good. Gandhi explained, “Civility does not mean mere outward gentleness of speech … but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.”

Eloquent courtesy can mask cruelty and violence. Political correctness can be oppressive. And inhibited speech prevents genuine dialogue.

Americans have the right to say what we believe. We need to hear bad ideas, so we can argue against them. And we should hope that liberty provides the best cure for stupidity.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article82987487.html#storylink=cpy

Lying in the Media: Cynicism, and Hope

Truth is complicated in today’s fast-paced world

Fresno Bee March 9, 2015

The truth is often stretched in the name of a good story. But that rarely bothers us. OpwvX.AuSt.8Some nitpicking quibblers demand accuracy in every story. But the truth is often boring or complicated. So we embellish or simplify.

Journalism and nonfiction writing are, however, held to a different standard. The fibs of Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Ederly are worrisome. So are other scandals involving authorial confabulation. Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” embellished much of his story.

One of the challenges of truth-telling is that gullible audiences rarely question heroic and inspiring stories. We like tales that fit our preconceived notions. Liars often tell us what we want to hear. Through repetition, untrue stories come to be accepted as true — perhaps even by the liar himself. The best liar is, after all, the one who believes his own lies. Lying and self-deception go hand in hand. Audiences deceive themselves, too. Once trust is given, it is difficult to admit you’ve been duped.

This points toward troubling questions about the foundational stories of culture and tradition. The same social and psychological forces that explain lying and exaggeration today were also at work in the past. The witnesses of history most likely embellished in the name of a compelling narrative. Those with vested interests bent the truth to their own purposes. The victors told heroic stories at the expense of their victims. Meanwhile, credulous and captive audiences repeated what they were told.

George Orwell warned that when lies pass into history, they become truth. Cynics will conclude from this that history is mostly hogwash. The cynic sees power, propaganda and self-promotion at work in politics, religion and culture. Given our recent experience of liars, phonies and frauds, it’s possible that much of what passes for true history has been warped in Orwellian ways.

On the other hand, perhaps P.T. Barnum was correct when he said, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” We hope that the truth eventually comes out. But of course, even that quote from Barnum is in dispute — some attribute it to Abraham Lincoln. And so it goes.

Truth is complicated. Knowledge takes diligence. And perfect certainty is rare. In important cases, we set up elaborate procedures for finding the truth. The courts use an adversarial system and assumptions about the burden of proof. Scientists engage in methodical experimentation, while subjecting their conclusions to peer review.

Philosophers advise us to doubt everything. We know that our senses can deceive us. Eyewitnesses and experts exaggerate, misremember, ignore evidence and misinterpret data. Occasionally the experts deliberately lie. Truth only arrives at the end of the long, deliberate process of sifting and winnowing, which includes a substantial dose of self-examination.

But gossip, public opinion and the media work differently. In the world of tweets and pompous posts, there is little time for fact-checking or deliberation. Self-examination and expressions of doubt are rare in the public sphere.

The speeding flow of contemporary information leaves little time for study, reflection and inquiry. Each scandal, crisis and event seems to require an immediate response. But truth is a tender flower. It dies in the hot house of instant opinion and incessant self-promotion.

Truth-seeking requires nurturing attention, quiet reflection and open-minded inquiry. Truth results from attentive listening and careful observation. Truth-seeking is not glamorous. It looks like a scholar in her study, the scientist in the lab, and the jury in the jury room. This is quite different from the breezy certainty of the celebrity blowhards and vain pundits who stand to profit from the tales they tell.

We know that people stretch the truth. Healthy skepticism is always in order. But we should resist cynicism. The fact that we know that there are so many disgraced liars gives us a reason to hope. These scandals may be viewed as an encouraging sign that, in the long-run, most liars will be caught with their pants on fire.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/03/09/4417448_ethics-truth-is-complicated-in.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

Politicians and the Truth

Unraveling the political art of the repeated lie

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-09-22

Politicians are adept at exaggeration and obfuscation. They spin the truth, occasionally telling outright lies. Large numbers of people then repeat the latest political hogwash, forwarding it, posting it and replicating it in the media echo chamber. With enough reverberation, even obvious humbug can sound like truth.

It is not surprising that politicians stretch the truth. Five centuries ago, Machiavelli noted that a successful politician had to be as cunning as a fox. A sly political fox knows how to manipulate, ingratiate, provoke and inspire.

A good politician understands that social life is lubricated by white lies and insincere pleasantries. We say thank you when we don’t mean it. We give unwarranted compliments. And we smile and nod even when we disagree. Social life would be cold and hostile if we were unwilling or unable to dissemble.

It is interesting that we are so willing to go along with the fakery and deception. Machiavelli explained that “the one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” Politicians know how to appeal to our basic credulity. We are social animals who respond to the moods of our fellows without much concern for truth. We like to repeat gossip and rumors. We tend to believe and trust those who are like us.

We prefer stories that reinforce our other ideas and beliefs, pleasant stories that are easy to understand. No politician is going to admit that public affairs are incredibly complex, that human behavior is difficult to control and that unpredictable events will disrupt even our best-laid plans. The politician tells us instead that he or she has a clear plan for success and confident knowledge of the situation. And we are glad to believe. We desire certainty in an uncertain world.

Psychological well-being may hinge upon our ability to deceive ourselves in the face of uncertainty and failure. When you make a mistake, suffer rejection, or embarrass yourself, you have to find ways to downplay and ignore the truth so you can move forward. Self-doubt and self-recrimination can be paralyzing. It is useful to fudge the truth about yourself and your own abilities.

There may be an evolutionary explanation of our ability to deceive and dissimulate. The struggle for prestige involves a large dose of bluff and bluster. Outright deception is useful in struggles for scarce resources and in battles for territory and mates.

Mating rituals are obviously colored by deception. We fix our hair, our faces, our clothes — putting on a show for potential mates. These embellishments work, even though we know that beauty is only skin deep. Our tendency to fall in love with images and appearances might explain our tendency to believe political bunkum.

In an interesting recent book, “The Folly of Fools,” Robert Trivers explains that you will be more effective at lying to others if you are able to believe the lies you tell. The best liars sincerely commit themselves to what they are saying, somehow concealing the truth, even from themselves. Trivers suggests that the ability to believe your own lies provides an evolutionary advantage. He even argues that good health involves the ability to deceive yourself about your own well-being. Self-doubters will not do very well in the struggle for existence. Confident fakers will tend to succeed in battle, in the bedroom and in the ballot box.

Of course, this raises another question: Is it really a “lie” if you sincerely believe it is true? Lying is usually thought to involve a deliberate intention to deceive. But the best liars are those who are so sure of themselves that they don’t even know they are lying.

This brings us back to the political echo chamber. The more a lie is repeated, the easier it is to believe. It is possible, then, that politicians don’t deliberately lie. They may believe the tales they tell, supported in this belief by the reverberations of partisan advisers and supporters. We have an instinctive need to believe our own stories and the stories of those like us. Although they may appear to be cunning foxes, politicians may in fact be like the rest of us, herd animals who can’t help believing what they hear and what they say.