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Truth Decay



Has truth ever been as slippery as it is in the 2020s?


Quite possibly, because we often imagine things are getting worse when we have been here before. And yet there are some clear red flags.


Historically, one of the greatest threats to truth has been the blurring of fact and opinion, with the latter being passed off as the former. What’s different today is the sheer weight of opinion that clogs up our social media feeds. We simply have too many people sounding off and passing themselves off as experts, often on the basis of reading one article. In some cases, it’s not even one article, as the increasing number of influencers who boast of never having read a book is anything to go by.


Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we are sorted into opposing camps on a range of issues; the world’s algorithms deciding what we should be looking at based on what we’ve already looked at, thus reinforcing our prejudices and not exposing us properly to contradictory views.


Some of the opinion that blocks up our social media is calculated disinformation, channelled by agents acting for powers that want to harm our national life. Distinguishing facts from misinformation is not as straightforward as it seems and made harder by the speed and frequency it comes at us, creating a sense of disorientation.


What also may be different now is less the blurring of fact and opinion and more the loss of shared facts altogether. Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary at the start of the Trump administration, described the President’s inauguration as ‘the largest ever’. It was not. Defending this, Kellyanne Conway said Spicer had been giving ‘alternative facts’. There are no alterative facts in life, only additional ones. We may argue about evidence but we can’t have facts that contradict each other. To suggest we do tears the very fabric of society apart.


This is just as true of the growing tendency to speak of ‘my truth’. When Oprah Winfrey interviewed Harry and Megan about the rifts in the British Royal Family, she asked them about ‘your truth’. If something is true, it’s everyone’s truth; there is nothing personal about truth. If ‘my truth’ is indulged, the law courts would be paralysed. Far better to speak of ‘my story’. This cannot be taken away from us and, along with other people’s stories, helps us to find the truth.


It isn’t easy figuring this out together, naturally. Our brains practically experience pain when they are confronted with views we do not agree with; we feel ourselves wince. This is why, for all we complain about algorithms not showing us stuff it would help us with our understanding to see, we are kind of relieved they don’t. But this is leading us to a place where we do not listen and only proclaim; do not converse and only cancel.


Truth goes to the heart of Christian faith. Jesus made the stunning declaration: I am the truth. Those who follow Jesus therefore follow the truth. They do not possess the truth (as some criticise Christians for acting like). Instead, the truth possesses them. And that is an uncomfortable feeling, because we know our lives are far from truthful. It brings to mind the words of author David Foster Wallace: ‘The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you’. There is work to be done on the renewal of our minds in Christ.


Truth decay may be spreading, percolating like poison through our shared lives. But for all our powerlessness, we retain one vital agency: over our own lives. Personal honesty is not just commendable, it’s attractive, too. We feel naturally drawn to people who open up about their lives without any guile or manipulation. And it is state that God calls us to, for we cannot have a meaningful relationship with Christ if we are not being honest about ourselves.


At the end of the Book of Judges, a violent and anarchic era in the life of ancient Israel, the author makes the tinder dry observation:


In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.


Turns out ‘my truth’ goes back a long way. It didn’t end well then, and it won’t today either unless we figure it out.



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