The Magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America
Part 1

By Phil Mobley

What Is Truth?

A virtue to honor? Or a tool to manipulate?

By Phil Mobley

Published March 16, 2021 / First published in byFaith Magazine Q1 2021

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

"What is Truth?"

Pilate's question to Jesus was no genuine inquiry, nor was it a philosophical musing. In John's Gospel account, Pilate did not wait for an answer. Ostensibly a process to determine His guilt or innocence, Pilate used Jesus' trial for his own political ends, even as he acknowledged that the facts did not support his actions. Pilate showed contempt for the truth, treating it not as a virtue to be honored but as a tool to be manipulated. Suffering was the inevitable result.

The Post-Truth World

IN 2016, THE OXFORD DICTIONARY'S Word of the Year was "post-truth," defined as follows: "Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."

The press release accompanying the announcement explained that "rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event - as in post-war or post-match - the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like 'belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.'" A post-truth world, then, is not one in which the truth has ceased to exist; it is one in which it no longer matters, just as it did not matter to Pilate.

Of course, Christians know that truth both exists and matters, and that ignoring this has consequences. The same Oxford Dictionary defines "true" as "in accordance with fact or reality." In popular usage, according with fact does not leave much room for subjectivity - a fact can be proven by observation or deduction. Reality, on the other hand, is far less concrete. Though Christians believe there is but one reality, ordained by God, it remains that each person experiences it slightly differently. The problem comes when preserving one's "personal reality" requires obscuring or ignoring facts.

This is precisely what happened in Eden. "Never mind the fact of God's unfailing care and companionship," reasoned Adam and Eve. "In our reality, this fruit is good for food and pleasing to the eye." Humans have had a complex relationship with the truth ever since. Our desires and emotions heavily influence our evaluation of it, a fact Scripture points out with the sharpness of a double-edged sword. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick," said the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:9). We struggle to tell the truth even to ourselves, and Romans 1 tells us why: The fact of creation's existence points to the reality of God, but we prefer to suppress this truth in order to deny the divine claim to regulate our personal behavior. There is nothing new under the sun.

What is remarkable about our particular moment in history, however, is the ability to observe truth suppression happening wholesale. The unprecedented volume and accessibility of information (both true and false) mean that people with itching ears can easily accumulate teachers to suit their own passions. With social media, they have the power to do so publicly, misleading others as they go along. This is clearly problematic to a people called to speak truth in love to others.

The Death of Credibility

THE POLLSTER GALLUP has quantified a general decline in trust in a number of American institutions. The news media, in particular, is one institution where perceptions have grown increasingly negative. Only 24% now say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers, compared to 37% in 2000. The numbers are even worse for television news: 18% have confidence today, versus 36% in 2000. (It is worth noting that some institutions garner more stable or even increased levels of public confidence. For example, 51% are confident in the medical system in the post-pandemic world of 2020, up from 36% just a year before.)

Certainly these institutions must bear responsibility for their many confidence-eroding failures, biases, and abuses. News reporting and "analysis" move at a constant sprint, incentivizing information providers to be fast and bold, often at the expense of context and precision. The approach connotes a false sense of certainty, often coupled with a heavy dose of paternalism (whether real or perceived). This is a natural outcome of a digitized delivery system that prioritizes clicks over quality while targeting consumers who care more about entertainment than edification. Truth suffers, and real damage is done, especially when newsmakers intentionally manipulate the cycle.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a textbook case study of the danger. When the virus first started spreading widely in March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), citing lack of proven efficacy, discouraged most people from wearing masks. Just a few weeks later, this advice changed. Given that knowledge about this previously unknown virus continues to evolve, evolving advice was perfectly reasonable. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, later admitted that fears of mask shortages were an unspoken motivation behind the initial recommendation. The confusion from conflicting guidelines would have been bad enough without the additional layer of a credibility-killing little white lie. As a result, something as simple as whether or not to wear a mask became a political statement as much as health precaution.

Confusion, Misinformation, and Disinformation

PROFESSOR AND WRITER Zeynep Tufekci has made great efforts throughout the pandemic to zero in on clarifying facts. As one might expect, the answers are nuanced. Dr. Tufekci was an early proponent of mask wearing, but she also advocated for leaving beaches and public parks open - and against shaming those who visited them. She has since supported reopening schools for in-person instruction. Her examination of data on transmission has led to other suggestions that go against conventional wisdom, such as the idea that the coronavirus may spread more easily in restaurants than in movie theaters due to differences in airflow and occupant behavior.

The example of COVID is not to critique public health strategy (though that may well be justified). Rather, it is to point out that truth is complicated and takes effort to uncover. With so much information about any topic now available at a click, it is hard to know who or what to trust. Some information is true. Some is not. Some of it was once thought to be true but is now outdated. Worst of all, some of it is calculated to deceive, gaining traction through overwhelming volume. In September 2016, Tufekci offered this pithy quote in The Economist: "Information glut is the new censorship." For deceivers, muddying the truth is as effective as destroying it. That the Father of Lies would employ this tactic should not escape our notice.


Weaponized Truth Manipulation

IN 2016, when Facebook first announced efforts to monitor and suppress content it deemed fraudulent, media scholar Mike Ananny spoke to the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight. He was not optimistic, explaining that "fake news may be a fight not over truth, but over power." It is "evidence of a social phenomenon at play - a struggle between [how] different people envision what kind of world that they want." In other words, a struggle between different views of reality. Facebook's heavy-handed actions since then have shown that setting oneself up as the arbiter of truth yields winners and losers.

At best, good-faith gatekeepers will not always agree with their hearers about what is true. At worst, they will distort it intentionally. Such manipulations of truth are no less insidious for being subtle. It sounds almost soothing to visit a family-planning clinic for reproductive health services to remove the "products of conception." Here a string of euphemisms attempts to hide the truth that a homicide is taking place. The appropriate term for this hijacking of language is propaganda, and with it inevitably comes victimization. The ominous question for a post-truth world is, how long will this remain necessary? How long before modern-day Pontius Pilates simply ignore the truth rather than expend the effort to obscure it?

True Narratives

TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, deceit is so treacherous that its origins need not be malicious. Even reputable sources can be ensnared when the desire to shed light on perceived reality - to communicate a "true" narrative - overrides adherence to the facts at hand. This happens more than we would prefer to admit, with the results ranging from embarrassing to catastrophic. Two events from 2014 are illustrative because, respectively, they became early chapters in the enduring Black Lives Matter and #MeToo narratives.

The first occurred in August in Ferguson, Missouri, when Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a young black man. Early reports, including social media posts, suggested that Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot. The St. Louis metro area erupted in public protest, and the phrase "hands up, don't shoot" and its accompanying gesture were used publicly and powerfully by demonstrators ranging from St. Louis Rams football players to members of the Congressional Black Caucus. After a grand jury failed to indict Officer Wilson, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated. The DOJ ultimately concluded that neither witness testimony nor forensic evidence supported the "Hands up, don't shoot" narrative and that Wilson acted in self-defense. The Washington Post Fact Checker column subsequently assigned "Hands up, don't shoot" its maximum rating of Four Pinocchios.

The second event came on Nov. 19 when Rolling Stone published "A Rape on Campus," the sensational story of sexual assault and institutional failure at the University of Virginia. The article centered on a young woman known as "Jackie," who recounted being raped by seven different men at a fraternity party in 2012. The article ignited protest marches, fraternity suspensions, and a heated discussion about "rape culture" at college campuses. However, follow-up investigation by The Washington Post cast doubt on Jackie's story, and a Columbia Journalism Review audit criticized Rolling Stone for poor journalistic practices. The magazine eventually retracted the article but subsequently lost a lawsuit filed by UVA and settled separate suits with the fraternity and its members.

In both cases, zeal to align with a narrative fueled blindness to facts. We would expect both movements to be damaged by such inaccuracies. Yet, in a post-truth world, the fallout is not straightforward. One example comes from Justin Hansford, a then St. Louis University professor who organized community responses to Michael Brown's death. According to The Wahington Post, "Hansford said his Facebook profile photo remains an image of 'Hands up' because the message is consistent regardless of the positioning of Brown's hands: 'I don't feel any way that I was somehow duped or tricked or that my picture was based on a lie. I think it is a very symbolic gesture that really speaks to the experiences of a lot of us, a lot of youth of color.'"

This response seems particularly odd because the underlying narrative of racial injustice in Ferguson was found to be true, even if "hands up, don't shoot" was not. On the same day it released its findings in the Michael Brown case, the DOJ published a broader report on the Ferguson Police Department. The report included voluminous empirical documentation supporting conclusions such as this: "Ferguson's approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias, including stereotyping. The harms of Ferguson's police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race."

In Hansford's case, the symbolism of "hands up, don't shoot" was so resonant with his personal reality that he clung to it even though it was unnecessary to the truth of his preferred narrative. But in a post-truth world, the reverse happens as well: People with itching ears cling to untrue narratives even in the absence of supporting facts, from dogmatic belief in massive voter fraud to conspiracy theories about the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines.


Seeking and Speaking

THE POST-TRUTH ERA is quite a time to be a follower of Someone who calls Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Christianity rejects the entire premise of post-truth thinking, but John 14:6 crystallizes why: Christians follow the embodiment of truth. The Bible also offers plenty of guidance on how to relate to truth, whether or not our culture is persuaded - or persuadable - by it.

We should first be truth seekers. In His High Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus asked the Father to sanctify His disciples (both contemporary and future) in the truth. He then suggested how this might happen: "Your word is truth." This is in perfect agreement with the description of the blessed man in Psalm 1:2, whose "delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night." Understanding more truth requires imbibing more Scripture. This is our fundamental anchor to ultimate reality.

Our duty also includes proclaiming the truth we have learned, both inside and outside the church. The Book of Ephesians instructs us to do both, and for similar reasons. Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) is a means of strengthening Christian brothers and sisters, both individually and collectively. A few verses later comes the call to expose "unfruitful works of darkness" (Ephesians 5:11) done by the world. Here, too, the purpose is the good of others.

This instruction is practical for acting in a post-truth context. We are not speaking truthfully if we repeat something without confirming its authenticity. And even after doing so, our standard for sharing is the good of the audience. We must always ask why we are choosing to expose a particular bit of darkness - is it to build up or tear down?

Scripture warns us to manage our expectations about the outcome of truth-telling. The truth is uncomfortable to a world that has exchanged it for a lie. Even Christian believers are still prone to hide from truth. Paul feared that the Galatians would view him as an enemy when he offered truth intended to correct their belief and practice (Galatians 4:16). Yet the likelihood of conflict is no reason to withhold truth. Moreover, to do so would be unloving - no one benefits from persisting in a false reality.

A final response to truth is simply to believe it. Hebrews 6:18 reminds us that it is impossible for God to lie, which is significant because this is a God who has made promises to His people. Just before stating that He was the Way, Truth, and Life, Jesus repeated one of these truths to His disciples. He told them that He was leaving but would come back to get them so that where He is, they may be also (John 14:3).

Though we may not always enjoy its implications (remember Romans 1?), that is an extremely satisfying narrative. It also has the advantage of being true.

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