Lesson 1: Trust

Fake NewsThe present concern with fake news and a post-truth culture goes deeper than we usually acknowledge. I pulled out some quotes from Sissela Bok’s 1978 book, Lying, that I used when writing about trust decades ago. She wrote that “trust in some degree of veracity functions as a foundation of relations among human beings: when this trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse” (p. 31) and “[T]rust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse” (pp. 26-27).

Notice that Bok’s argument was founded on the need for truthfulness: “The function of the principle of veracity is evident when we think of trust: that you will treat me fairly, that you will have my interests at heart, that you will do me no harm. But if I do not trust your word, can I have genuine trust in the first three? If there is no confidence in the truthfulness of others, is there any way to assess their fairness, their intention to help or to harm? How, then, can they be trusted? Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it happens” (p. 31).

I think we are seeing that breakdown taking place before our eyes. We have to ask, “What’s new? Haven’t public officials always told lies?” After all, St Augustine in his 5th century “On Lying” wrote much the same as Bok: “When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful.” Before we dismiss Augustine with “But we are still around after 1500 years,” we should remember he was writing about the Roman Empire and it is not.

We seem to have crossed a line well worth acknowledging, if we want to save our culture. Bok believed this has to do with electronic media where we can see the lying take place and understand it is directed straight at us. We now actually observe people in the act of lying to us.

She thinks the line was crossed in 1998 when split screen television presented two of Bill Clinton speeches side by side. In both the first on January 26 and the second on August 17, the president looked us squarely in the eye with his ability to pretend great sincerity and claimed to be speaking the whole truth. In the second he admitted having “misled” family, colleagues, and us. Those who represent us decided it was too harsh to impeach him but did find him in civil contempt of court, having given false and misleading responses designed to obstruct the judicial process. In other words, he broke the sacred command, “Do not bear false witness” while looking straight into my eyes.

In the past, anyone who carefully read newspapers knew all sorts of lying had to be going on with Viet Nam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Wall Street, televangelism, and all the rest. Now, people in whom we placed our trust are exposed, lying to us in our own living rooms. We always knew our government spied on other nations. Now we find they also spy on us in our own homes.

Bok has been proven prescient, as people now believe lying is the most efficient way to get what we want in this modern world.  Subsequently we have lost all trust in the institutions upon which our society depends. This was evident in our recent election process in which the candidates waged orchestrated campaigns to destroy the credibility of their opponents. Donald Trump openly admitted he has always used “truthful hyperbole” and Hilary Clinton was caught acknowledging that she did not say publicly what she really believed. This resulted in the public believing that we could not trust either one.

The situation has demonstrated that our hope for saving the culture depends especially on the free press, the clergy, whistle blowers, and courageous individuals who understand truth is the foundation of a civilized people. Without these, our politicians will remain helpless.

Our new series, Truth, will try to show that Christianity really believes that “the truth shall set you free,” agreeing with Bok that lying is not intelligent but rather self-destructive. We shall begin with Pilate asking Jesus Augustine’s and our question, “What is truth?” Pilate assumed his understanding of ruthless political truth made Jesus’ words and actions naive. But again, Jesus is still around and Pilate is not.

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4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Anne Crawford says:

    One of the problems I see with truth is that truth and facts are not synonymous. We can both look at the same set of facts and impute different truths to what those facts actually mean. What are we to do when others sincerely believe the facts support THEIR (sorry – no way to italicize on my smart phone) understanding of truth but our understanding leads to a wholly different truth?

    • John Myers says:

      A maxim that I use may apply – Facts do not prove Truth, but Truth does prove Facts. To expand on this-Facts are contextual, which allows the same Fact to be interpreted in two different ways by two different people who come to the Fact with a different set of life experiences and traditions. This may be interpreted as trying (sometimes subjectively without truly understanding it that way) to mold the Facts to fit a Truth they already believe. To avoid this, it is entirely necessary to allow for critical thinking, to question everything, to never fear taking an unpopular position. We do not teach enough of this in our homes, in our schools, and yes-even in our churches. If we are to find the Truth we seek, this must change.

  2. Mark Summers says:

    was scratching my brain to figure out how lying might be worse now than it has always been. And I think the first answer is SOCIAL MEDIA. The second answer might be our current polarized society. A by-product of this polarization was the loss of the recent election. The “progressive” latte sipping, health fad chasing, young yuppies who are the future of the Democratic party completely neglected the base of white laborers & seniors. But the polarization primarily led to the deamonization of the enemy. In this atmosphere the end justifies the means. And thus, the lying.

    Even before we had fake news and alternate news, Steven Colbert invented truthiness.

  3. Fritz Foltz says:

    These two short paragraphs are from a long email I received from Don. I think the ideas are worth considering:

    ALL campaigns for anything more significant than Head Librarian involve attacks on the opponent – their credibility, their character, assumptions about their (mis)governance should they win (based on prior activities,, including speeches, remarks and associations). Your use of the word “orchestrated” in the context of your paragraph certainly leans toward the legal definition of “conspiracy.”

    What I would consider a more fruitful discussion has to do with the responsibility of the audience in all these matters, whether it be stump speeches, press conferences, or sermons. The First Amendment right to free speech seems to my humble thinking to assume a reasonable, educated audience as the given. Absent that as the valid context, free speech in a democracy is just so much noise, at best, and, at worst, a detriment.

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