What Is Truth?

by | Jan 15, 2021 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 1 comment

Pilate’s somewhat cynical question is among the most famous questions of history. In a somewhat prophetic message for World Communications Day 2020 Pope Francis offered what amounts to  a “mindwalk” on truth;

  • recognizing fake news
  • how the truth will set us free
  • peace is the true news

Let me begin where Pope Francis ends.

Prayer for peace

To this end, drawing inspiration from a Franciscan prayer, we might turn to the Truth in person:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgments.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practice listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.

I offer the following excerpts and hope you will read them in context.

#2. How can we recognize fake news?

  • disinformation is often based on deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms.
  • The strategy of this skilled “Father of Lies” (Jn 8:44) is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.
  • In the account of the first sin, the tempter approaches the woman by pretending to be her friend, concerned only for her welfare, and begins by saying something only partly true: “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” (Gen 3:1). In fact, God never told Adam not to eat from any tree, but only from the one tree: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat” (Gen 2:17).
  • The tempter’s “deconstruction” then takes on an appearance of truth: “God knows that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). God’s paternal command, meant for their good, is discredited by the seductive enticement of the enemy.
  • This biblical episode brings to light an essential element for our reflection: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.

#3. “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32)

  • Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life. Dostoevsky’s observation is illuminating: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others.” (The Brothers Karamazov, II, 2).
  • So how do we defend ourselves? The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth.
  • Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose.
  • Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another.

#4. Peace is the true news

  • The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people:
  • I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace. By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism.
  • On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines.
  • A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice.
  • A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes.
  • A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.

I ask that we all join in his prayer.

This post first appeared on Vincentian Mindwalk.

1 Comment

  1. Ross

    RE: #3. “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32)

    Timothy Snyder agrees, of course. He says in “On Tyranny”: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is a spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

    Snyder cites Victor Klemperer’s observation on totalitarianism about what contributes to the death of truth: (1) open hostility to verifiable reality; (2) shamanistic incantation or endless repetition of falsehoods; (3) magical thinking or the open embrace of contradiction; (4) misplaced faith which involves such self-deifying or personality-cult claims as “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.”

    More recently, Snyder tells a cable network commentator, “You can’t lie your way to freedom.”

    The Psalms, too, repeatedly denounce lies and dishonesty. An example is Ps 5, 2-10. 12-13 says in part, “You hate all who do evil: you destroy all who lie. The deceitful and blood-thirsty man the Lord detests.”