Rejecting a Culture of Lies

It was a very revealing moment.  I was driving with a friend through a major university campus.  He was working in an office responsible for managing the resources of the university. And I happened to say, “You know, I’ve been wondering. I know there are complex moral questions like what to do if there are five guys in a lifeboat but only room for four, but I’ve started to suspect that most of our moral issues from day to day are fairly straightforward applications of the Ten Commandments that only seem complicated because we convince ourselves that in this instance it would be better to steal or lie or whatever.”

“Lying,” my friend exploded. “If we could only get people to stop lying. In my office, we can’t even figure out what we have because everyone is always lying, so we can’t make any reliable judgments about what we need.”

For example, he explained, that since they knew every department always overstated their budget by 20 percent, his office simply cut every budget by that amount, presuming that they had lied.  Some departments began to catch on to this and had started to overstate their budgets by 25 percent. As a consequence, his office began cutting every budget by 25 percent.

After a while, this game of cat-and-mouse becomes so complex no one knows anymore what target they are supposed to be shooting at or whether they have any real arrows left in their quiver.

We all live in circumstances in which we cannot know everything we need to know to make all the decisions we need to make.  So we need to be able to trust the truth of the information given to us by others.  One rejoinder would be the classic one of Pontius Pilate: “Truth, what is that?”  There is your truth and my truth.  Or, as some pragmatists claim, truth is what serves some pragmatic end.

But hasn’t our recent experience shown us the dangers of allowing “truth” to be subservient to someone’s pragmatic ends?

Mark Twain once wrote, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.” In our age, we know that there are Lies, Damned Lies, and News. To take a recent example, consider the case of Elaine Riddick, a passionate black pro-life advocate who was raped when she was 13. After giving birth to her child, she was forcibly sterilized by the doctor.  And ever since, she has been fighting for the rights of women and unborn children.

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And yet, when The Washington Post wrote about her, the title of the article was: “She Survived a Forced Sterilization. She fears more could occur post-Roe.”  This made it seem as though she was against the Dobbs decision. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In a subsequent article in The Pillar, she states: “The Washington Post falsely portrayed me as supporting a pro-choice agenda even though they clearly knew, and I stated in the interview, that I am against abortion and am pro-life.”  In the Post article, she was quoted as saying, “I think a woman should have control of her body.” But in fact, Riddick was speaking about forced sterilization, not abortion.  What else can we call such a “news” article other than a knowing, intentional out-and-out lie?

Major news outlets have played fast-and-loose with the truth for so long that we find ourselves with two terrible situations.

The first is that people only believe the news that fits with their own pre-conceived notions or narratives.

The second is that some people don’t believe the news at all, even when it is telling the truth.

Why did some people believe Alex Jones’ InfoWars when it claims that the murder of twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax, so much so that they began harassing the parents of the murdered children?

Why do some people still believe the Holocaust didn’t happen? Because people believe what they want to believe, and they reject even overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Two hundred history books say one thing: no verification quite yet.  One web article says the opposite: Aha!  Proof!

The media’s obsession with re-affirming their own narratives, whether liberal or conservative, whether it’s NPR or Fox News, gets in the way of people actually getting the information they need to make prudent judgments. Major news outlets, websites, and talk show hosts are making billions playing on fear and anger.

Catholics are called to something better.

But don’t take my word for it.  What do you imagine God is calling us to when He said: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly”? (Prov 14:29) And “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Col. 3:12)

But should we be patient with evil all around us?  Well, God says this: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” (Ps 37:7) And finally, there is this: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (Eph. 4:25)

I don’t see how we can take any of that seriously and continue letting ourselves be consumed by the obsessions of the news media, social media, and the Twitter mob. More of the same sort of information from the same biased sources is not going to get us what we need. What we need are calm minds searching for the full truth, not angry minds searching for justifications for our own self-righteous anger.

We would be better served if we lived lives that proclaimed, not that “truth is what my news source says it is,” but “truth is the humble and patient submission of the mind to reality.”

 

*Image: Pinocchio by Enrico Mazzanti, 1883. The illustration is from the first edition of Le avventure di Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Pope Francis, Fr. Martin, and Faith without Reason

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek’s Love and Truth

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.