When I was a kid, truth seemed simple. Over the last sixty years I learned that truth is not really simple at all. Truth can be surprisingly elusive, and finding it can require a whole lot of intelligence, energy and time.
Some devote their entire lives to finding truth. They search for decades in the hope of discovering the truth about tiny slices of our reality. Think of astronomers, particle physicists and cancer researchers. Some philosophers have devoted their careers to thinking critically about the very meaning of truth. Those explorers are the vanguard in the quest for truth.
For most of us truth is more mundane than the study of cosmology and the meaning of life. "It's raining"; "I'm hungry"; "that shirt doesn't fit me well"; "it's dark out". Statements like these are easily verified. We measure truth with our eyes, our gut, our skin.
When it comes to things that others tell us, truth is more complicated, though we can usually verify what we are told. I test your honesty when you tell me "It's raining". Your coat is wet, I see the rain, I know it's true. As I learn that you speak the truth, I come to trust you. Once I trust you I simply accept what you tell me in the same way as when I see the rain myself. The truth we speak, and the trust we earn and share, are the bricks and mortar of our society.
How is the truth complicated?
It's complicated because we have all failed to tell the truth.
Failing to tell the truth does not automatically call our trustworthiness into question. We sometimes misperceive.
On a sunny summer day many years ago I walked past an outdoor movie set in a narrow street in Old Montreal. Someone indoors waking and peering out the window facing the movie set would have thought it was a gloomy rainy day. They might have misinformed a friend. Upon verification, their friend might have doubted their shared trust. More likely, the true friend would have questioned that statement. "I'm two blocks away and there isn't a cloud in the sky". Each of them would then have learned the truth about movie sets.
When enough people believe something that is not true, the lie appears to become the truth. Then we all become victims of falsehood.
"The earth is flat". That spectacular falsehood was perceived as truth for many centuries. All those who believed it did so because they verified the truth of the statement with their eyes. Eventually, scientists discovered the truth. "Earth is a sphere, the sun is a sphere, our world orbits the sun." Speaking the truth when most people believe something else can take enormous courage. Sometimes it can be life-threatening, even fatal.
One aspect of our humanity is that when the truth is inconvenient, we lie.
We lie to spare a friend's feelings ("No... that shirt doesn't make you look fat at all"). That's a 'white lie', a lie that might not bar your path to heaven - if you believe in that kind of thing.
When we lie, not to spare people's feelings, but to advance our own self-interest at the expense of others, the lie fades to black, veils, hides, buries the truth, and corrodes trust.
One of the challenges we face with truth is that finding the truth about complicated things can be quite difficult. To speak the truth concerning complicated things requires diligent work. As the scale of the task increases, when we need to speak the truth to a community, to a nation, to the world, on subjects where finding the truth requires hours and hours, and sometimes months and months, of hard focused work, truth often suffers. We take shortcuts, and truth erodes, along with trust.
On that scale, outright lies are so much easier to manage than truth. Lies simplify the job by orders of magnitude. Supporting public policy, particularly bad or evil policies that undermine democratic principles of equality and fairness, is much simpler with lies than with truth. The lies stack the deck in favour of the liar. Each convenient lie takes mere moments to conjur, and hour upon hour of diligent work to disprove. Faced with a tide of lies, dogged determination and real courage are needed to seek and speak the truth, in order to maintain the trust our society is built on.
When we tolerate a liar in our midst, we turn our backs on truth. When we lose the truth, we lose trust, and we place our society in grave danger. Scientists, judges and journalists are those among us who seek truth and make it public. They maintain the foundations of democracy. When scientists, judges, and journalists come under vigorous attack by liars, as they are in this moment, the risk to democracy becomes intolerable.
Truth is independent of politics. No one can claim a monopoly on truth. Whether liberal or conservative, devout or agnostic, each of us has a sacred duty to promote truth. Each and every one of us has a duty to seek and speak the truth.
Make no mistake. This is a call to vigorous action.
Here is a short list of things you need to do in this time of peril:
- Subscribe to a reputable newspaper and read it daily;
- Watch responsibly reported television news;
- Speak the truth;
- Call a liar a liar;
- Start doing this now.