Help! Is there any real truth in a world of “alternative facts”?

Help! Is there any real truth in a world of “alternative facts”? March 8, 2017

When I speak a “truth” that makes me look better and others look worse, the chances are 100% that I’m way off base from God-truth.

Let us speak truth not lies
Let us speak truth not lies

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: The last election cycle and the first 100 days of the Trump administration have lead me to this question. 

The commandment, “Thou shall not bear false witness,” seems fairly straightforward.  For most of us that means to try your best to tell the truth and don’t choose your words to purposely mislead, equivocate or omit information to purposely lead to falsehoods.  Intuitively, I think we all sense when we aren’t being truthful.

Politicians have turned evasion, attacks on unwanted facts, omissions, generalizations that permit backtracking and flat out lies based on “alternative facts”  into an art form.  Every day it seems fact check websites are on the verge of a meltdown.   

My question – in the new reality of the Internet, is the commandment to tell “The Truth” even possible?  The implications of the emerging acceptability of choosing your own reality is very troubling.  

Foundational to any healthy relationship is the assumption of truth: that what we hear and what we say will be true.

I worked once with some adults who were at risk of losing custody of their children. I mentioned the importance of assuming their children speak truth. One man said, “What do you do when you know for sure they are lying?”

Asked to describe the situation, he responded, “Every day, when my son gets home from school, I ask him if he stayed out of trouble that day. He always says he did, but I often find out later that he didn’t .”

I asked, “What would you do if he told you that he HAD misbehaved?”

The father answered, “I’d haul off and hit him because he shouldn’t have done something wrong at school, of course.”

I suggested his father see it this way: the truth behind his son’s apparent lie is, “I am afraid my dad will hit me.”

We more readily accuse others of lying than working to discover the truth behind the words. The moment we accuse someone of lying, we immediately make it nearly impossible to create the kind of atmosphere where all can speak freely. Accusations like “You lie!” cause impenetrable barriers rise, eliminating the possibility of real, productive relationships. Trying to understand the other keeps conversation going.

Is there an Absolute Truth?

The big question: Is there some objective, absolute, indisputable truth we can call upon?

I think there is and believe we find it in the nature of God. However, I don’t think humans have gained much skill in dissecting those absolute truths. We all suffer from the desire to see that any indisputable truths support the decisions we have already made about the world around us.

Most have honed skills to bend anything we see in our favor. We are also quite clever in finding ways to use what we see for the detriment of those we have classified as “enemy” or “other.”

So, here’s another technique I have learned: When I speak a “truth” that makes me look better and others look worse, the chances are 100% that I’m way off base from God-truth.

Suppose that God-truth says, “All creation is good and redeemable. All humans are worthy of dignity because all bear the mark of the image of the Creator upon them.”

In that God-truth, should I reduce the status of any other person to that of an object rather than fully human, I have walked away from real truth.

But we do this all the time. Other people, instead of being also being human, full of complex needs and pasts and hopes and desires, become to me objects that either support me or stand in opposition to me.

Fear is always behind lies

So, let’s return for a moment the world of “alternative facts,” evasions and outright lies that do indeed dominate our current political world. What is the truth behind these assertions?

Think again about our little boy who must face his father at the end of every school day. What is his major emotion? Fear.

Fear generally stands behind any need to lie. Fear of loss, of rejection, of pain, of failure, of exposure. We all share them.

Note: I make the assumption what we see as lies do not come from someone with certain mental illnesses, which can indeed alter one’s perception of reality. If indeed the current political spin comes from mental illness rather than the need to keep fears at bay, we have a whole different problem.

But assuming basic mental health, those who love truth have a task. We all need to face our fears and speak truth to ourselves about them and how they motivate us to be less truthful. Then we have gained both strength and moral authority to ask others to do the same.

I am convinced truth will eventually win. Lies end up producing such entanglements that chronic speakers of untruths always get trapped in their complex webs. We have every right to call out lies, but we must do so with redemptive hope, not hateful and demeaning accusations.

ask-the-thoughtful-pastor[Note: a version of this column is slated to run in the March 10, 2017, edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.]

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  • jekylldoc

    This is asking the right questions, for sure. And mapping the landmarks of the road back from where we find ourselves.

    I would change one thing, though. When you say, “Fear is behind the need to lie,” and then take it back for pathological liars, the first part is correct and the second is wrong. Those mental illnesses have removed the “need to lie” from the fear in the immediate situation, but they emerge from a life situation in which the fear was pervasive and the caring was not deep enough to overcome the fear within the people dominating the relationship. Sure, other factors may play a role: some unusual willingness to give way to fear, some reinforced pattern of taking refuge in such outrageous lies that they cannot be checked, some desperate cry for help manifested as complete abandonment of the realm of reality. But fear is still behind the need to lie.

    Reading your post, I experienced a small “Aha!” It is not just our new leader who has severed the relationship with reality for the sake of holding off fear. Isn’t that a good description of the economic desperation that turned the swing states in the Rust Belt? Isn’t it a good description of the deep cultural resistance to the pronouncements of the academic community? Isn’t it, in the end, a good description of the fear of changing gender roles behind the revulsion against abortion rights?

    • Yes, I do think fear is behind much of the desperation that brought about our current political situation. The POTUS built his campaign by camping on those fears, fanning them to near hysteric levels.

      I do wish I knew how to deal with the truly mentally ill who do indeed perceive the world in radically different ways. When those perceptions are coupled with an underlying pathological personality disorder, we end up in the dangerous situation we see today. As a nation, we need to seriously address the nature of mental illness and find ways to both bring healing and to prevent those with debilitating ones from holding offices of power.

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Great insight into humanity. Fear is often behind decisions we make. Sometimes for no reason other than that we want to be viewed favorably by others, and we think if people knew the “real” us, they would look down on us. I can certainly relate to the little boy and his father. I grew up in such a home. It is hard to overcome, as I still fight it today. But I thank God for the people in my life who give me love and support.

    • I think it is extremely difficult to get past those kinds of fears that are instilled in us as children. Because of my own crazy childhood, I am aware that when someone yells at me, I will immediately hide and do everything possible, including lie, to protect myself. I have to work hard to stay aware of that so it doesn’t control me.

  • Neo

    Reminds me of Matthew 5:37 – “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

    • Exactly. It really isn’t hard. Truth telling is incredibly freeing. But most of us just don’t do it well, or we do it tinged with cruelty because we are telling the “truth” about others, not about ourselves.

      • Neo

        “Truth telling is incredibly freeing.”

        Yes, love it, and I do like the post above regarding how fear plays a role in our efforts to “shape” the truth in a way we believe will protect us. What I have discovered, in my life, is that in “trusting” in the truth, no matter how bad the short-term consequences are, offers us the best long-term consequences possible, in terms of peace of mind and protection from situations, yet to come.
        What is it they always say, the cover up is worse then the crime.
        And, usually, what we believe is best for us in the short term, is completely off base – one very good reason to trust in the one who sees all, knows all – who encourages us to live in the Truth.