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Honesty in a Post-Truth Era

This article by faculty member Anthea McCall was first published in The Melbourne Anglican June 2017, No 559

“Would I lie to you? Would I lie to you, honey? Oh, no, no, no! Now, would I say something that wasn’t true?” So sang the Eurythmics, the famous British Pop duo back in 1985.

However it seems we are living in what is increasingly referred to as a post-truth age where people don’t object to “alternative facts” and “fake news”. The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 was post-truth, an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping personal opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In tracing the word’s rise, Oxford points to the recent popularization of the word “truthiness,” which refers to “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.” The term “post-truth” depends in part, on the evolution of the meaning of the prefix “post.” It now means not simply “after,” but also refers to “a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.”[1] In other words, truth is not necessarily seen to be non-existent (something many associate with postmodernism), but rather something we no longer really care that much about.

This development of ‘post-truth’ in public life is identified as a move from putting a positive or negative angle on news and policies to outright lying and deception. This manifested itself recently during the Brexit vote, the US election, and even locally in our own federal election campaigns. People believed things which were manifestly untrue, or were presented as ‘alternative facts.’

Ironically, this is partly a result of the erosion of trust at so many levels of our political and institutional life. Dishonesty and promise-breaking is nothing new. But Australians’ trust has been so undermined by slogans, and by adversarial campaign techniques that they have become cynical. Professor Anne Tiernan at Griffith University suggests that public disenchantment can lead people to look outside to others for sources of strength and action. And that means the public will sit loosely to experts and facts and often accept a laissez-faire attitude toward the truth.

The post-truth era is also due to the degree to which we are and can be exposed to fake news, and the speed at which misinformation can pass through our media platforms. In addition to old media, we are now in an age where a plethora of new media organisations, social media sites and user-generated content is impacting the public debate.

What chance does political honesty have in a post-truth age? How do Christians live in a society where it pays to be outrageous, but not to be truthful?  One positive arising out of this alarming development is that thinkers across the world are asking questions about the virtue of honesty, and the danger of losing it from our society in lasting measure.

Christians more than anyone should care about truth and evaluate information carefully. In the Bible, God is called the God of truth. The apostle John describes Jesus as ‘the Word become flesh’ who came to earth and lived among us (Jn 1.14). He said, ‘We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1.15-17). Jesus declared to confused and grieving disciples ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14.6). He promised that his truth will set us free (Jn 8.22).

Christians are indwellt by the Spirit of truth (Jn 14.17), and Jesus called his followers to the highest standards of honesty – letting your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ be ‘No’ (Mtt 5.37). The Apostle Paul famously said that “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” 1 Cor 13.6.

Furthermore, Christians ground their faith on the truth of the gospel. The gospel is the highest, the most outrageous, truth claim ever made: that God became human, dwellt among us, died for our sins, and rose again. To affirm it is to affirm not only the importance of its truth, but of all truth wherever it may be found.

Here are some thoughts of how to respond in a post-truth world:

Firstly in your own personal life:

Become a person who is known for being as fair and truthful as possible. What might this look like in your own dealings in church, business, and home? You are honest about what you have done and what you haven’t done; you don’t promise what you can’t do and you follow through on what you do promise to do; in love you gently correct untruth when you hear it; you do not exaggerate, or embellish in order to make a story or a person better or worse. You seek to prayerfully discern the truth before making comment, and your words are measured. This takes hard work and runs the risk of appearing boring, but on the other hand, being spontaneous and funny can put truth at risk.

Secondly in public life:[2]

(i) Pay for good journalism. It costs money to employ people to do a job and write to a high standard. Getting a subscription to publications you trust (and not complaining too much about the advertising content they need to keep afloat) is a good start.

(ii) Share carefully. Is this story from a source you know and trust? Have you checked if the story is available elsewhere? If we want stories that are truthful to shine through the mass of content, then those are the ones we need to share.

(iii) Get involved. Rather than castigating the media, pray for good, honest reporting. Pray also for well-intentioned politicians struggling to retain their integrity in a pressurised culture full of spin. Share excellent content you have found with your church members. Develop good relationships with your local representative. Talk to them about the value you place on truth and hold them to account.

The normalisation of lying is a terrifying prospect, and navigating a post-truth age will require thought and effort. But honesty is worth fighting for. May our lives reflect that we follow the God of truth who has said that telling the truth is the way to true blessing.[3]

[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

[2] Based largely on the suggestions of Andy Walton Christianity Today 24/11/16

[3] Much of my reflection for this article was sparked by listening to “Political honesty: Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” The Minefield ABC RN March 8, 2017.

 

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