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Does truth matter in our post-truth society, asks Peter Sara.
Many years ago, I was acting for a woman in a bitter matrimonial property case which was before the High Court. One day my client came to me very upset because she had received in the mail a box of matches. She believed this had been sent by her husband and was nothing less than a threat he would burn down her house.
Shortly later, I received a letter from the Law Society which informed me a complaint had been made by the husband that I had threatened to burn his house down. I told my work partner about it and he wrote a response on my behalf to the effect the complainant was obviously mentally unwell.
The Law Society was unimpressed with this response. A special investigator had been appointed and it was made clear the society took the matter seriously. A full explanation was required. This took a full day to compose because the whole history of the litigation had to be documented. My carefully constructed denial was accepted and the complaint went no further.
The point about this story is that a ridiculous lie had gained some traction. Had it been believed, I would have faced prison and the end of my career. Determining the truth was critical.
These days a new term has emerged: "Post-truth". Apparently, this means "Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". We call it "spin" and those who practise its dark arts, "spin doctors". It used to be a derogatory expression employed with disdain, if not disgust, whenever and wherever it showed its oily face. Spotting the "spin" is a matter of pride for those of us who hate to get sucked in.
But it seems the shabby business of "spin" has come of age. Now it is post-truth. Now straight-out lies are "alternative facts", and we are expected to go along with this.
In a way, post-truth is the inevitable progeny of post-modernism. Having denied the existence of any ultimate principles, post-modernism ultimately leads to the ground which is as only as solid and true as individuals believe it to be. There is no longer solid ground of reality. No universal truth. Does truth matter? If it does, who are the truth tellers? My respect for many atheists comes from their respect for truth as the basis for personal belief and world view. They simply don’t believe the claims of religion because they are not convinced by their truth claims. Whether I agree with their conclusions or not, at least we share a reverence for truth itself.
In a remarkable exchange recorded in John’s gospel, Pilate asks Jesus a series of questions: Pilate: "So, you are a king?"
Jesus: "You say that I am king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the cosmos: to demonstrate the power of truth. Everyone who seeks truth hears My voice."
Pilate (to Jesus): "What is truth?"
Jesus does not answer Pilate, but in another passage from the same book, Jesus declares of himself: "I am the way the truth and the life."
Pilate’s question could have been: "Who is truth?"
Asking the right question is everything. Atheists ask Pilate’s question and get no answer from Jesus. Those seeking truth in a person, however, open the door of faith and revelation.
Does truth matter? We can test this by asking ourselves if we are happy to live in a world of constant relativism, where appeals to our individual prejudices and biases will dictate how we think and respond.
Perhaps the unhappy husband believed I meant to burn his house down. Ultimately someone in authority had to make the call that there was no truth in this allegation. Truth mattered to me and the Law Society. Truth matters.
Noah Berlatsky writes: "I think the prefix ‘post’ has special resonance in light of post-modernism, post-humanism, etc."
Nathan Atkinson, an assistant professor at Georgia State University, explains by email.
"It implies an end and a transcendence all at once."
The internet age is obsessed with the idea of rapid change — whether utopian or dystopian.
"Post-truth" implies we’ve slipped into a bleak tomorrow in which information is so ubiquitous and uncontrolled, that truth has no meaning. Similarly, "post-racial", which became a prominent buzzword after president Barack Obama’s election, implied that racism no longer existed.
Today, we need a renaissance of truth telling. May it be that the character and actions of those who profess truth be a yardstick of truthfulness. May it be that we continue to be on guard against "spin-doctors" and others who seek to manipulate public opinion by peddling lies. May we applaud those who tell the truth, however unpopular it may be.
- Peter Sara is an Elim Christian Centre elder.