It’s a truism to point out that as the internet has enveloped more of our lives, it’s also been rewiring our social and political lives in a thousand subtle and significant ways.
One of the casualties of this has been the erosion of trust. Back in 2017, three books were published in the same week all discussing the prevalence of lies, bullshit (there is a distinction to be made), and that freshly minted word from 2016, ‘post-truth’. All were provoked by the campaigns of the 2016 US election and the UK’s Brexit referendum, both of which were awash with lies and disinformation.
In the years since these books were published, the proliferation of disinformation on the web has been unabated; there are no internet gatekeepers insisting on truth as the price of publication. The current Australian referendum on indigenous rights seems to be a case in point, with the debate being shaped by an alarming ‘disinformation ecosystem’, with lies fuelling racism and vice versa. It’s in light of these kinds of debates that the BBC Verify department was launched in May this year, with a team of 60 journalists employed to fact-check claims; an initiative that has not been without its critics.
The need to establish the veracity of claims is not the only pressure truth-seeking is under. In some quarters, to even search honestly and openly for truth can be a subversive and costly business. Universities traditionally tend to pride themselves on being places where the truth is valued and sought after. This has historically entailed being bastions of free speech. However, in recent years, a censorious culture has given some institutions a hue of Orwell’s ‘ministry of truth’ from his classic novel 1984, ensuring that only approved opinions are held. While the area of freedom of speech is complicated, nuanced, and liable to trigger (to use the parlance) – it’s hard not to see the direction of travel as a threat to the sanctity of the truth.
For anyone troubled by the fact that truth seems to be under siege from various directions (which I think we should all be), it’s worth pausing to ask what the value of truth is, and why it’s worth getting bothered about. This is a richly philosophical topic with more PHD length rabbit holes than you could shake a stick at, though a few useful things can be said briefly without having to go down any of them.
Firstly, truth seems to have an intrinsic value quite apart from its utility; we have an overwhelming intuition that the truth matters, regardless of its consequences. If the universe were meaningless, we should just maximise happiness regardless of the truth, though as writer Iain McGilchrist points out, even if the truths “led to suffering we would be right to hold them as non-negotiable, and indeed to hold them in reverence”. To value the truth for its own sake suggests that the universe has meaning, and truth is part of the fabric of this universe, rather than being a human invention. McGilchrist argues persuasively in his 2021 book The Matter With Things, that truth is an irreducible value of the universe that will persist long after humans disappear (unlike lies which require human manufacturing).
Secondly, it’s worth thinking about what this word truth means, and the demands it makes of us. Truth derives from the word ‘troth’, as in ‘to be betrothed to someone’. It denotes faithfulness, and characterises the proper relationship between consciousness and the world, as McGilchrist also points out. It is not a thing to be possessed, nor a proposition or set of beliefs to assent to – it’s a process and a pathway. Something to be pursued and followed wherever it leads.
The language of truth and deception are in many ways at the heart of religious belief and spiritual tradition. Jesus’ trial captures a brief but fascinating conversation about truth, as the Roman Governor Pontious Pilate asks the surprisingly contemporary question, ‘What is truth?’ A suggestion, perhaps, that what constitutes truth was up for debate even back then. One of Jesus’ most well-known utterances in the Bible seems to answer this question, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’; the truth is a person to follow, rather than an idea to assent to. The compelling mystery of this statement was brought out by the poet Emily Dickinson’s poem:
Truth – is as old as God –
His Twin Identity
And will endure as long as He
Equally, lies and deception in the Bible are associated with the devil, who is tellingly referred to as ‘the great deceiver’. When the value of truth loses its footing in our culture, we court more than the danger of ideological tyranny and deception, but of losing our map and compass for reality itself.