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Be Honest – The Place of Truth in a Post Truth Society.

Have you ever noticed how when someone writes ‘be honest about X’ they often really mean “agree with me about X’?  The standard of honesty is reduced to ‘that which agrees with me’.   And we can, thanks to Google, Wiki and the algorithms and filters so helpfully supplied by Facebook, Twitter and other Internet giants, easily find many who agree with us and thus they can be safely  pronounced ‘honest’.

Of course this means that those who disagree with us are dishonest liars or just not as intelligent as we are.  We know this because we have the web pages, memes and tweets to prove it!

We are told that we live in a post truth society – and yet everyone seems concerned about truth.  But it seems to me as though we have redefined truth to be ‘that which agrees with how I feel’ rather than any reality.  Like the Manic Street Preachers we say ‘this is my truth, tell me yours’ – as though truth were entirely subjective.

I have been reflecting on this (and how such an attitude so easily becomes mine – if in a somewhat modified form) after the reaction to my post What is the Truth about Australia’s Bushfires    Whilst there were many positive reactions far too many people judged the article on the basis of what they already believed – rather than the substance (or lack thereof) within it.

If you think that climate change is a Marxist hoax then you were happy to pick up on the facts about arson, previous bushfires and fuel loads.  But the acknowledgement that manmade climate change is a factor in making these bushfires worse was like a red rag to a bull!  I think my favourite comment was from a man who told me to ‘go bury your head in the sand’ because I did not recognise that it was Islamic extremists who were setting the fires!

On the other hand if you think that climate change is the only cause/subject that matters then any comments other than ‘it’s all climate change and we’re all going to die unless Scott Morrison gives up on the fossil fuel industry’ are clearly of the devil and show that you are part of the denialist conspiracy!

And so two tribes go to war!

But I was encouraged/discouraged by two articles that I read which recognised the problem and the need for truth on all sides.   (By the way – why does there need to be ‘sides’?   I don’t have anything invested in an opinion about why the fires are burning – I just want to know the truth and I want to know what can be done to help).  The first was this article from the BBC – Australia Fires;  Misleading maps and pictures go viral. 

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The ‘fake photo’ supposed to have come from NASA

The second was this from the Australian. Bogus, misleading bushfire images do rounds on social media  which demonstrated that there were fake images, old videos, and photo shopped images doing the rounds. The trouble is that people pick up on these and because they are circulated by people we trust we assume they are true.  It seems as though celebrities, in particular, have the worst impact – largely because they have the largest followings.    Some of these are inadvertently passed on because people think/feel they are real.  Others sadly are the product of scams.  These bushfires have brought out both the best and the worst in human nature.

Christians are not immune to this.  We can also far too quickly pass on ‘good news’ or bad news (gossip) without thinking or checking – purely and simply because they seem to support our cause.  So for example we hear that 2 million Iranians have just become Christians and that gets passed on.  We hear that Richard Dawkins has just endorsed the necessity of Christianity for a civilised society and we gleefully pass it on.  But we don’t check either the truth or the context — and the latter is so important because truth without a context can so easily breed a lie.

What can be done?

I would suggest that an unhealthy sceptism is not the answer.  When we believe no one or nothing then we live in a world which consists only or our own views and we are immune to challenge.   But there is such a thing as a healthy sceptism.   What does that mean?

Firstly we should hold all our opinions with humility.  We have to allow for the possibility that we might be wrong.   We also have to admit our limited knowledge.  I like this verse from Proverbs 18:17

In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right,

until someone comes forward and cross-examines. 

We have to be cautious about making judgements passed on the limited information we have.

Secondly we need to think well of others.  They may be wrong (as we may be) but that does not mean they are deliberately lying or that they are stupid.   A gracious answer turns away wrath!

Then we need to seek after truth – even inconvenient truths.  I am reading just now an expose of a Christian leader I admire.  I don’t know if it is true or not.  But it may be.  I cannot just jump to his defence because I admire him – but neither can I pronounce him ‘guilty’ because someone writes what seems to be a convincing case.  I am not the judge.  Here is where a biblical theology helps.  The Bible tells us that even the greatest leaders can fall and so we should be dismayed, but not surprised, when that happens.

I am far more likely to trust a politician, journalist, church leader if they tell us is detrimental to them – as well as what promotes their cause.  Even on the reports about ‘fake news’ it is mildly amusing to see how the fake news is often presented as only being on the other side.   The Christian perspective is that all humans are liars!

Don’t be too quick to dismiss – not every post you disagree with is a result of Russian bots, communists plots or far right idiots!  And some of the ones you agree with may be.  Check sources.  Even check the ‘fact checkers’!  My apologies for when I have not done so and sometimes inadvertently passed on false information.

Don’t be afraid to challenge – and don’t allow yourself to be emotionally bullied or scared into silence.  One rather sad response to my post was that they were scared it would be used by climate deniers – so what?!  Most of the Bible would not have been written if the Lord was concerned about how people would misuse it!  Emotional bullying occurs when someone tells you a (usually) anecdotal story about someone who committed suicide or were deeply hurt because of your views.  It’s an effective silencer – if you stop thinking!

What also helps is if we can find reliable sources.  In this Internet age I am finding this harder and harder.  I have stopped subscribing to most newspapers because the majority have become little more than gossip columns and opinions pieces.  But there are journalists who are prepared to give information even when it goes against their own opinions (I think of Iain MacWhirter of the Herald and James Forsyth of the Spectator as two examples of people whose reporting carries more credence than most!)

We also need to stop seeking our identity in our being right.  It’s ok for us to get things wrong.  God knows.  He doesn’t love us because we are right – he loves us because he loves us.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about truth – precisely the opposite – it just means that he does not need us to tell him the truth!  Neither, for that matter, does the world.  He may use us for the purpose of telling truth- but we are not that truth – and the truth is not dependent on us.

Finally we need to be aware of absolutists – or what are sometimes called fundamentalists.  By that I do not mean those who have fundamental beliefs (we all do), but rather those who are so limited that they are convinced that all their beliefs, and only their beliefs, are correct.  People parrot opinions as though they were absolute facts.  This does not mean that there are not absolute facts, or that we cannot know them, it just means that not everything we ‘know’ is an absolute.

The more I go on the more I see that all truth is God’s truth and that I need not be afraid of any truth.   But I also know that there is only one person who is The Truth and in him, and him alone, do I trust absolutely.    His word is truth (not the distortions or perversions so easily used by some religious teachers) and I accept that – unequivocally.  From that basis – having that assurance – rather than closing my mind to truths that are not contained in the Bible – it opens it. Why should I be afraid of anything that is true?    And so we seek to understand and know.

I write, read, speak and debate in order to learn – not to impart my wisdom!  It’s a great privilege for me to have so many people who contribute to that learning.   It’s also a relief to find that the more I learn, the more I know what I don’t know and how much I have to learn!   Rather than drive me to despair – when I discover I have got something wrong – it is a reason to rejoice – because its a great way to learn.  I sometimes think I learn more from my mistakes than from anything else!  Those who are afraid of getting things wrong will never get things right.

As the good book says “Trust not in princes, nor mans son, in whom there is no stay”….but rather trust in Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life!

PS.  Here are a couple of examples of information that helps – after writing the article on the bushfires I was sent a lot of material.  These two were the most helpful….The first is a fascinating historical documentary about bushfire hazard reduction – https://vimeo.com/135628812

And the second was this article about Barnaby Joyce being corrected by the impressive Shane Fitzsimmons head of the NSW fire service.

I learned a great deal from both.

The Madness of Crowds – A Review of Douglas Murray’s Latest Book

16 comments

  1. I appreciate this post and the earlier one about the truth about Australian bush fires. I agree with you that serious journalism has diminished in the print media. I suspect the 24/7 demand for instant churning out of ‘news’ has been a significant contributory cause in recent years

  2. What triggers the need. The need to always be on top of everything. To opine on everything? On things beyond expertise , competence, experience?
    I was taught to go to the source, for evidence, for the law. Culture today has no time for time, time for reflection, to weigh things. Nearly everything now is reflex, knee jerk. Experts are wheeled out only to reveal their expertise in the banal.
    Media reporting of cases was generally woeful. It is far worse now, seeking either to be Prosecution, Judge and Jury, or Defence, Judge and Jury in the emphasis and omissions.
    There is no discourse:shut off and locked down into liars v liars.
    How often do we see twits descend into terminology and accusations of lying, even from Christians? It rarely wins an argument.
    It may not mean too much today, but to lie is to be dishonest. Dishonesty is downgrade to mere dog’s breath, not character killing it used to be.
    As Christians do we resort to character assassination outright and even by dint of hint.
    Douglas Murray: there is an excellent discussion between him and Esther McVeigh hosted by Justin Brierly on Premier Radio podcast thing. it is up to date, delving into “forgiveness” and recent public Christian acts of forgiveness in USA. it is a fascinating insight into the man, and what took him away from faith and what may bring him back. worth listening to the end.
    I’m not sure that a stand alone statement that we are all liars, without explanation, without scriptural, theological support, does little other than generate more heat than light.

    1. Are you saying there is someone who is not a liar? That none are? That some are, but others not? It seems to me that Psalm 14 tells us we are all corrupt, Ephesians tells us we are all dead in sins and trespasses. I cannot name a single person who is not in some sense a liar – that’s not the same as saying that everyone lies all the time! I’m not sure what is an obvious biblical and rational truth would generate more heat than light!

      1. Is that the essence of your character David, your identity?
        Who is your Father? It is not the father of lies.
        The question of intention to deceive, is central in determining whether something is a mistake, error ignorance or lie.
        More could be said but this risks being a responsive comment from sick/weariness.

      2. Yes – I accept that I am a sinner – and that includes lying and deceiving. But I am a forgiven sinner – forgiven by the one who never lied and cannot lie. I’m not sure what the problem is with stating that all humanity are sinners – deceived and deceivers….?

    2. David,
      What I am saying is that while everyone sins, we do not all sin in every direction and to call some a liar is to denigrate, to defame, legally and sets up dividing walls of hostility, especially when it is rare that we know people personally over media, when we have little or no idea. It can amount to pugilistic hostility, rather than being agents of reconciliation.
      In my Union with Christ, does he call me Liar. Is that what he called Simon/Peter after the resurrection. Reformed teaching as you know, has me calling God, Abba, and all who believe, righteous sons.
      Tim Keller, in his book on Jonah, The Prodigal Prophet, mentions that the essence of sin, in Gen, is the character assignation of God.
      I’d extend it: the second is like it- the character assassination of neighbour.

      1. Geoff – I’m still not sure what your problem is. If you don’t deny that everyone lies – then the statement that everyone lies is self-evidently true. This is not the same as walking up to every individual and calling them a liar – any more than I would walk up to every individual and call them a sinner – or an adulterer! I assume you are not claiming that you never lie, deceive or distort the truth? So yes I am happy to say that all human beings are sinners – and if that means I am accused of defamation and threatened with lawsuits etc…so be it. My job is to teach the BIble not water it down or compromise it!

  3. Thanks again, David. A good teaching / instruction as well as a timely post. Our family Christmas / New Year letter included a description of 1939 – when my Mum and Dad were teenagers. Apart from the Nazis entering Poland and Franco conquering Madrid, Australia had 70 deaths as a result of the “worst ever” fires, Chile had a devastating 8.3 earthquake and the US Midwest had drought (that was before the aquafers were also drained). Yes, all these things have happened before but the difference today is that the birth pains are getting more frequent. The world needs to sit up and take notice of the one who is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ – the days are very short.

  4. “Have you ever noticed how when someone writes ‘be honest about X’ they often really mean “agree with me about X’? The standard of honesty is reduced to ‘that which agrees with me’.”

    Why is that surprising? If you believe something is true, and that the evidence is absolutely convincing, why wouldn’t you think that the answer was so obvious that anyone denying it must be somehow suspect? Even, perhaps especially, theological arguments have come to violence that way ever since humans could speak – the passion is directly proportionate to the importance of the issue.

    This article came up when I Googled a famous quote – I think it’s quite interesting, although the maths are beyond me.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwell%27s_rule

    And another quote, at the end, is all too apt:-
    “Absolutely nothing useful is realized when one person who holds that there is a 0 (zero) percent probability of something argues against another person who holds that the probability is 100 percent”

    Times that up by (for instance) *all* the different hypotheses for the cause of Australia’s fires and it’s no surprise that relatively temperate, mixed positions like yours will be borne down in a torrent of passionate certainty by supporters of all of them.

    One just hopes there won’t be some poor innocent foreigner hanged, as in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London – which the Monument wrongly attributed to terrorism for over a hundred years.

    1. “If you believe something is true, and that the evidence is absolutely convincing, why wouldn’t you think that the answer was so obvious that anyone denying it must be somehow suspect?” – Because I’m not that arrogant! I don’t assume that those who disagree with me are either stupid or lying. There are other possibilities. I could be wrong. We could both be wrong. I could be partly right and so on. It is the heing of arrogance to assume that those who disagree with you are de facto liars.

      1. I can understand people, without necessarily wanting to be them or agree with them. And I sometimes think I could do with a little more “arrogance” when upholding, for example, my Faith – I’m sure it’s an accusation you’ve attracted from its enemies on more than a few occasions. And equally, assuming I’m always wrong (as I heard a dear minister confess to as her invariable first reaction the other day – possibly not unconnected with the fact she is junior to a very much more assertive colleague) simply lets the biggest and noisiest bully win in the teeth of any fact or truth.

        But it’s not about you, or I, and how “arrogant” we are: truth is still the truth even if we allow ourselves to be bullied into “compromise” the way Pilate did when faced with the Truth in person. And facts are still facts whether we accept them or not. We should neither race to a new conclusion nor cling to the old one, and that things can have more than one cause is something any insurance investigator could testify.

        On climate change generally, if anyone is bothered what I think, I would drill down to the deeper, eternal principles that greed, destruction and waste have always been wrong, and are no less wrong for the fact shareholders can make loads of money out of them. That seeing others let rip and sin freely has never let us off trying to discipline ourselves, share with others, prevent harm or help its victims regardless of who is at fault. And that some modern equivalent of “We have Abraham for our father” that takes it for granted God will shield us from harm regardless will get the same response it did the first time round.

        If a growth in justice and careful, not wasteful, use of God’s gifts – surely the only kind of “growth” that can pay lasting dividends – incidentally slows down the rate of climate change to our benefit, then I would not split hairs about how much of the blame was “just Nature” and how much ours. But with another war impending – and one which could be very good for the oil companies – I can’t see anybody caring what either of us thinks, let alone what is or isn’t true.

        God send you rain soon.

  5. Good pieces — this one, and the previous one about the bushfires. Today’s NY Times has an interesting analysis of the news coverage: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/08/world/australia/fires-murdoch-disinformation.html

    The problem with all that is, of course, that people here that there’s misinformation/disinformation and jump to the conclusion that the media are over-playing the seriousness of the situation. And that means that people will stop caring. (Already, I’ve seen two of my Facebook “friends” in Canada post messages to the effect that they’ve had enough of hearing about the fires. Must be nice.)

    1. “interesting” perhaps, but no less biased (if not more so) than the competing news organisation that it’s criticising. A case of the pot calling the kettle black.

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