Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Problem with Truth

I'm an oldest child with one younger brother. Growing up, we didn't break a ton of rules or get very rebellious. But when we did, it was my honor as the oldest child to lie better than my little brother and get us (or at least me) out of as much trouble as possible.

I discovered that I could pull it off if I believed what I was saying: if I imagined being a version of myself who was truly innocent. I also discovered that the best lies are actually alterations of the truth. You'll have enough supporting evidence lying around that nobody will dig deeper.

I don't lie very much. Almost always, my lies are to cover things about me I don't want people to know: how I'm really doing, or that thing I do or think or feel that's societally unacceptable. I think most of us lie about that stuff. You don't want to admit that you've had suicidal thoughts, or that you're not sure you're hetero, or that you like Donald Trump.

Personal truths like that are obfuscated all the time. Luckily, they don't tend to hurt society. They just hurt the individual(s). (Piece of advice: telling the truth will set you free.)

But larger truths--about our world and our society--are also obfuscated: changed, misinterpreted, miscommunicated, or replaced with a different, more palatable "truth."

I know exactly how it happens.

I know because of what I learned at university. They taught us how to comport ourselves and how to communicate clearly, concisely, and with that particular academic voice. I stored away a large vocabulary full of those long words that for some reason lend greater credence to one's words.

I also spent my college years writing persuasive essays online--fantastic writing practice for my later career. I moved on to write for organizations, to persuade people to give money to good causes. At some point I realized I had a special power.

Three short years at a university earned me a shiny degree, but they also gave me the ability to sound like I know what I'm doing. And people follow people who know what they're doing.

If I turn on the academic voice, use long words, and reference some names, people listen. They may not always believe me, but I found that my skills with rhetoric get people to think, investigate, and interact.

Education gives you the power of knowledge and also the power of sounding

Fame adds to the equation. If someone famous says it, suddenly it sounds even more true, because we assume famous people have been vetted by hundreds of people before they got their podium and their voice. Not to mention that most famous people in America are in the media, meaning they've been trained how to speak well and and how to act--how to make you believe them.

It can be a productive skill. Or it can be a destructive one.

If you say it right, people lend you a little more authority than they do their mom and their neighbor. If you say the right thing in just the right way to the right audience, you could start an untruth going around.

Things like: the color orange has a causal relationship with road rage. Broccoli makes you fat. Vaccines give children autism. Climate change is a natural, non-anthropogenic phenomenon. Evolution is just athiests' way of explaining existence without acknowledging God.

The right person speaking at the right time can lead thousands into believing something that we know is false. Know, as in we can (dis)prove it.

If you've been taught how to speak well, if you use science-y words, if you name-drop, if you can instill doubt and fear in the right parts of people's minds, if you can take a quote out of context, if you can feed people's egos, if you can take the meaning of a research paper and twist it ever so slightly and then extend that a little...voila. You have a new truth. A totally made-up truth that sounds legit.

And if people want to believe it, they will.

All it takes is the right person saying it the right way to the right audience.

These powers can be used for good. We can and often do educate each other about real, factual truths. Gluten probably isn't making you sick. If enough people get vaccinated, horrible plagues can be eradicated, saving thousands of lives both now and in the future. Recycling, reducing your water usage, and driving less will help conserve resources that are not infinite and will run out one day. Empowering women leads to healthy children and widespread literacy--and ultimately, economic growth in third world countries. Racism is instilled in our social systems and needs to be weeded out, without white guilt halting our progress.

All these truths are propounded by rhetorically-skilled people.

One of the truths I tell people is that slavery is real. It employs ~27 million men, women, and children around the planet. Some are enslaved as laborers; over 60% of them are locked up and forced into prostitution. Customers are usually middle-aged white Western men with families, middle-class income, and regular church attendance. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are currently in slavery, within American borders, some for forced labor and most for sex.

These are truths. Statistics. Not lie-truths or half-truths, but real and ugly ones.

Why is it that this truth isn't the one that spreads? That's discussed on the news? (It's certainly tragic enough to satisfy news outlets' desire for the Next Worst Thing.) Why isn't this the truth the American church is outraged about? Why isn't this the truth our politicians debate solutions for?

I still run into people who don't believe slavery exists at all. Most people don't believe it exists in America. Very few realize it happens in their own town.

I'm not alone in talking about this. But we're not famous enough, or not saying it the right way, or our audience doesn't want to hear it. I could tell a lie people want to believe and make it popular, but I can't get people to stand up and fight for slaves' rights.

This is the problem with truth. There are so many truths out there, it's hard to know which ones are true, which ones are worth investigating, and which ones our bias is keeping us from.

It's hard to offer one big takeaway for a blog post like this. I want to tell you to investigate everything before you believe it, and especially before you share it.

I want to tell you that you have a voice, and that voice has power, but like everything, you can choose to use your power for good or evil. Jedi or Sith.

I want to tell you that while it's hard to find truth, that doesn't mean truth isn't out there or that you should stop looking. It's worth it to keeping looking. Just keep an open mind while you investigate.

I want to tell you to save your outrage for when it matters--because there will be a time to get angry and rise up.

And of course, I want to tell you not to believe every believable-sounding thing you hear. Including from me. I have a persuasive voice and I like to think I'm right, but that doesn't mean I am (despite what I wish).

The truth (the real truth) is that nearly anything you and I believe could be wrong. There are very few* truths that I hold as irrevocable: the rest I could be utterly wrong about. I don't want to be wrong. I've tried to do my research and think things through. But there are too many angles for one person to sift through and have all the truth. I have to live with being wrong about some things...forever.

Especially because there's always a truth we're not ready for. I know there are truths I don't want to believe because they would undermine the things I really, really want to believe. There are some truths I am going to miss in my search, because I'm not ready to hear them.

The best I can do is keep using my voice to tell the truth to the best of my ability, whether people are ready for it or not. Meanwhile, I'm going to keep looking for the truth, so that the things I believe and share with others can be as true as possible.

* They can be summed up in two sentences: There is a God. God loves everyone and me.

Photos: Expression by Deiby ChicoChained and Locked by Dustin Gaffke.