There is an old saying, which is as certain in its meaning as it is uncertain in its origins: “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Destruction is preceded by delusion. This idea, which is rooted in the thought of antiquity, also has a parallel in the mysterious words of St. Paul:
The coming of the lawless one will be accompanied by the working of Satan, with every kind of power, sign, and false wonder, and with every wicked deception directed against those who are perishing, because they refused the love of the truth that would have saved them. For this reason God will send them a powerful delusion so that they believe the lie, in order that judgment may come upon all who have disbelieved the truth and delighted in wickedness. (2 Thess 2:9-12)
Recently I read about a college professor who has just begun his virtual semester teaching Mandarin. Like all languages, their inherent properties mean that they favor “filler” sounds and words which usually help a speaker develop his thought or otherwise fills the empty space in a dialogue. We English speakers often make sounds like “um” or use words such as “like” in this manner. This professor was fired because a certain Mandarin “filler” sounds like a racial slur in English. He was put on leave for this, even though he wasn’t really using a racial slur.
Another story comes to mind in this vein, when a Dominican friar once reported going to a University to teach and was falsely reported by a student, due to the appearance of his religious habit, to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Thankfully, people were able to shame the man accusing the poor Priest out of his ignorance, but such is the attitude which is growing like a malignant cancer throughout the world, a toxic union of ignorance and rash judgment. Some have said that this is a societal amplification of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is the idea that a person’s arrogance is typically correlated to his ignorance. As Socrates reminded us, the root of wisdom, let alone true knowledge, is having at least the willingness to accept that one does not know far more than one does know. Humility is not only the foundation of knowledge, but also of love.
These anecdotes and tendencies can be summed up in a one-line thesis. So much of the collapse in modern civility I believe can be understood as a pursuit of facts without truth, or of “truths” without facts.
Some good people would probably interject that the problem is that people are forgetting how to really love each other, but that is simply a different angle of looking at the same problem. If knowledge is the acquiring of facts, wisdom is the union of knowledge with love. Even brute facts, without the moderating and correcting presence of context, can become extremely misleading, both in the sciences and in relationships.
Let’s start with the pursuit of facts without truth. Journalism at its finest and most authentic happens when reporters seek to bring the full truth of a situation to light. Many reporters in various parts of the world put their lives and livelihood at risk in order to perform this crucial service in the service of liberty and humanity, because the truth does not only set us free morally and religiously, but also politically. Journalism becomes corrupted and perverted when it deviates from the basic goal of the search and delivery of the truth to people. This perversion has become so disturbing that many of our major news outlets, especially in light of the rioting of recent months, have the gall to report the massive destruction of property as “mostly peaceful” even as the cameras, our surrogate eyes, show us city blocks up in flames. I take comfort in the power of comedy and satire to call these borderline ‘Sovietical’ excuses for journalism exactly what they are: lies.
A concurrent feature of this pursuing of facts without truth is also the promulgation of “truths” without facts. For instance, the “truth” that there are no real differences between biological men and women, as ontologically, scientifically, and grammatically absurd as that statement is. “Fact checkers” used to provide a very helpful service to the average person when they looked for a quote, an assertion’s source, or original context in order to help us to understand the reality of a situation. It seems to me that most “fact checkers”, even the once-blameless Snopes, are now “truth checkers”, looking to see if a person is asserting what is in conformity with the standard orthodoxy.
Classical liberals used to laugh at ancient and medieval people because they had a very strong aversion to what they (and I) called heretical thinking, or heterodoxy. They used to say that things such as censorship and the Index of Forbidden Books were totally of the past. Education and a ‘scientific mindset’ would set us free from these parochial, tribalistic ways of thinking. But ancient and medieval people understood that heretical thinking, which doesn’t just mean errors on purely theological matters, can cause the collapse of civilization. Fallacious reasoning, when it reaches a critical mass, becomes a mass delusion. Some people may counter this assertion by saying that religious thinking is simply one mass delusion among thousands which have at one time or another gripped our collective psyches. Yet, only a person with a facile grasp of theology or religion can possibly assert that, because many world religions have a metaphysical vision which is based on centuries or millennia of accumulated experience of humanity, let alone the content of divine revelation.
Noam Chomsky, while no friend to traditional religion, noted in his book Manufacturing Consent that industrialized, modern mass media is in its essence the same as a priestly caste for a pre-scientific culture. In the past, it was the priestly caste that was considered educated or holy enough to interpret the natural and supernatural worlds, and to ‘divine’ meaning from world events and human behavior. Only they could read the entrails of sheep, the flights of birds, or the appearance of comets, and tell king and peasant alike their significance.
While we live in a so-called ‘scientific’ era, we have never left behind as human beings the desire for authentic interpretation of the meaning of things. But, presently, it seems that most people, at least in practice, view journalists and the news media as the current interpretive caste. In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary added the word “post-truth” to the vocabulary of the English language, ostensibly in reaction to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. But Trump is only a symptom, not the disease. It strikes me as disingenuous to claim that Trump is a liar, crass and hypocritical, when so much of our ruling class manifest the exact same pathologies. We are a culture that loves the untrue, the banal, and the self-contradictory. Should we be surprised if then our leaders come from the same stock? Even in the context of Trump, I still think Peter Thiel put it best: Trump’s supporters take him seriously, not literally, while his adversaries take him literally, but not seriously. This manifests another aspect to the truth/fact problem: even if a person speaks the truth today, and even if he has the facts to support it, the problem of credibility is now at the forefront of our malaise.
Once, like Fox Mulder in the American series The X–Files, we as a society always believed that “the truth was out there.” But now, because of the collapse in credibility, the average person is experiencing one of two things: an epistemological nihilism, where we become incapable of believing anything we see or hear, or epistemological ghettoization, where different segments of the population diverge and differ according to their own standards of credibility, leading to whole groups of people formed according to competing cultural ‘magisteria’: for instance, people who preferentially watch FOX, CNN, or the BBC for their information about the world.
Pope Benedict XVI, with his typical perspicacity, foresaw this in his now-famous 2006 Regensburg Address. Although most of the Western media could only hyperfocus on the remarks on Islam and violence (which, ironically, led to eruptions of Islamic violence around the world), the more important point he made was taken from the Platonic dialogue Phaedo, where he foresaw the tragic results of a world which largely suspends its ongoing search for truth. His remarks bear quoting in full:
Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: ‘It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being – but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss’. The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.
In other words, continued exposure to lies, both psychologically and morally, leads to exasperation and despair. Benedict viewed the University as playing a crucial role in forming students in a love for the truth, in the broadest senses of the word. He identified, like many cultural critics have, that the University is at the core of the decay in the modern discourse, with its corruption of language and thought. We Catholics especially have an epochal responsibility to uphold and/or rebuild the edifice of education which is one of the glories and foundations of Western Civilization.
As is now once again made clear from current events, what starts as a mere idea has effects in common life. “Post-Truth” may have been coined by Oxford academics after the election of Trump, but many of those same academics for decades had mocked the idea of truth entirely. The sons of the revolution, once again, are being devoured by the guillotine. And like most out-of-control revolutions, the establishment is now setting up “Committees of Public Safety” whose purpose is to police thought and punish dissent in the name of upholding the commonweal. One need only look at the invasive and aggressive interventions of Facebook, Google, and Twitter in their crusade to squelch postmodern heresy.
My final observation is one on the personal price of this civilizational crisis. The divorce of facts from truth and truth from facts, is at the root of so much modern witch hunting, as evidentiary standards are lowered to the point of non-existence in order to justify institutionalized slander. When facts cannot uphold the standard orthodoxy, the facts must be doctored to uphold it. This happened, as I have said many times, with priests, and we were just the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Nick Sandmann, the youth who was defamed by the media simply for the crime of being a conservative who chose silence over screaming confrontation, won his defamation suit (or rather, arrived at a settlement out of court) against CNN and other news outlets. That poor young man suffered greatly because of a casual disregard for the truth. Now, we are exposed to the tears and grief of mothers of dead children, and owners of burned businesses, who are trivialized and demeaned by a ruling establishment that does not want to take the truth of the Marxist roots of the violence seriously.
Speaking the truth, as many writers have said, is a rebellious and subversive act in an empire of lies. There is a difference, however, between speaking an untruth and speaking a lie. As Thomas Aquinas defined a lie as an untruth affirmed with an intention to deceive, we cannot ignore the power of human malice in the ascendancy of lies over truth. As St. Paul said, the greatest delusion of all to come, that of the Great Apostasy and the Antichrist, will come upon a people who not only tell untruths, but actively and maliciously will their dissemination. They become, as the psychologist Scott Peck famously called them, “the people of the lie”.
That same Mystery of Iniquity is active in these times, and will continue until the arrival of Christ, who will destroy the Great Deceiver, and all deceit, with the “sword that proceeds from his mouth.” That sword is a symbol for the truth. Yet it would be a mistake to think that the responsibility for the destruction of deceit lies solely in the hands of the one who is Truth Incarnate. That same sword of truth can be found in the minds and mouths of all people of good will, who commit themselves to proclaiming it, come what may, in whatever time or place they find themselves.
(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Scrutum et Lorica site in a slightly different form.)
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