My blogger friend Diane launched an interesting conversation about truth that I tried to respond to in a comment but my response kept going on and on and I realized that it is something I've been chewing on for some time. Her basic question (as I understand it) was "Do we have a responsibility to tell the truth in all situations?" While I believe we should always be honest, there is something worrisome about the word "truth" especially as we use it today ... as if we could weigh all the facts and a computer print-out would state: This is the truth ... go forth and tell it.
Most of the important issues of our time are so complex and complicated that there are volumes of facts that support many possible conclusions ... especially if someone with an agenda is willing to spin or selectively choose the facts that support his or her position. I think most people generally believe that their opinions are "true" ... but I've finally realized that just because I believe something does not make it "true." So, I'm finding it harder and harder to define "truth" and to know what my responsibility is for the telling of it.
As an example, after Thanksgiving dinner, I was in a situation where a group of people started talking about how President Obama was praying to Mecca, replacing all the cabinet with Muslims and refusing to celebrate Christmas at the White House. I did not speak up because I knew it would have been futile and would have disturbed the harmony of the day. (Mine was already disturbed, of course!) The people I was with are good people and, somehow, they have come to believe that what they were saying was "true." Nothing I could have said in our short time together would have convinced them otherwise. For everything that I might have said, they could have come up with a "fact sheet" (obtained on the Internet, no doubt) that proved that theirs was "THE truth."
Another example of the difficulty with "truth" happened recently when a dramatic depiction of the unemployment rates in the U.S. circulated around the Internet. It showed the change from January, 2007 when national unemployment was 4.6% to October of 2009 when it was at 8.8%. The color coding for the lower numbers was light yellows and oranges; the colors for the higher numbers were dark greens and purples. The facts were right and the numbers are definitely dismal but the depiction of them made it seem like the country had gone from bright and cheerful to the darkest gloom and doom. The impression it leaves is that we are in a disaster and on the slippery slope to a full blown depression. Is this the "truth," a spinning of the facts or just a poor choice of colors? I could verify the facts of the unemployment figures but I was never able to determine the motivation behind the dramatic depiction.
Sometimes, in some situations, it may not make sense to speak up for truth but I think each one of us has a responsibility to try our best not to pass along untruths. It's really easy to share stuff that comes across the Internet ... I came within a hair's breadth of sharing that unemployment video. But, I have started to question the source of everything that comes to me online and it was in that investigation that I discovered someone questioning the color-coding method used. I believe it is our responsibility to question everything we intend to pass along as "truth" ... whether it's something we find online or something we hear on television or from a friend. Is what we're about to share the most honest assessment we can make of the situation? Have we looked at it from many different perspectives and considered all relevant facts? Are we claiming that it's the truth as far as we can determine it or are we trying to promote it as "THE truth" which should be accepted without question?
Too often, we seem to have an attitude of "This is interesting ... you figure out if it's true." And, suddenly, millions of people are bombarded with questionable or blatantly false information which weaves its way into the collective consciousness and begins to be treated as if it were written in concrete. And, suddenly you have a man with an odd middle name linked to a vicious dictator as if they were blood brothers.
We are still just getting used to the revolutionary power of the Internet that gives each one of us a voice. In many ways this democratic flow of information is one of the most exciting developments of our time. And, in some ways, it's a scary trend as people and institutions with an agenda discover that they can manipulate facts and information and spread that mis-information almost instantly around the world. We seem to be in a limbo state ... those of us of the older generation who were raised with a news media that was trusted and trust-worthy haven't quite learned to distill the constant barrage of ratings- and attention-hungry commentators into a semblance of "truth." Still thinking that what we read is true, we pass it along in good faith. And, the younger generation who may not be quite so naive still doesn't have the life-experience and status to combat the flow of mis-information.
Perhaps the best we can do until we're all smarter is to think twice about what we forward to our friends and associates. Mis-information is more than just an error, it's a form of poison seeping through our system. If we keep passing it along, we're participating in a form of societal suicide. For, if we cannot trust our media, our leaders, or each other to tell the truth, what can we trust? And, once trust is broken, how do we survive?
Disclosure: All of the above is strictly my honest opinion and is not presented as "THE Truth." Differing opinions welcomed and encouraged.