What Does the Truth Really Mean In a Gullible Age?
I’ll never forget the first time a Nigerian prince decided to put me in line for his father’s inheritance.
In the early days, people didn’t choose their email monikers professionally. Nobody thought that they would have to keep their email address for the next decade or two! My email address had “soccer freak” in the handle, because I wanted the ladies to know where my priorities were.
Back then, spam filters weren’t as professional and discerning as they are now. Now, most spam never even reaches my inbox. But we have another problem these days, and it’s much bigger.
We don’t share a common truth with one another.
We no longer have a standard for what we’re willing to believe. Almost everything has been made relative. The ruling ideal now is our own personal opinions. We don’t consciously believe we’re perfectly right about our judgements–but we go far enough to doubt everyone but ourselves.
Facts have been privatized.
It happens in our political discourse, and in the breaking news on we share on social media. It even makes the scientific consensus behind climate change and vaccinations controversial. We separate ourselves from those who disagree with us and live in an echo chamber, where our sub-group of allies reinforce our version of reality.
We do this because it’s easier on our fragile psyche. It’s never been more convenient to start a new tribe out of a certain limited set of beliefs–just start a Facebook page! When we make the mistake of adopting our strong opinions into our core identity, the possibility of our views being challenged becomes too much to bear.
We do this because we’re no longer open to being wrong.
Of course, only the biggest nerds among us believe we’re living in alternate parallel dimensions. Most of us suppose we’re sharing the same universe, and some basic facts apply to us all. But the internet is pummelling us. It gives us access to limitless information and immediate consensus at the same time. Suddenly nobody can make up their mind about anything.
“Sure, those scientists put out a report on the damage they’re observing around the globe. But weren’t there some other scientists who admitted the whole thing was fake?”
“Those women who accused him must be lying.”
“Is it really a conspiracy, if everyone is talking about it?”
This is why a handful of people are going back to a belief in a flat earth–I am not joking here. These people have arrived at the logical endpoint of being willing to question everything while also doubting every common answer.
This is a mental breakdown in our collective consciousness.
And it doesn’t just affect our opinions about public affairs and social issues. It impacts how we see the people we’re closest to.
Why? Well, the biggest, most abstract things are usually the most important elements of our self-construct. Our beliefs about God, views on politics, and feelings on the state of the world become central to how we see ourselves. When our big ideas clash, the struggle becomes personal and painful.
Then, as we doubt someone else’s perception of truth, we no longer take them at their word. We choose, instead, to measure their lives by our suspicions and judgements. Suddenly, it becomes so much easier to create space from them.
And, in the end, we get to keep our own personal version of the truth.
How do we begin to clean up this mess? Where do we even start?
We must begin–we can only begin–with better self-reflection.
If you catch me on an ordinary day, I will confess two lies I keep telling myself are true: first, I will tell you that “I am open to new ideas”, and second, I will say, “I based my conclusions on the facts”.
I tell myself these lies most of the time so I won’t be riddled with uncertainty. But deep down, I know I’m on the wrong track when I claim these things are always true of me. It’s hard work convincing yourself that you aren’t part of the problem–especially when you notice how defensive you feel.
Changing your own self-concept involves pain. We isolate our ideas to avoid it, so whenever we become truly open, we’ll have to suffer for it.
The first step to being open to new ideas is admitting that you’re not. The second step is asking yourself an honest question:
“What would it take for me to know I’m wrong?”
If you are unwilling to answer this question fairly, you cannot move forward. You have cut off the meristem of your empathy.
But if you can identify what it would take to change your own views on a matter, you can begin to assess the facts more clearly. This sort of opening of the mind is an ongoing process–and you’ll have to come back to it again and again.
Now, for the second part. How do we know we came to our conclusions based on facts, instead of just feelings?
The kinds of information we’re willing to work with are in constant dispute. But if you’ve done the heart-wrenching work of opening yourself up to new ideas, you will always want your net to be bigger. New information is only threatening to people who have already made up their minds. Do you trust journalistic sources you’re inclined to disagree with? Do you seek out criticism from people who have already spoken out against your viewpoint?
In the end, you're really asking yourself this question:
“How can I find a bigger way of seeing?”
Let’s get more practical.
If you believe in God, when was the last time you sat down and listened to an atheist? If you lean more “Left” than “Right” on the political spectrum, what was the last conservative viewpoint you read and didn’t immediately begin to argue with? If you’re opposed to vaccinations, then when was the last time you reached out to an immunologist?
This sort of difficult interior work is all built on an important big idea: the truth is something we’re meant to share. We can’t keep going about in our own bubbles, demonizing those who disagree with us. We must seek to understand before being understood.
We must cultivate the soil of our own minds before we have any right to weed anyone else’s.
I don’t know if we can mend the fractures we’ve caused. But I know I can start healing the world within my reach. Unity and empathy aren’t impossible things, and they shouldn’t be restrained to churches and stump speeches. In fact, the opposite is true: unity, empathy, understanding–and the truth that precedes them–always begin as seeds in the soil of human relationships.