Ignore the truth at our peril
Truth is divine. A Jewish teaching has it that the seal of God consists of the first, the middle and the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet that together form the word emet, truth. We seem to live at a time when, more than ever, God’s truth has been usurped by human distortions.
Lee McIntyre lists some of them in his book, Post-Truth: unintentional mistakes he calls falsehoods; wilful ignorance when we don’t really know what we’re stating is true or not; lying “when we tell a falsehood with intent to deceive.” Now “we have graduated from the mere “interpretation” of facts into their falsification.”
In current parlance this is called post-truth. McIntyre cites the Oxford dictionaries that define it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Human prejudices now masquerade as truths.
The phenomenon isn’t new, but it has become widespread in our time, often with disastrous consequences. McIntyre cites as an example the Brexit campaign in Britain and the subsequent referendum as “largely fact-free.” It may end up having unimaginable consequences for the United Kingdom and beyond. Prejudice rooted in ideology renders facts irrelevant.
Ideology and prejudice are at times also disguised as theology that distorts genuine faith by turning the divine into the divisive. Many exponents of different religions, some traditional others novel, seek to shape the beliefs of their adherents by appealing to emotions at the expense of truth-seeking reason.
The current political climate fuels the process. The Brexit referendum is but one of many examples. The president of the United States is arguably the most influential protagonist of current versions of post-truth. This newspaper, together with other responsible publications around the world, regularly lists the falsehoods and distortions by Donald Trump. As improbable as it may seem, they may assure him a second term in office.
Another telling example is his opposition to efforts to prevent the looming disaster of climate change. “It is not simply that climate-change deniers don’t believe in facts, it’s that they only want to accept those facts that justify their ideology,” writes McIntyre.
Trump is said to maintain that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to harm the American economy. Making America great in his parlance may turn out to be the formula that could bring down not only his country but civilization as we know it.
On Tyranny, the little book by the American historian and Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder has the subtitle: “Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” Lesson Ten, very much with Donald Trump in mind, is: “Believe in Truth.” Snyder writes that “you submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.”
He points to four ways in which truth is being distorted in this way and often reflected, alas, in the words and actions of the president of the United States: (1) making false claims in the face of accurate facts; (2) transforming individuals into stereotypes, e.g., “Crooked Hillary;” (3) making spurious premises even when they contradict each other; (4) “self-deifying claims like, ‘I alone can solve it’ or ‘I am your voice.’”
Snyder’s stark conclusion is something of a wake-up call to us all: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Or in terms with which I’m more familiar: the seal of God is under attack and at risk of being obliterated.
To which the most cogent response of people of faith must be: “It is time to act for the Eternal, for they have violated Your teaching” (Psalm 119:126).
Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple and a freelance contributor for the Star.