The value of truth

I want to believe that telling the truth matters.  Advocates who have any belief in democracy as a value have to think that if people only knew what they know they’d agree.  Activists take on a public education job when they take on a cause, and they should have little reason to lie.

This past week, however, shows both the temptations and risks of cutting corners on the facts.

First, there was the extraordinary Kony 2012 video, sponsored by Invisible ChildrenDozens of people from diverse networks forwarded me links to the viral video, and I wasn’t alone.  At this moment, youtube counts more than 82 million views.  This is amazing.  Justin Bieber, with 18 million followers of his own, tweeted in support of a campaign to stop Kony, and forwarded the video, as did other celebrities.  This was certainly the first many Americans heard of Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Kony is a true villain by any definition, and awareness IS important.

But: the video isn’t exactly accurate on details, and maybe not as helpful as it could be about describing potential courses of action.  In a transparently manipulative way, the filmmaker, Jason Russell, described Kony’s abduction of children to his preschool son on camera.  The video overstated the size of the LRA, and ignored Uganda’s success in driving Kony’s forces out of the country.  The prime strategy for action was donating money to Russell’s organization, Invisible Children.

But 82 million hits??? Are some corners worth cutting or facts worth shading to get the story out to so many people?  Surely, they’ll be in a position to learn more eventually.  But the public debate quickly turned away from Kony to the distortions in the video, and ultimately to Russell himself, who hurt the cause by appearing naked on the streets of San Diego.  It remains to be seen whether all the awareness he generated evaporates in confusion or disgust.

Another variant of this problem is Mike Daisey’s story about the production of iphones in China.  Daisey had been performing a monologue ostensibly detailing his investigations of the lives of Chinese workers making the iphone.  This American Life, a wonderful weekly radio show, excerpted Daisey’s show and presented it, generating more attention than any previous episode in more than ten years on the air.  Partly as a result, activists staged protests about Apple’s labor practices to coincide with the release of the Ipad 3.  (By itself, this opportunistic protest should have been good fodder for politics outdoors.)

Daisey dramatically portrayed the difficulties and dangers Chinese workers face, including extremely long shifts, unsafe factory conditions, low wages, and child labor.  None of the wrongs were invented out of whole cloth, but the monologuist fabricated interviews, visits, child workers, poisoned workers, union organizers, and telescoped dates and events.

This American Life issued its first retraction.  Although the show often presents fiction, it is always labeled as fiction.  (Indeed, fiction labeled as such can be extraordinarily effective in dramatizing a cause.  Harriet Beecher Stowe could readily acknowledge inventing Uncle Tom without compromising the moral truth of her story.)

In the full hour devoted to explaining and apologizing for running the story, host Ira Glass interviewed Daisey, who repeatedly announced that he was apologizing, but explained that he stood by the “theatrical truth” of his monologue.  It’s about generating attention and a feeling, he said.  He’s not a journalist, he explained, but an emotional storyteller.

Again, the spotlight shifted from Apple, outsourcing, and labor practices to the veracity of the narrator.  Is buying from Apple as bad as lying?

These are particularly dramatic examples of a practice that just isn’t that unusual: distorting truth to craft a story that generates support for your side.  (Indeed, the recently departed Andrew Breitbart, was proud of his skills at taking snippets out of context to present a dramatic–and less than accurate–slice of reality.)  The temptation to improve a story to make a point you judge to be more important is obvious; the risks of doing so are forfeiting your credibility and undermining your cause when the distortions come out.

Let me confess that my job as a professor biases my outlook; I’m completely invested in finding real answers and in using accurate information.  I want to believe that telling the truth helps in the end, and that lying will ultimately backfire.

Alas, the evidence isn’t really all that strong.  It’s one thing to use harsh and nasty language about your political enemies; that’s a seamy part of the deal of engaging in public life.  And well-intentioned people can differ about appropriate responses to climate change, the most just or advantageous level of taxation or the morality of abortion.

But honest and well-intentioned people can agree about the scientific consensus on climate change or on historic levels of taxation.  Agreeing on the facts makes meaningful political debate possible.  To the extent that advocates offer distortions or lies that deem to be advantageous for the short-term, they undermine the prospects for real democratic governance.  Unfortunately, they may help themselves by doing so.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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5 Responses to The value of truth

  1. Well put, I agree. In addition to Stowe, I also think of Upton Sinclair.

    In my own campaign to rid feminism of its reliance on the myth that “women only own 1% of the world’s property (, I have been accused of harming feminism because the myth is a convenient untruth. I don’t agree.

  2. Friedrich Nietzsche a 19th century philosopher famously said that “God is dead.”

    I am going to go out on a limb here in the 21st century and say “Truth is dead.”

    Many may not realize it, but God and Truth and inextricably linked. But instead of creating Perspectivism when the two were separated at the hip, our Western society has been engulfed with the pseudo-truth of ideology and nihilism.

    Facts and numbers – wallowing in this world of ideology and nihilism – are neither accurate nor real.

    How can you trust surveys if a majority of respondents lie?

    Whose informed opinion offers real insight when each of us has a secret personal agenda?

    “Scientific consensus” does exist…a sort of physical truth…the second law of thermodynamics; the infinitesimal definition of pi; the existence of the periodic table…are all indisputable. The science may be incorruptible, but what of the scientist, researcher or university professor who exists separate from this physical world of truth and lives in the human world of ideology and nihilism?

    “Honest and well intentioned people” is a mere slogan in our pseudo-truth world of today.

    Not only are those of a more noble nature corrupt and lost; their good intentions inadvertently drowned by an overpowering current of inaccuracy in a sea of false promise and mistrust. But even those who revel in this world of pseudo-truth; a belief that their perspective shall rule the day for all men and women; ideas pursued by superior minds and self-evident truths; enforced with might if necessary to justify the end…

    will eventually succumb to this underlying foundation of nothingness; their own protected and cherished ideas, policies and beliefs consumed by the all consuming Ouroboros of 7 billion individuals meandering through a pointless world.

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher.

  3. God is the issue, not religion (presumed divine guidance).

    When separated from an absolute (God), truth becomes just mere speculation.

    A “set of facts in public discourse” in a society void of an absolute, can only hold as much truth in exact proportion to the number of people that use these facts as reference.

    Is that enough to create a healthy functioning society?

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher.

    • A “set of facts in public discourse” in a society void of an absolute, can only hold as much truth in exact proportion to the number of people that use these facts as reference.

      That’s ridiculous. It’s not the number of people, but the amount of money they have, that determines truth.

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