Let your “Yes” mean “Yes,” and your “No” mean “No.”
Anything more is from the evil one.
– Jesus in today’s Gospel, Mt 5:37
How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?
Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.
– Attributed to Abraham Lincoln
“You need both a public and a private position.”
-Attributed to a presidential candidate, 2016
“Truth?” said Pilate. “What is that?”
– From Jesus’ trial before Pilate, Jn 18:38,
“Our press secretary gave alternative facts.”
– Presidential special adviser on Meet the Press, January 22, 2017
Am I alone when I suspect that public figures are speaking the truth only if they’re under oath and facing perjury penalties for lying? Jesus’ comment above comes in the context of oaths: and what He says is, simply, that oaths shouldn’t be necessary to enforce truthfulness. One’s words should be accurate in any circumstances, not only when there might be a criminal penalty for being caught in a lie.
How do we keep a culture of lies from infecting us? The first and basic rule is, of course, to stop lying ourselves. “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’…” And we might acknowledge what Jesus says, that any lie opens a door for Satan into society and into our souls. After acknowledgement comes action.
For starters, we might stop rewarding lying (or at least the spreading of falsehood) from others. Call out gossip and falsehood when you’re exposed to it. Tell people your faith tells you it’s the work of Satan. Especially on social media, be ready to cut off contact with people who habitually spread falsehood and don’t accept correction for it. And certainly don’t spread rumors yourself. Or maybe stay off social media entirely as an occasion of sin.
We can also do out part in the public sphere. While exaggeration is, unfortunately, a given in marketing, we can refuse to buy from companies that spread falsehoods – and tell them why we’ve stopped.
We can deal with people in offices of public trust the same way: Call out falsehoods and withhold our votes. We have an obligation to the community not to allow our shared life to be corrupted with false statements.
This means, of course, that we have to dedicate ourselves to finding out what’s true – we need to bring an awareness of the possible hidden agendas that our chosen sources of news might have; search out more objective sources; and stay away from the peddlers of illusion. Most important is to learn to detect bias, in our sources and (mostly) in ourselves: but that’s for a future column.
I’ve dealt with individuals who live in a world of “alternative facts”: during my internship I met them in the mental hospital in which I was training. I also learned to administer the “mental status examination,” which determines a person’s psychological functioning. The MSE includes evaluating people’s thought process, thought content, perception, cognition, insight, and judgment. When people get facts wrong, they can be simply in error: No, today is not Tuesday. Or they can be deluded and mentally-ill: No, you are not Napoleon. Or they can be lying: No, I will not trust you to sell me a bridge in Brooklyn. But when we live in an atmosphere in which people do not agree on what a fact is (something our society seems increasingly to be becoming), we become more and more disconnected from reality. Because the world is real, it will bite back if we get it too wrong. (No, you cannot take that hairpin curve at 105mph and stay on the road…) We can’t allow ourselves to contribute to such a society – or simply and cynically to let it grow around us. We can hold people to what words mean – starting with ourselves. Until next week, peace.