It’s cold around the cabin. It’s been one of those years when fall didn’t seem to want to let go and then winter showed up with both barrels blazing. But that’s okay. There’s wood in the stove, the cows are fed and I get to be alone with my thoughts for a while.
There’s been a lot on my mind lately. But frankly I haven’t been too motivated to put it down because one of the things that’s been on my mind is the amount of stuff thrown at us each day through our computer screens. I simply don’t want to add to the clutter. Occasionally when the weather’s nice I’ll tell my class that their assignment for the day is to turn off their computers, put away their phones and go outside. Do something tangible, don’t just stare at a screen. All the while knowing that I’m talking to myself as much as them.
For those who may not be aware, I’m also a journalism professor at a state university. Specifically multimedia journalism. I’m a news junkie. While I’d like to say that I’m always doing something that’s “manly” there’s a very real chance I’m staring at my phone reading something in the news.
And that’s where I’d like for us to sit today. So pull up a chair and I’ll throw an extra log on the fire and put a fresh pot of coffee on because this may take awhile and that’s also okay.
The red oak tree outside is a flurry of activity. The resident red squirrel is making the rounds pushing through the leaves and gathering acorns. A cardinal, some bluejays and an assortment of little grey and brown birds join in, fluffed up and busy. Each after their own favorite meal in the mulch.
In college I minored in philosophy. There’s something about it that’s always fascinated me. The ability to look deeper. To deconstruct thought. Pick it apart. Get to the heart of something. That’s a bit of what I want to at least start to do here. Each semester, there’s a moment when I ultimately infuriate a fresh crop of journalism students. I steal a move from Plato and Socrates and I set a chair up on a table in front of my class and ask them a simple question. What is this? Unanimously they answer that it’s a chair and so I say fine, how do you know?
Them: Because we know.
This is the moment I start to see frustration in their faces because they’ve just been hit with a question that’s a little deeper than they initially realized. The arrogance of youth has just come to face with the need to explain something that has historically gone without explanation.
Them: Because you sit on it.
Me: I can sit on this table.
Them: It has a back on it.
Me: I have a back on me.
Them: No, it’s something you can lean against.
Me: (I sit on the floor and lean against a wall.) Am I now sitting on a chair?
Them: No dumb @$$
Me: Then tell me what makes it a chair?
Them: (frustration building) It’s got legs on it!
Me: So does a table.
Them: We’re going to &$%@ kill you.
It pretty much goes downhill from there. Because as Socrates figured out, no matter how hard they try to come up with reasons and facts to prove “chairness” they simply can’t do it. What they don’t know is that this has all been a set up.
Because before I let them off, I hit this budding class of future journalists with a left hook.
Me: The ultimate job of journalism is to speak truth to power and ignorance. And if you can’t explain to me how something as obvious as this thing sitting in front of me is a chair, then how in the world do you think you can tell me what truth is?
The arrogance of youth is left speechless.
We could split philosophical hairs all day long about a working definition, but for our purposes here, truth is ultimately fact within context.
The flip side is when “facts” are presented out of context you ultimately end up with a lie.
And this is an incredibly relevant topic for us today.
The wind picks up outside and not only can I hear it moaning across the eves of the cabin, but the whiff of the occasional draft falls cold on my arm. I should have done a better job of sealing up the cabin. It’s always most pronounced during the coldest days. Add that to the list of things to do.
First, let’s get something out of the way. Truth much like fact doesn’t care what you believe. It simply is. When the doctor tells you that you have cancer, denying that reality doesn’t make it any less true. Truth is still truth even when it comes from the mouth of someone you despise. It’s often muddled and complex, but sometimes it’s clearcut. Truth hurts when it’s supposed to and it heals when it’s supposed to. Truth doesn’t pick sides. It can’t be anything other than what it is and this makes it an uncomfortable companion at times. Those who listen to it take wise council. Those who don’t take the path of a fool.
But in this age far too many of us are far too happy with comfortable lies. It’s become far too easy to hear what we want to hear. It’s become far too common to discount any opposing view simply because we don’t like where or who it came from.
In the colonial days of what became the United States there were these laws in place called seditious libel laws. Under these laws it was illegal to publish anything critical of a governing authority (true or not), whether that be a king or a local mayor. There was this guy in New York named John Peter Zenger who published a story accusing the royal governor of various crimes from stealing land to rigging elections (which were true). Long story short, after he spent a year in jail and his trial went before the New York supreme court his attorney argued that telling the truth should never be a crime. The jury agreed. This case ultimately laid the groundwork for what became the 1st Amendment’s declaration of Freedom of the Press.
In no sane world should telling the truth be a crime.
The founding fathers had this idea that a free press was vital to the republic and gave it constitutional protection in order that it could be an unofficial fourth branch of government. Its role was to be an additional check on the power of government and it was understood, as a libertarian view, that in order for the public to make well-informed decisions they must have access to accurate information whether it was comfortable or not. In other words the nation, if it is to survive, must have access to truth.
I consider myself a fairly well-informed guy. I stay up on the news. I’m pretty good at filtering out BS, and mostly, I don’t have strong ideological leanings. I’ve been called a rightwing sociopath by someone on the left and an ultra-liberal by someone on the right. I’ll be the first to tell you that sometimes I get it wrong and I’m okay with that. Part of keeping a non-ideological frame of mind means that you always leave room for the possibility that no matter how right you think you are about something, there’s a chance you’re not. Yesterday I inadvertently found myself in an online conversation with a guy I don’t know when we both commented on a mutual friend’s Facebook post dealing with the CIA and FBI’s statement regarding Russian attempts to sway the U.S. presidential election. Without going into too many details or politics, I simply tried to provide clarification and context to something in the article. Someone was stating that the article was pure propaganda (it wasn’t) and there was no way Russia caused Trump to win. What I said was simply that the article didn’t say Russia caused Trump to win. The article said that the CIA and FBI believe that Russia tried to sway the election in favor of Trump. But, what it didn’t say was that they believed that Russia was successful or whether or not the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s alleged efforts. Add that to other reports that it was possible that they were and the fact that at a campaign rally Trump encouraged computer hacking of his political opponent.
Which ultimately, I stated, caused me to want to know two things:
1.) Did a foreign power, specifically an enemy of the state, try to manipulate our presidential election? Yes or No.
2.) If they were, was the candidate they favored aware of these efforts and did they attempt to assist the foreign power?
This isn’t politics for me. (I really don’t care who the candidate was.) I’d ask the same questions if it were any of the others. The reason is that if BOTH of those answers are yes, then that candidate is clearly within the realm of treason.
As a voter this is truth that I need to know whether I voted for that candidate or not. Because with truth comes good governance.
The problem I ran into in that conversation was that the guy I was talking to was rejecting everything I said. It went something along these lines..
Him: Trump didn’t win because of Russia
Me: That’s not what the article said.
Him: It’s all propaganda
Me: It’s a well written news article.
Him: Russia is our ally.
Me: Two Republican senators called Russia our enemy this week.
Him: The CIA and FBI are liars.
Me: Who should we look to for information?
Him: You’re a stupid leftwing pinko
Me: I’m done.
I see this sort of exchange over and over again. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about politics, climate change, religion, food, medicine, or whatever else. Wholesale rejection of anything that doesn’t conform to your set of beliefs is a foolish path. It may see short term gains, but it’s a metaphorical and possibly a literal death sentence for those who follow its way.
I’m not going to give you any bullet list on how to tell if something is true or not. There’s enough of that out there already. I’d rather give you something to meditate on.
- Our nature is to seek that which we agree with.
- Our nature is avoid what we disagree with because it causes us discomfort
- Our nature is to interpret what we hear in a way that conforms to what we already believe.
My advice to you is this. Do yourself a favor and go against your nature and seek truth not affirmation.
In the meantime, live well, laugh often, love always.