People who know me know that I like Aristotle’s definition of truth. It is a simple definition and it lays out parameters for understanding the reality of what is said:
To say that what is is not, or that what is not is, is false; but to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true; and therefore also he who says that a thing is or is not will say either what is true or what is false. (Metaphysics 1011b.20–39)
Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, Translated by Hugh Tredennick. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).
So, when we speak, what we say either corresponds to reality or it does not. Unfortunately, society today does not seem to care for discovering what corresponds with reality. Rather many people prefer an interpretation of events that justifies themselves and puts those they agree with in a bad light. The result of this mindset is the fact that people will only listen to what makes them comfortable and seek to reject what makes them uncomfortable. But if what makes them comfortable is false, then their sources are harmful in seeking out the truth and living in accordance with it.
Pride and Fear of Being Shown Wrong
Compounding the problem is the fact that nobody wants to be shown to be wrong. To admit that one’s viewpoint, which has been defended zealously hitherto, has been a defense of something worthless feels like an indictment of one’s judgment—nobody wants to be thought of as a fool and admission of error is seen as admitting to being a fool. That is what made Socrates so unpopular. That barrier of pride is a large stumbling block to discovering what is and living in accord to it.
I think this is the reason it has traditionally been held that the two taboo subjects for discussion are religion and politics. For a person to have to admit that their view of reality in general or their views on how society should be governed are false—especially when they have invested so much in defending these views—is often too much to bear. As a result, people stop looking for truth when it is perceived to threaten their comfortable beliefs and become hostile when it comes to people who question their comfort zone.
That’s unfortunate. To make progress, whether as an individual or a society, one has to discern what is true and follow where it leads. But if one refuses to consider whether what is threatening to comfort is true, no progress can be made.
Fear of the Obligation to do That Which is Right
There is another reason for hostility to truth. That reason is the recognition that if what we support turns out to be false, especially when that falsehood turns out to be morally wrong, we will be obligated to turn away from that belief or that behavior. Denial of that indictment of wrongdoing and hostility to the person who makes us aware of the wrongdoing are ways to avoid thinking about whether we need to change. This is one of the reasons that defensive people misquote Matthew 7:1. If a person can turn tables on the person who says “X is wrong,” putting him or her on the defensive by making it appear that the appeal to doing what is right is actually wrongdoing, then people have shifted the attention from the issue at hand—that X is wrong—and towards the person who insists on moral truths which are obligatory to follow.
“Hypocrisy” then becomes a popular epithet to hurl at the person speaking the truth. Basically the accusation says “You say not to do evil X, but you do evil by saying that X is wrong. Therefore we can ignore you!” Actually no. It is true that every one of us struggles with some sort of evil (with the exception of Our Lord and His Mother). But one does not become a hypocrite until they have no intention to change their ways. That’s the kind of thing Jesus condemned as judgmental—writing someone off as irredeemable. But frail as we are, we are still required to speak out against what is wrong while praying for God to change our hearts for our own sins. We must avoid thinking that “As long as I’m not as bad as that guy, I’m fine."
Truth and Assumption
Of course we need to make some distinctions here. It’s not wrong to defend a position one thinks is right. But all of us need to distinguish what is true about the position it and defend that truth, as opposed to defending assumptions without investigating whether they are true. Some things are simply indefensible and must be rejected.
Moreover, many people assume things are facts without discerning whether they are true or simply commonly repeated but false. People sometimes elevate wrong opinions or falsehoods to “fact.” For example, they may confuse sequential events for cause/effect and then stand their ground on something that does not need to be defended. Or they may assume anecdotes represent the whole or go by what “everybody knows” without determining whether it is true. People may rashly assume motives for why others hold different positions which the other person would deny are his or her motives.
The point is, many things we take for granted as being true are actually saying of what is that it is not or saying of what is not that it is. Once we are aware of the obligation to speak that which is true, and the need to discern between what is true and what is assumed, then we need to look to what we defend and what we oppose. Do we defend what is true? Or what is comfortable? Do we oppose what is false? Or merely what we dislike?
If we assume bad will on the part of those we disagree with and don’t consider the possibility of our own misunderstanding of the other person or if we don’t consider the possibility of the person being in error out of ignorance, then we are making an assumption that might not be true.
I think we need to keep these things in mind wherever we are. When things are reported on the news, or show up on Facebook or in blogs, or in comments, we have to ask whether what is said is true before embracing it. When something seems to challenge a comfortable belief, we have to ask whether our comfortable belief is true before making a defense based on our assumption. If it turns out that the popular or comfortable assertion is false, we must stop repeating it.
Likewise, when we are inclined to accuse a person of bad will for holding a position we do not like, the obligation to speak the truth requires that we investigate their position and the reason they hold it. We might find that they still are in error and need to be refuted, but at least in doing so we will not come across as intolerant and ignorant—even if opponents still accuse us of being so.
As Christians we believe that God forbids us from bearing false witness. I believe this not only includes deliberate lies used to incriminate others, but also includes rash judgment and calumny against those we disagree with. While invincible ignorance is not a sin, we do sin when we repeat things when we could learn the truth but simply don’t care to do so. We will have to account for our rash judgments, uncharitable accusations and holding on to false beliefs and will be held accountable for the things we could have learned but chose not to check. This also applies to when we choose to live a lie rather than discern whether we do wrong.
We are called to speak and live the truth. So let us do both. Let us say of what is, that it is and of what is not, that it is not. But let’s not just say it. Let’s also live it.