PANTS ON FIRE: the truth about truthfulness

Since our fearless leader arrived on the scene, there has been much debate over the matter of truthfulness. Though the word truth may not be as fashionable as it once was, it is still used a great deal in everyday language. I have my own ideas about the definition of the word, but etymologists tell us language is in a constant state of flux. With that in mind I decided to look up the definition of the word to see if its meaning had changed during the past 80 or so years. It seemed to not have changed appreciatively since the day a few decades ago when I lied about throwing a hatchet at my brother.
The definitions of the word “truth” I found confusing in most cases; for example, one was “the quality or state of being true,”  which I did not find to be helpful. It reminded me of the meaningless cliche “it is what it is.” However, I was pleased to learn that some of the synonyms used george-washington-cherry-treefor truth, such as candor, honesty, and sincerity, are still associated with the word. Along with a few million other kids I was indoctrinated with the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. The moral of that story was very clear that lying about the deed was as bad or worse that the deed itself. To that end when my father confronted me about a misdeed, and said “don’t lie to me” I soon learned that I was more likely to escape corporal punishment if I confessed.

 

Truthfulness in the “good ole days”

According to my recollection, truthfulness was highly regarded in those days; although there were situations in which lying was condoned. For example, horse traders, much as the used car salesmen of today, were famously expected to lie. In those days I am told that transactions involving horses were seen as a competition testing the ability of the buyer or trader to judge horses, and the rules about truthfulness were suspended. In most situations however; truthfulness was considered a virtue and liars were regarded as on the same level as wife beaters.
My indoctrination into those ideas about truth was successful, and I value them even today, although I must confess that I have transgressed a few times. In most cases I have rationalized by telling myself they are only white lies, minor exaggerations, or embellishments, and that there are times when truth can be hurtful. As a consequence, I tend to classify lies as to their size in order to excuse my behavior. However, according to the Smith classification, any prevarication uttered by the most powerful man in the world is a whopper with the potential of dire consequences for the entire world.

I Don’t Care if Trump Lies

With all that in mind, you can imagine my chagrin when I ran across an article in the January 23 issue of “The Daily Wire” titled 5 REASONS I DON’T CARE IF TRUMP LIES. It was written by John Nolte who had previously been editor of the far right web based Breitbart News which was also the former home of Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s advisor. Mr. Nolte justifies the lying by using “the old everybody does it” strategy we used in grade school by saying: “Politicians lie. That is what they do.” He goes on to say “In politics lying is a tactic, and if you don’t use that tactic, you’re screwed.” 19c05de8e57fda9170ee3a1e7a95e269How many times in history have we heard that. If indeed the most talented at lying have an advantage at the polls, it might explain why there appears to be so much dissatisfaction about the performance of our elected officials. Nolte is not so charitable with the major news outlets that he describes as “evil” due to their dishonesty, but assures us that “I will not lie.” Yes, I am sure George Washington would be pleased to know someone is following in his footsteps.

Fake News. Confirmation Bias. The Internet Conundrum.

4e6661deeb79365cf2ad34752f12c3f7The term “fake news” has been bandied about a lot lately, but that seems to me an oxymoron. If it is fake, it is simply a lie, certainly not news. No matter what it is called, the internet has become a fertile field for its growth. It allows any individual to send whatever lie he chooses with impunity to large numbers of people who are then capable of spreading it to others like an epidemic. The more outrageous or unusual the story, the more likely it is to be widely dispersed. The volume of such misinformation is such that there is something for everybody so that a person is more likely to believe something if it supports his own beliefs or prejudices, and discard that with which he disagrees. This has been called the confirmation bias.
As he continues to surf the web, he will be drawn to those sites, truthful or not, which confirm his beliefs. So armed, he becomes even more entrenched in his opinions and more unlikely to listen to alternative ideas. In my opinion this is one of the major contributors to our divisiveness. Unfortunately his conclusions may have been influenced by faulty evidence.

In an optimistic essay in the December 29, 2011 issue of the Atlantic, by Rebecca Rosen titled TRUTH, LIES and the INTERNET, she acknowledges that the internet is a repository for much misinformation, but comforts us by insisting “the internet has brought a golden age of Fact Checking,” and goes on to say “…..the good news is that the Internet is nurturing accuracy.”

So much for prophecies: here we are six years later with the development of wonderfully complex lie machines, which are not only capable of reaching millions of people, but can actually tailor their lies to appeal to certain groups or even individuals. In the face of such onslaughts, all the fact checkers in the world could not keep up with their output.
Not only has the internet provided a convenient platform for the delivery of lies, new techniques such as the twitterbot are now used to overwhelm and prevent access by competing messages.

In contrast to the Atlantic article, Richard Clarke’s book, Cyber Warfare has turned out to be prophetic. He had warned in his book that the US was sorely lacking in preparedness for cyberattacks. Russia has proven him correct in his assessment by their role in attempting to undermine our electoral process. I have heard several comments on TV which attempt to assure us that the outcome of the election was not affected by these cyberattacks; however I find it hard to believe that anyone could be certain of that since there are so many intangibles which may affect such outcomes.

Whatever the effects they may have had on the outcome of the election, the specter of even the possibility of an illegitimate presidency or treasonous staff members is a win for the Russians due to the loss of confidence in the process. Slanderous comments about various politicians are accepted as fact by some which further undermines the trust in our system. Attitudes so developed may also result in a cynicism about our government which may discourage our brightest and most dedicated from a career in public service.

Facts. The truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth.

When testifying in a court of law all people must swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. This oath is said to have been traced to the 13th century. Those guys must have been pretty smart, for they already were aware of how one could make a lie appear to be the truth. Unfortunately, counterfeit truth tellers are not required to take such an oath in ordinary situations. They can avoid telling the “whole” truth by taking something out of context, usually a word or modifying phrase that changes the meaning of what is said. The “nothing but the truth” phrase forbids the mixing in a lie or two which can also change the gist of the message. Such strategies seem to me to be used more frequently now than in days past.

190583Beliefs and opinions are not facts. Facts are a necessary component of truth; however truth is more than that. Truth requires an understanding of the meaning of the facts, their relevance to the issue at hand, and their context. Truth is necessary for our survival. Truth is essential for development of trust. Without trust, chaos reigns and society disintegrates. Truth is honest, sincere, and respectful. Truth is especially important in today’s messy world, but currently seems to be in short supply.
Since I began this essay, I noted that Time Magazine featured a lead article on truthfulness. Although I was initially dismayed to have been scooped, I was nevertheless heartened that the issue is getting the attention it deserves. Of course lying is not a recent development.  It has been said that THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE which leads one to ponder the question of the effect of its absence.   Plato addressed its seriousness a bit before my tenure when he said:
“FALSE WORDS ARE NOT ONLY EVIL IN THEMSELVES, BUT THEY INFECT THE SOUL WITH EVIL.

THE POPE AND I

No, I did not have an audience with the Pope. I confess that this title is a bit misleading, but you must admit it got your attention.

The Pope’s visit got everyone’s attention especially viewers of CNN, for their coverage was non-stop from arrival to departure. This must have made their bean counters happy, since I imagine their bottom line could be adversely affected were they to pay independent journalists to cover the horrors taking place in the middle-east and Africa, or the desperation of immigrants around the world.

You may be wondering why I didn’t change the channel to Fox and watch them trash democrats or MSNBC, as they did the same for republicans, or even to Sesame Street in case I wanted to learn something worthwhile. The problem is that Barb likes CNN.

Although I don’t wear a long white dress and beanie, I found his speeches interesting and even inspirational. At one point I nearly pulled a John Boehner and could feel a tear about to erupt. In most cases, his thoughts and opinions paralleled mine therefore; he must be pretty smart. In particular, his speech at the U. N. caught my attention when he talked about the need for people to bond and trust each other. I concluded that the Pope had much in common with this old Presbyterian. It occurred to me that our need to bond with each other seems to be universal and can have both good and bad consequences.

My understanding of Pope Francis's statement, which would result in people caring for each other, and in so doing to learn trust. There is little doubt that if such feelings for our fellow man were present in everyone, this world would be a much more pleasant place in which to live. Of course, this in not a novel idea. Many have espoused it for the past couple of thousand years, if not longer, but with minimal effect. In fact, religions both past and present, expect their members to meet and worship together. They usually encourage fellowship, and the experience of belonging to a caring group of people is fertile ground for the development of trusting relationships. The Pope must have felt there was a lot of bonding going on as millions flocked to hear his words and receive his blessings.

The Pope and I agree that bonding and trust are important. A very common complaint by my patients was of loneliness, and feeling a lack of connection to others. As a matter of fact, most of the perpetrators of the recent spate of mass murders are said to have been alienated from society. Notes they left reflect the anger they felt at being left out and alone. Group therapy has been a useful tool in dealing with such problems as it provides an opportunity to relate in an atmosphere where one can share in a safe environment, and learn to trust and be trusted. This need to bond appears to be so ingrained in our very nature that we sometimes look for other ways to satisfy the need. Those whose lifestyle or physical infirmities limit their relationships may find solace in a pet. There have even been instances reported in which prisoners who are isolated attempt to befriend the rats who visit their cells.

It is not clear when this need, so powerful that if unrequited may lead to suicidal or even homicidal behavior, became so ingrained in our psyche. There is evidence that earliest man  learned the advantages of close relationships. Indeed, it is likely that without such bonding, our prehistoric ancestors might not have survived, and could have become extinct as did other branches of the hominid progeny. Indeed, in a world where predators threatened their existence and competed with them for food, it would not have taken them long to realize there is safety in numbers. Likewise, as they developed carnivorous tastes they would have found that teaming with others would contribute to successful hunting. Such lessons learned were not unique to humans for many other mammals found that bonding with others of their species enhanced their chances of survival. With such a history spanning thousands of years, it should not surprise us that this need to bond would eventually become imprinted on our DNA.

There are some, myself among them, who are concerned about the ways in which our children are limited in developing relationships to which they can bond. Home schooling has become more popular and is likely to become more so as the digital world expands. I have long been concerned as I have seen the consolidation of small neighborhood schools to become institutions that are so large it is very easy for a child to be left out of the mainstream. Since K through 12 school is where children learn social skills, and develop much of their self-image, such feelings of alienation can have serious consequences. Parents face a great deal of stress sometimes working two jobs, and stay-at-home moms are less plentiful. It appears that kids spend much more time texting than talking. The rest of their free time is often spent playing video games. And, yes I know that a previous generation had the same concerns with the invention of the telephone, as my Grandson eloquently pointed out to me a few months ago. I agreed that the phone was a step down from looking one in the eye, but did preserve voice inflections and thereby we were not quite so insulated from the feelings of callers.

Most people would agree that neighborhoods are not as neighborly as they once were. The current generation prefers distance from their neighbors as witnessed by the current housing developments where larger lots are preferred and “houses are not jammed up against each other." Studies of large city apartment buildings indicate that many residents do not even recognize their neighbors. On the other hand, I did recently read that some companies are now eliminating the cubicles in which they isolated their employees, as they have decided that their workers were much more productive in an open office space. It was felt that the changes also resulted in feelings of camaraderie with coworkers, company loyalty was strengthened, and absenteeism was reduced. Such examples illustrate when barriers are removed, there is a natural tendency to bond.
Of course the ultimate bonds are those with our immediate families, but for most this does not seem to be enough. When populations grow so large that physical contact is impossible, they still find ways to bond. Witness any athletic contest and you will see groups sometimes numbering in the thousands banding together to cheer on their team and boo the bad guys. Though there are some loners among us, most seem to have a need to closely align themselves to a group or organization. There are lodges, fraternities, sororities, clubs, religious and political groups, reunions, and volunteer organizations to name a few. There seems to be an almost universal need to belong, to be attached in some way to others.

History tells us that nothing unites a group of people, whether it is a neighborhood, tribe, or country, like a common enemy. It makes little difference if the threat is real or imagined. Throughout history leaders of nations have been able to mobilize and bond their subjects by convincing them they have an enemy. Coaches have long known that their team’s success depends to a great extent on the relationships between their players, and their ability to function as a unit. Those who work in dangerous positions such as fire fighters, policemen, heavy machinery operators and such must depend on others to “watch my back;" consequently, trust is essential, and camaraderie is a prerequisite. Many religions bond together in their struggle against demonic forces of one kind or another.

Nowhere except within families is bonding more intense than in the military. Recruits soon unite by learning to hate their drill sergeant. The entire unit may be punished for the transgressions of one; thereby teaching him a sense of responsibility to his buddies. One may enter the service for a variety of reasons, but once in combat they report their allegiance is to those who fight beside them. The bonds formed are so intense that some experience grief after leaving their unit in spite of the dangers and horrors they may have faced. This sense of loss in addition to the survivor guilt often felt are undoubtedly factors which account for the epidemic of suicides by returning soldiers from our latest war. Some have volunteered for return tours of duty apparently hoping to recapture that which was lost.

It is true that relationships are not only pleasing, but probably necessary in order for us to maintain sanity. Indeed, one study from many years ago where volunteers were subjected to total isolation, all developed psychotic symptoms in as little as two weeks. It is also true that throughout the ages there have been the cunning and unscrupulous who have perverted this need of ours to service their lust for power. The mechanism as I mentioned previously is simply to convince a group of people that they have a common enemy and that they must unite to protect themselves or punish the miscreant for his alleged misdeeds. One need only to turn on the nightly news, and hear about the violence and chaos that persists throughout the world to see how successful these strategies have been as populations bond together to destroy their own version of the bad guys.

Although in the U.S. we moderns no longer have saber tooth tigers to fear, there are many who have no difficulty finding people to hate and whom we should fear. We have the white supremacists who are convinced we are in danger of being persecuted by blacks, the gun lobby who wants us to fear everyone, and other groups too numerous to mention. And let us not leave out our politicians as the republicans convince us we should fear the democrats and the democrats tell us the republicans are the ones who will do us in if given the vote. In other words, we are encouraged to choose sides, bond, and fight with each other. In order to fight we need a leader to save us, and there are always those who are gracious enough to be that person if only we will vote for him.

If I ever did have an audience with the Pope, I would enjoy discussing this bonding and trust stuff with him. I would probably agree that more bonding and trust is needed, but that in many instances those same qualities can also be used for nefarious purposes. In that vein, I can see myself saying, “Frank, be careful what you wish for” or in his case it would be more appropriate to modify the admonition by substituting the word "pray" for the word "wish."