What is Truth?

“A young man sittin’ on the witness stand

The man with the book says “Raise your hand”

“Repeat after me, I solemnly swear”

The man looked down at his long hair

And although the young man solemnly swore

Nobody seems to hear anymore

And it didn’t really matter if the truth was there

It was the cut of his clothes and the length of his hair

And the lonely voice of youth cries

“What is truth?”

A few months ago in this column, I mentioned that I was feeling a little nostalgic for the music of my youth and had been digging through my library of LPs. I have a rather large collection of vinyl, ranging from must-haves like “Live at Fillmore East” and “Are You Experienced” to the I’m-ashamed-to-admit-that-I-bought-it Leo Sayer and Barry Manilow records. (I’d like to say that I bought the latter ones because my girlfriend liked them, so let’s go with that.)

I also recently stumbled on a box filled with vinyl 45s. Nestled in that stash were some classic country hits like the Johnny Cash song that inspired the title of this column. Released 50 years ago, “What Is Truth?” was a rare bird in country music in those days: a protest song. Much of the song was a criticism of war in general and the Vietnam War in particular, but Cash also was admonishing older people to quit dismissing the opinions of the youth simply because they looked different or didn’t act the way old folks expected. Although it isn’t directly mentioned in the verses, Cash’s message could also be interpreted as a condemnation of all forms of social disharmony, including political tribalism and race-based prejudice. The song may be more than a half-century old, but its message carries the same importance today.

Keep looking, Diogenes.

We are living in a time when truth and facts are all but ignored. While the current president is a significant offender, this trend of refusing to accept reality can’t be blamed solely on Donald Trump. You can only tell lies as long as someone else believes you. Even if most of the world knows that the words you speak are nonsense and without a shred of honesty, all it takes is a handful of believers to keep the lie alive… and to make it spread.

Years ago, one person telling a lie usually only affected a small number of listeners. Today, with the help of social media, even an insignificant guy like yours truly has the power to reach out from a keyboard to influence a wide audience, and I’m just trying to share the facts. Using that power to knowingly spread falsehoods? That’s nothing less than evil, especially when telling those lies can cause lives to be jeopardized.

Sharing that dishonesty on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other internet follies often creates a snowball-rolling-downhill effect: the further it travels, the bigger it gets. As novelist Terry Pratchett said, “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

A click here, a click there…

I know, I know… I’m sounding like a broken record. (And for a guy who enjoys his vinyl, that’s a real tragedy.) I often write about the horrors of social media, how it could be a tool of entertainment and creativity but is mostly a destructive device that tears friends and families apart. But if you think about it, it is very easy to unleash the worst of you onto a computer screen. We can easily type and post words that we would never dare to say face-to-face. And, just as easily, those words of anger and hostility attract like-minded souls that we welcome into our circle of virtual ‘friends’. With that nudge of acceptance, we are then motivated to turn up the heat, encouraged to wade deeper and deeper into the darkness.

Before you know it, you’re feeling more and more comfortable with spreading deceit. You grow to like the online embrace of your newfound friends, and you are just as willing to take their words as gospel as they seem to be of yours. Truth no longer matters. It’s the number of times your words are shared and the size of your following that counts. Honesty would just get in the way, so you cast it aside.

No truth. No consequences?

We’ve gotten to the point that we don’t dare trust people that we used to call friends because of the outrageous nonsense that they’ve come to accept as truth. Once upon a time, we could turn to our neighbors for guidance, a kind word, or maybe just a simple wave across the street. Now? We find out that those people believe in some of the craziest conspiracy theories invented by a make-believe ‘expert’, a cult that is growing in popularity. Some of our highest elected officials are giving credence to these nonsensical tales, and even the president repeatedly shares this garbage with his followers.

This column is pretty dark, huh? But this is where we are, both as a nation and as a planet. Four years ago America elected a serial liar, someone who only knows one thing about truth: it doesn’t make as much money as a lie. 

Elevating someone like that to a seat of power has proved to be a tragedy. Keeping him there for another four years would be a disaster.

(Originally published in the September 2, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

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