Democracy in the Post-Truth Era

COMMENTARY: Democratic society thrives on truth. In the absence of truth, society drifts toward totalitarianism.

A student walks down a spiral staircase on way to class.
A student walks down a spiral staircase on way to class. (photo: Brannon Naito / Unsplash)

Some secular journalists are now identifying our contemporary world as the “Post-Truth Era.” This description is not simply hyperbole, but it does point to a condition that has many people concerned. Not every sector of society, of course, warrants this appellation. 

In sports, in law and in science, for example, truth is irreplaceable. Baseball umpires are solemnly obliged to “get the call right.” If there is any doubt about their judgment, it is subject to review. The obligation of judges and jurors is to come to the right verdict, a term composed of the Latin words verum and dicere, meaning to tell the truth. The collective aim of scientists is to uncover the truth of things, even though their efforts, despite a rigorous methodology, may continually approach truth but fall short of its ultimate revelation.

The two areas in which the term “Post-Truth” applies are education and the major media. Professor Allan Bloom’s original title for his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind was somewhat longwinded, but most revealing: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom adverts to the problem in his very first sentence when he declares that “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” 

Christopher Derrick is on the same page with Bloom. In his book, Escape from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if Truth Mattered, he observes that “‘Reality’, ‘truth’: on many a campus, these corny old words, would provoke an ironically sceptical raising of eyebrows.” Umpires, judges, and scientists must hold to truth as their guiding star. University students, however, are given a freedom that allows them to question tradition and pose solutions that are completely impractical. 

St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of truth is a model of simplicity: “The correspondence between the object and the intellect (adequatio rei et intellectus).” The major media interposes itself between the intellect and its natural object so that “fake news” can replace reality. Instead of conforming to the real object, the mind conforms to whatever ideology the Media presents to it. 

Fake news is readily accepted when it confirms a pre-existing bias. In the words of Massimo Maoret of the University of Navarra, “in the age of post-truth, where intuitive emotion has replaced objective reasoning — many users [of social media] now lack the necessary critical thinking skills to distinguish between truth and fiction.” For many, gender ideology, same-sex “marriage,” pornography and abortion are deemed acceptable simply because the media endorses them. For Dietrich von Hildebrand, “One of the most ominous features of the present epoch is undoubtedly the dethronement of truth.”

Democracy thrives on truth. In the absence of truth, society drifts toward totalitarianism. The truth informs us of what is good and deserving of our commitment. Inevitably, in a post-truth world, censorship must play an important role in order to conceal truth from the masses. Amazon, a $1.5 trillion company has decided to ban books that allegedly contain “hate speech.” Since hate-speech is undefined, it can be applied a range of attitudes. 

Ryan Anderson is the president of the prestigious Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Amazon has banned his book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, for reasons that are suspiciously ideological. The author, concerned about the truth of things, presents the case that the movement is motivated by a dubious ideology rather than on sound medical advice. Can the truth be an object of hate? 

According to the new ideology, the two sexes are no longer distinctive, but interchangeable. Nonetheless, no one truly believes this. A Conservative Member of Parliament in Canada is promoting Bill C-233 which would ban sex-selective abortions. In this case, the sex of the child in the womb is clearly identifiable. It seems odd that a child’s sex is determinable when it is in the womb, but not after it is born when the sex characteristics are more fully developed.

The movement to abolish anything that does not fit into the current ideology, no author, is safe, not even the Bard of Avon. An article in the School Library Journal, reports than many English teachers want Shakespeare removed from the curriculum. They want to “make room for modern, diverse, and inclusive voices.” It is as if they are saying, “We want to be more inclusive, therefore, Shakespeare must be excluded; we want to be more diverse, so there is no room for the greatest playwright and poet in the English language.” 

Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into more than 100 languages and have been performed in at least 24 countries. He has survived the test of time because his message has universal validity and relates to the nature of the human being. The current moment, which is divided, confused, and at a critical crossroad, can hardly justify a claim to be the model for all cultures. Without the nourishing wisdom of the past, today’s culture will soon be antiquated by the succeeding one.

Truth cannot be entirely suppressed. It continues to manifest itself to embarrass the lie. On certain college campuses today, there is an attempt to avoid “micro-aggressions.” An example of this offense would be saying, “God bless you” to a person who may be an atheist. The horrors of abortion in which a child in the womb is killed, for many college students does not qualify to be classified as a micro-aggression. 

Christ’s mandate to love one another is routinely rejected, along with the Church he founded because it could be offensive to non-Christians. It is unrealistic in the highest degree to think that a better world would emerge as a direct result of people avoiding micro-aggressions. The more likely result would be collective silence.

Democracy will be protected and strengthened by truth and tradition. The current trend toward arbitrary ideologies and “cancel culture” will be its ruination.