I posted a comment on my new Twitter account a couple of days ago, to the effect that the now-famous phrase,”alternative facts,” sounded Orwellian. I thought I was being original! Ha! A day or two later, it was reported that 1984 had shot to the top of the best-seller list. I went to my trusty indie bookstore to get a copy and they had sold out!
George Orwell’s famous concerns about the use of language to obscure fact and distort truth is certain to be central in the weeks and months to come. There is some discussion about whether these distortions should be called lies, falsehoods, or b-s. (The prevailing definition of b-s in thoughtful circles, as I understand it, is that whereas a lie is told by someone who knows he or she is lying, b-s has no relation to the truth at all.) I never thought I would live to see a day when truth was considered irrelevant.
There is another book that must surely be having a second life, namely On Bullshit by H. G. Frankfurt. He makes the distinction just noted, with far greater depth and precision. The Princeton University Press website has this to say about his book:
Frankfurt [is] one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers…With his characteristic combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humor, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.
Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. (Emphasis added)
If this is the case, then we are in a uniquely perilous period in the United States, and the whole Western experiment is in danger from its own citizens. If we allow this mindset to take hold–that it really doesn’t matter whether something is true or not as long as the president gets his way and makes things happen–our whole society will indeed become unmoored.
I recently re-read the great novel, A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster, first published in 1924. I read it as a young woman in 1964 and never forgot it. In the re-reading this past month, I was struck by its contemporary relevance. Forster excels in the depiction of human personality in a setting of social pathology. One of his principal themes in A Passage to India is the relationship of facts to emotion.
The plot, set in the fictional city of Chandrapore, revolves around an incident (also fictional) in British India. An Indian physician, a Moslem named Aziz, impulsively invites two naive, idealistic visiting Englishwomen on an expedition to see caves. The younger woman, Adela Quested, accuses Dr. Aziz of assaulting her in one of the caves with intent of rape. The entire British colony rushes to conclusions and a crisis ensues. The case is brought to trial in an atmosphere of intense racial loathing on the part of the white ruling class, and barely suppressed rage on the part of the subjected Indians. The possibility of a fair trial seems remote. Suddenly the threat of a violent uprising is lifted when Miss Quested has a breakdown in the witness chair and admits that Dr. Aziz never even entered the cave where the purported attack supposedly occurred. Aziz is fully exonerated, but his life can never be put back together the way it was, and the poison unleashed into the colony by the false charges cannot be counteracted.
Along the way, Forster (as the omniscient narrator) makes numerous observations about facts vs. emotion: “He [Fielding, Aziz’s only English friend] had dulled his craving for verbal truth and cared chiefly for truth of mood”; “he [McBryde, a somewhat less prejudiced British official] was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion”; “He [Fielding] did not know [what really happened in the cave], but presently he would know. Great is information, and she shall prevail”; “A legend sprang up that an Englishman had killed his mother for trying to save an Indian’s life…nonsense of this type is more difficult to combat than a solid lie.” After his acquittal, Aziz, in a disturbed state of mind, mistakenly comes to believe that his friend Fielding has betrayed him with Miss Quested, even though he has no solid reason to believe this. “Yet the fancy left him trembling with misery…he was shaken, as though by a truth.” (280)
In this way, Forster dramatizes the terrible damage that can be done when emotion takes over from factual evidence. Aziz’s mistaken “fancy” about Fielding’s supposed perfidy causes their friendship to end, and Aziz’s high spirits never really recover from the injustice done to him by Miss Quested and the British colony; he flees Chandrapore for a northern, semi-independent Hindu state where he will not have to deal with the English any more.
Thus, the novel dramatizes the disastrous effects of a mistake about facts. The hysteria about the supposed attempted rape of a white woman by a dark-skinned Indian doomed Aziz from the start; only the astonishing, unexpected recantation by Miss Quested on the witness stand saved him from the mob-like rage of the English population.
Suppose we live in a society where facts don’t matter? What if you or I were unjustly accused of something? Supposedly the opposing lawyers would try to convince the jury of the facts. But what if there were two different sets of “alternative facts”? What would a juror do? What would happen to the victim and to the accused? It is instructive, perhaps, to think of situations in which no one except a person truly deranged would be able to dismiss the importance of factual information. For instance, if someone goes to the doctor with symptoms and undergoes tests, it would be absurd to say that the results of the tests–the discovery of a tumor, say–didn’t matter, as if one could come up with more comforting “alternative facts.”
“What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate, with The Truth standing right in front of him (Jesus said, “I AM the Truth…). This can be read several ways, but it seems clear that Pilate, in the Fourth Gospel, is depicted as unnerved by Jesus. The question of truth in John’s Gospel is always defined in relation to Jesus himself. (John 18:38, 14:6, also 8:32) It is unimaginable that Jesus would teach disregard for the truth…but what about “facts”?
What is truth, and what are facts, in Christian theology, and why does it matter? This cannot be answered quickly and simplistically. My little homily on the Feast of the Epiphany (posted on this website in Sermons) deals with the question, “Were there really three Magi?” A recent episode concerned a professor of Old Testament who taught at an evangelical seminary; he was asked to leave the faculty when he stated that one did not have to believe Adam was a real person. This seems perverse to me. Roman 5, that great disquisition on “Adam,” depends not at all on Adam’s being an actual person. I worry that people who teach and preach today often do not read poetry or literary fiction. There is a training of the mind that happens when one begins to read early in life. One learns how language works, and how to distinguish between history and imagination. Children who are read to from an early age (and from the best books by authors such as George MacDonald, Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine l’Engle) are more likely to grasp the difference between, say, the story of Adam and Eve and the Passion narratives. The Passion narratives are shaped by faith, to be sure, but they are historical and factual also, in a way that the Adam story is not. In Romans 5, “Adam” does not appear as a historical person, but as the embodiment of all that went wrong in human life.
These reflections are meant to be a commentary on the weird and dangerous confusion about fact that is taking hold among us. Donald Trump has said many things in his recorded remarks and in the books written “by” him which lead to the conclusion that he has almost no interest in fact at all unless it flatters him personally. In one of his ghost-written books he speaks about “truthful hyperbole.” It is a near-certainty that he never heard the word “hyperbole” until it was fed to him, just as it was clear he had never used the word “presidential” or “temperament” until others began talking about him that way. In any case, “truthful hyperbole” is Orwellian not only in its contradiction, but especially in its autocratic trajectory. Many people are analyzing the way Trump and his epigones are manipulating language to gain power and throw people off the track.
As Lent approaches, there is one Fact that every Christian needs to acknowledge publicly with our lips and deeply within our hearts: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate. What that signifies for faith is in the realm of the Spirit and of the Truth–the Truth who is Christ the Lord.
The reaction to the “Bowling Green Massacre” has been a very effective tonic! What better way to fight lies and b-s than to laugh hysterically at them! Tweet at #NeverRemember, go on line to see the memes and watch the comedic protests…LOL
George Orwell, the most fearless of commentators, was right to point out that public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually. Sometimes all they require is a leader of cunning, a demagogue who reads the waves of resentment and rides them to a popular victory. “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” Quoted by David Remnick in The New Yorker, Nov. 9, 2016