In recent times, a new sinister phrase has crept into the English language – the ‘post truth era’. When we start using phrases like this even the less cerebral and more empty-headed among us must realise that humanity has got things badly wrong.
Have we suddenly been plunged into a situation where there’s no truth anymore? Have we now descended into a golden age of lies? Or more optimistically, is it an era of relative truth? Are there degrees or variations of the truth? Can truth be bent to suit the occasion? Has truth now become flexible or selective? Or even optional?
Of course, lies and disinformation as well as propaganda and deception have abounded for centuries. But in recent decades these enemies of truth have expanded to the point where truth itself is in grave danger of being squeezed out altogether. And when truth is gone, only suspicion remains. And then you’ve got a world no one can comprehend any longer.
The digital age with its worldwide ganglia and pervasive technologies has been a key accelerant in first elasticating and then attempting to distort and possibly extinguish truth. Logically it should have had the opposite effect but then we don’t live in a logical or even sensible world any more. Venal manipulation is more the order of the day and cyber-space is littered with the corpses of trashed truths.
Many decades ago Britain’s redoubtable wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill was well aware of this when he wryly observed that a lie can get half way round the world before the truth has even got its pants on.
Early on in this prolonged digital orgasm I formulated what I thought was a fundamental principle and called it Wyatt’s First Law of Communication which states: ‘The amount of real (i.e. truthful) information communicated decreases in direct proportion to the extent of the infrastructure created to distribute it.’ Predictably, it was ignored entirely.
This is the paradox of the age. The more we talk the less we actually say. The more means we have to communicate, the more diluted the message. Meaning is mangled in the obliterating cross-fire of inane chatter and mind-numbing trivia. We find ourselves in a perma-smog of information overload.
Contributing to this is the sad fact that we don’t value the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth the way our ancestors did. I’m not saying that the Babylonians, the ancient Greeks or even the Atlanteans didn’t tell the odd fib or even gross untruth. But then there was a respect for truth which appears to be vanishing quicker than a scalded cat.
No one knows who to believe any more. We find it increasingly impossible to separate fact from fiction. And so, we increasingly retreat into our self-constructed echo-chambers and choose only that information which reinforces our existing world view, beliefs and prejudices. We ignore or reject those things which don’t slot neatly into our mind-set. In other words, we have yet to shed that most destructive human vice – narrow-mindedness.
Ironically, the Digital Age which was meant to plug us into this glorious inter-connected paradise has made us more inward- than outward-looking. This age has also blurred the definition of what a fact actually is. We used to go to the library or consult an encyclopaedia to ascertain the truth of something. Now we go online and are offered multiple versions of that same truth. No wonder we’re confused.
These days fewer and fewer people believe the information pumped out by the various mainstream media around the world. Having worked in these distressing and diseased realms for most of my working life, personally I don’t blame them. What was once impartial, balanced news is now opinionated propaganda reinforced by speculation and selective omission. This is especially true of broadcast news.
Instead, people attach their beliefs to something which is arguably even worse – the sleazy sewers of social media swirling with its accusative, poisonous and conspiratorial currents.
Truth has become like someone who’s been shipwrecked clinging forlornly to a piece of driftwood in the middle of an endless raging ocean. Its position seems hopeless and doomed with little prospect of survival or rescue. But I remain optimistic enough to believe that as in all good Hollywood blockbusters it will be plucked from the churning waters at the very last minute.
Just as one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, a solid truth to some is a dirty lie to others. A firm fact to one individual is propaganda to another. So, are there such things as objective and absolute truths?
Well, yes there are. They’re called facts. However much you try and twist and torture the numbers you can’t make two and two add to up five, nine or forty-seven. You can’t pretend that it’s daytime when it’s two o’clock in the morning (unless you live in Greenland in mid-June). And you can’t deny the fact that if you cross a busy motorway blind-folded you’re likely to wind up in the hospital’s accident and emergency department or the mortuary. (If they can squeeze you in.)
There are indeed absolute and timeless cosmic truths of which we have as yet a flimsy and incomplete understanding. Our knowledge and application of these universal laws as expounded in the Ageless Wisdom tradition remains at the far margins but we’re aware of some of the basics. Always known to a select few, these universal principles are progressively revealed. They usually only have resonance with the very few.
Enough of these ideas have emerged over the past century and a half to offer us a basic superstructure and a valid alternative explanation for what any of us are doing here in the first place. The problem is that these ideas are often so far from mainstream thinking that they’re often regarded as absurd or ridiculous and rejected out of hand. Even if humanity at large were open-minded, which it isn’t, they would be difficult to absorb. Closed minds make it even more challenging.
Some of what we may call cosmic truths have slowly begun to infiltrate popular consciousness by the back door. For example, over the past half century many people in the West have begun to embrace Eastern notions of reincarnation or re-birth of some kind. Although outlawed by Western religions and mercilessly mocked by materialistic science as nonsensical and unproveable superstition, reincarnation resonates with a sizeable minority of people.
Possibly one day the present certainties of science regarding the Big Bang and numerous other fanciful theoretical speculations masquerading as certainties may be equally ridiculed. Remember only five centuries ago the church insisted that the Earth was flat and every other heavenly body revolved round it. If you disagreed, they tortured you and then burned you in public.
The viral pandemic of 2020 has highlighted another unmistakable truth and shows that the ancient sages knew what they were talking about when they spoke about the inter-connectedness and interdependence of all life. This is a truth which the contemporary world is having to re-learn the hard way. When this global plague finally recedes, a great many people will revert to the old truth that we’re separated, independent individuals. But far more than ever before will realise that we’re not.