Save us from an indifference to truth

There is perhaps no greater symbol of two worlds colliding than that of Christ before Pilate. The meeting has been dissected and analyzed for millennia.

We can understand the meeting as Christ, representing the forces of faith, compassion, empathy, selflessness and ultimate truth, against Pilate, as the forces of power, force, malicious indifference and selfish materialism. It’s a confrontation that arguably offers a metaphor for our current divisions.

Jesus was not alone in recognizing the need for faith, which the Romans called fides. We could argue it’s a combination of trust, honesty, integrity and good will.

The great Roman orator and statesman Cicero also understood faith — in its ethical dimension, if not spiritual, as was the case with Jesus — was essential to a functioning republic.

He is right. Yet for us it has collapsed into something highly selective:

We still trust the fire department will come in an emergency. We still trust the recipes in cookbooks will work, with bread rising and custard setting. We still trust our fellow drivers will follow the rules, keeping us as safe as possible on the roads.

Yet it appears a collapse in faith has occurred among half our population, if not more, concerning numerous institutions — institutions peopled with the same individuals who might fight fires and take to the roads.

Media, academia and government are all easy to detest if you don’t know them. Of these, the hatred directed against the media is perhaps among the most catastrophic for a democracy.

The reasons for this collapse are numerous and the responsibility is widely shared. Fragmentation of news sources due to social media is certainly a significant factor. We could also blame the habits of our collectively democratic and egalitarian temperament, in which people of expertise are often suspected of elitism, leading to dismissal of their knowledge as mere opinion.

This suspicion is particularly in evidence in the skepticism or outright rejection of traditional news sources.

All news sources should naturally be considered with skepticism and read critically. Yet one can have reasonable confidence that The Washington Post and New York Times, for example, are reasonably accurate. It’s because their reporters are generally experts in their fields, and because if a story is false or inaccurate, there are consequences for the reporter and paper.

Witness The New York Times’ 2018 podcast “The Caliphate.” It proved variously false or misleading, and the paper conducted an internal review leading to its retraction.

In contrast, it took external threats of legal action for Lou Dobbs and Fox News to retract recent errant and misleading stories based solely on conspiracy theories about election theft. An election theft itself is a gross lie for which no evidence is proffered in argument, leading judge after judge to toss lawsuits based on such allegations.

When one argues a point of history or a literary question in an article or a book, one needs to offer solid material evidence, along with an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. Even then, the allegations will typically be vetted by at least three experts in the field.

Yet how does one further verify the content of American newspapers?

As a Classicist, I’m fortunate enough to be competent in several foreign landuages. I maintain my skill by reading newspapers in French, German and Italian.

These papers cover an enormous political spectrum. Yet all agree, through independent reporting, on some basic facts: Global warming is a human-driven crisis that poses an existential threat; the GOP lost the American presidency in a free and fair election; and we can prevent COVID from spreading through mask compliance, social distancing and self-quarantining.

That these might be false, even conspiratorially contrived, breaks the boundaries of credulity — even in the widely divergent and contentious spectrum of European politics and opinion.

The dismissal of reasonably reputable news sources in America represents a crisis of faith. A mistrust of scientists, academics, and other professionals and experts exacerbate this crisis. Yet somehow, pharmacists produce our medicines, teachers and professors educate our children, lawyers help us with legal issues and scientists produce functional inventions.

We cannot benefit from the authority and talent of dedicated men and women and dismiss the expertise from which we have benefited.

I might add that many of us who enter fields that require expertise are motivated by service and a search for truth rather than profit. Moreover, that journey is sometimes an uncomfortable one, as there are truths I detest, wish were untrue, but can’t reject.

One is the simple and awful fact that the defeated former president received a record number of votes as an incumbent, and another is that supposedly mature members of Congress watched their supporters commit sedition and vandalism of our democracy and did not rebuke their historic criminality, even as they planted the flag of treason on the Capitol steps and beat a police officer to death.

Truth must be sought out, using divergent sources as controls. It’s hard work.

It has always frightened me to think what would happen if we had no more curiosity than to accept as true whatever popped up on our screens. Now these fears have come to fruition.

Belief, trust, faith and hope are not merely the virtues of the three Abrahamic religions. They are the bedrock foundation on which a prosperous, advanced and democratic society functions. It bears repeating: Do not confound imperfection with incompetence or malice.

While I can’t presume to speak for all professionals, I believe it is safe to assume that many experts – in nursing, in academia, the law and other fields — are motivated not by remuneration, but by joy and love of their subject, their work, humanity in general and truth.

One must scrutinize motives for those who provide information:

Who profits from disinformation on climate change, billionaire oilmen,or hardscrabble political activists and hand-to-mouth graduate researchers barely eking out a living? Which politicians profit from lies, those trying to heal the country and move it forward, with nothing to gain, or a lawless president who grossly profits from his office in violation of the Constitution?

Pilate asked, “Quid est veritas?,” which means, “What is truth?” We must regard this as a cynical query, in which reality is contingent on what is convenient and comfortable for the malignant forces the Roman governor embodied.

It is perhaps relevant to note, concerning Pilate’s disregard for truth, that the word for the devil — il Diavolo in Italian and le Dable in French — derives from the Greek verb diaballo, from which we get diabolical. It has several meanings in Greek, including to deceive by false account, to slander, to misrepresent and to present false information.

For Pilate, truth was, quite simply, whatever power said it was. It didn’t matter to him.

And his indifference to truth led to a man’s death — just as indifference to truth led to the death of five of our fellow Americans at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Steve Rutledge serves as adjunct professor of ancient history and language at Linfield University.



Good article but correction - seven people now have died as a result of the president's incitement on the 6th (and well before)! And let's not forget the 140 Capitol police officers who were injured, including some whose injuries will be permanent.

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