Perspective: Why do so few people care about what is true anymore?
It’s hard to discern truth in a world of competing narratives. But that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to seek it
Last week, I was invited to be part of an exploration of liberal-conservative friendships in our divided times at an event in Tallahassee, Florida. The only problem was that a hurricane headed our way.
As I was trying to figure out whether I should return home early, the locals kept reassuring me that the storm was going to veer and miss the region. But I kept seeing “worst-case scenario” headlines in the national media, which gave me a moment of existential angst.
With all the data available instantly at our fingertips, is it really not even possible to find out what’s true about a hurricane headed our way?
The experience made me skeptical that even catastrophic disasters will be reported accurately in our drama-craving media environment. What about other less dramatic but equally important questions?
This is not just about journalists, government officials or others we have historically counted on to tell us the truth. It’s about whether we want to hear it.
Many of us would like to know the unfiltered truth if an asteroid was headed our way. But lately, I’ve been struck at how many people seem disinterested in the full truth about important issues; instead, they seem strangely eager to embrace black-and-white narratives about otherwise complex matters. In fact, attempts to invite more curiosity about crucial questions seem more likely to annoy than inspire.
One person recently told me, in the matter of a challenging public issue, “I’m just not interested in talking about what is true here.”
Like many, this good woman no longer believes it’s possible to find the full truth of a matter because she’s been persuaded that absolute truth can’t be found, even about crucial questions. Instead, we are left to merely swim in a sea of skewed stories and find whatever personal “truth” feels right to us.
I feel sorry for those who have given up on the joys of truth seeking. But I suspect for many this goes beyond any higher commitment to philosophical relativism and is more about basic confirmation bias.
In this way, news media about major issues begins functioning as more of a Rorschach test, revealing more about what is true about ourselves than what is true about the broader world.
Then again, why bother with something presented as true, the thinking goes, if it doesn’t make you happy? Much like Americans stick with music, clothes, food and people they like, they increasingly like to choose their truth based on preference as well.
Maybe that’s because there’s something more than truth people are after here. As my friend and colleague Arthur Peña points out, Americans are “spending more time and energy these days judging each other’s opinions as being ‘loving’ or ‘hateful,’ ‘ignorant’ or ‘enlightened,’ bigoted’ or ‘tolerant’ ... rather than on simply considering whether our opinions are true or not.”
In this way, if a comment makes us feel good or aligns with a deeper heart commitment, we love it. If it doesn’t, watch out.
Hence the screams of cancel culture mobs, demanding — if not that someone’s head be publicly displayed in a pillory — that at the very least, they endure a few lashings in our online public squares. Anyone who loves Brigham Young University knows this well after witnessing the surprising amount of disinterest from national media after accusations of racist heckling at a BYU-Duke volleyball game fell apart.
For such serious claims, one would hope there would have been some serious investigation apart from the one BYU conducted. But as Clay Travis noted, “many in the media, and the sports media in general, immediately assumed that it was true without a single shred of corroborating evidence.”
This reflects what media critic Steve Krakauer calls “glance journalism” wherein “national media outlets see a story, glance at the details, and report it as fact.” Much of this could be attributed to a fast-paced news cycle, where journalists don’t often have time to dig into claims any more. But the swift punishments given to those who raise evidence not aligning with orthodox narratives suggests more is going on. And even when fables are shown to be just that, many still seem to prefer the fable over the facts.
I hope we can expect better of those specially tasked seeking truth in society. “I don’t expect everyone to care about the whole truth,” Jonathan Haidt told me in a recent Deseret News interview, “but professors should — and any academic institution should.”
And yes, so should journalists and commentators. But let’s not forget our own responsibility to prize truth, and to seek it out, no matter how difficult and exhausting this may be.
In my view, this may well be one of the greatest dangers of our hyper-partisan atmosphere — the way it leaves many of us weary and confused about what’s true anymore. As one wise mental health professional Rosa Bridges told me recently, “In America, our nervous systems are so maxed out, it’s hard for many of us to even experience on a sensory level what’s actually happening.”
That’s a frightening public diagnosis, especially when dealing with life-or-death matters, like hurricanes or pandemics. But it’s all the more reason to think deeply and seek out different perspectives — seeking not simply my truth or your truth, but the truth.
And instead of only thinking to ourselves — “I like that,” “I don’t like that,” “I agree,” “I disagree,” “That’s good,” “That’s evil,” “That’s progressive,” “That’s conservative” — let’s also commit, as Peña encouraged, to ask ourselves simply and continually, “Is this true?”
Jacob Hess is the editor-in-chief at Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”