Truth Still Matters

In my blog post a few days ago about “Real Patriotism,” I referred parenthetically to the almost 1500 migrant children the Trump administration had “inexplicably lost.” I thought I had fact-checked it, but I discovered later that my original statement was over-generalized and did not account appropriately for the nuances of the situation. So I deleted the statement and I will not repeat it unless I put it in context, including the fact that previous administrations have also lost track of migrant children, sometimes for understandable reasons and sometimes not. (For the record, my confession to writing something that was not the whole story in no way absolves this administration of its anti-immigrant rhetoric and practices, which are cruel and xenophobic.)

Now more than ever, truth matters. The president utters multiple falsehoods and distortions of the truth in a single tweet, and in rallies repeats them to great applause. In an off-camera comment to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl before his inauguration, he admitted he berates the media to “discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you” (as paraphrased by Stahl). In a recent tweet, he specifically equated negative news about him with “fake news.” As far as he’s concerned, if a story portrays him positively, it’s true; if it’s negative, it’s fake news. According to a Monmouth University poll a couple months ago, 77 percent of those surveyed said that the news media report “fake” stories. Clearly, the president’s gaslighting strategy is working and it’s definitely crazy-making!

Long before the idea of “fake news” became part of everyday life, I would check snopes.com to find out if something was true or false – usually one of those so-called urban legends such as a recent one that Meghan Markle’s rescue dog accompanied Queen Elizabeth to the royal wedding (it didn’t!). I trust Snopes to sort out truth from falsehood. Sometimes when Facebook friends, who as far as I know are truthful people in everyday life, share flatly false (and easily fact-checked) stories, I will post a link to the truth. But then someone might respond that snopes.com, or whatever fact-checking source I referenced, is “liberal” and can’t be trusted. Never mind that snopes.com and the other two I follow – factchecking.org and politifact.com – are deliberately non-partisan, regularly point out falsehoods from all points on the political spectrum, and provide helpful context. It never entered my mind before the current nightmare of falsehoods that there is a liberal or conservative explanation for what is true or false.

When my go-to fact-checking sources rate something as true or false, or somewhere in between (e.g., mostly true, mostly false), I believe them, even when their assessment does not confirm my biases. When their rating calls out someone I respect for speaking falsely, I am always disappointed that he or she did not tell the truth. Besides factcheck.org and politifact.com, I also generally trust the fact-checkers at NPR and at the New York Times and Washington Post, all of whom have decades-old reputations to uphold. I am old enough to remember the role that these newspapers played in exposing not only the truth about how the American people were being misled about the Vietnam War but also the truth about Watergate. In the recent example of the “lost children,” both newspapers published important explanations with the larger context of what is happening now with children at the border and what happened in previous years.

We all need to commit ourselves to tell the truth and not pass on information as fact just because it suits our biases (which I regret I did with the “lost children” story). A society cannot function when we can’t count on people to tell the truth – and when lies, dishonesty, misinformation, distortion, obfuscation, dissembling (choose your favorite word) are commonplace at the highest levels of American life, including the presidency. Everyone who has been lied to knows how difficult it is to trust the person again. Are they lying again, or is this the truth now? Relationships are damaged, sometimes irreparably, when the parties can’t trust each other to tell the truth. This is happening right now on a national scale, and I believe the damage could be long-lasting.

I’ve written before about the importance of truth. In Truth Matters, in January 2017, I wrote: “I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it ‘fake news,’ or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth. . . . If nothing is really true anymore, if there are no such things as facts, how can we have any sense of being one nation?” I ended with some coping strategies I’m still trying to follow, and noted that the assault on truth feels like an existential threat, not only to my own sanity but also to the well-being of the nation.

I still feel that way. Truth matters now more than ever.

 

 

 

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Speaking Truth With Words That Give Grace

A smattering of fall at Laurelville

Earlier this week, I spoke at the Anabaptist Communicators Retreat, held at the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, located in the beautiful Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania. My assignment was to talk about how my faith informs my writing and editorial work. What follows is a slightly adapted version of what I presented.

My early writings in the context of the church were borne out of my desire to communicate the call of Christ to be peacemakers. I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, one of the historic peace churches, but it wasn’t until young adulthood that I internalized the peacemaking imperative for Christians and developed what has been a decades-long passion for promoting the practice of peace and justice, particularly in the context of the church. In the earlier days of my writing on peace and justice topics, I was probably somewhat preachy and “polemical” as I tried to persuade others of my own convictions.

Those early writings were freelance and expressed my personal beliefs and opinions, but then I took on various writing and editorial positions in the church that gave me the opportunity to combine passion with profession, and I learned that while there is definitely a place for polemical writing, I could be more effective and likely have greater influence over the long term by making the case with more grace and humility.

Before I was given this assignment, however, I had not thought much in any deliberate way about how my faith informs my writing and editorial work, so it’s been an interesting and helpful exercise. I’ve thought about the variety of venues in which I’ve written and edited for more than 40 years:

  • editor of a monthly missionary prayer calendar (my first “official” church position)
  • editor for Shalom! for 36 years (Shalom! is a quarterly Brethren in Christ publication on peace and justice issues)
  • many years of board and committee work—in my denomination, my home congregation, and Mennonite Central Committee—where I was often called on to write and edit board communication pieces
  • two books (one I wrote and one I edited) and numerous articles and presentations
  • a 23-year career as a communications person associated with the PA Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
  • current editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society
  • this personal blog

I list all those not to toot my own horn but rather to illustrate the different genres and contexts in which I’ve worked. Throughout it all, I’ve also worked with and edited many writers, most of whom were gracious to me as their editor, and I’ve navigated the challenges of trying to fairly represent many views in the publications I edit while maintaining my own integrity.

As I thought about that body of work and how my faith convictions have informed the way I write and edit, I kept coming back to three New Testament passages: Luke 6:27-31; Romans 12:14-21; Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31-32

Three imperatives from those passages serve as guidelines for how I try to do my work: 1) treat others as you want them to treat you; 2) if it is possible, live at peace with everyone; and 3) speak truth with words that give grace. I’ve collapsed a couple verses into that third guideline, but it seems in keeping with the intent of the passage, and it expresses well what I strive to do. It’s the basis for the title of this presentation: speaking truth with words that give grace.

Living up to those words is a constant challenge. As I said, much of my writing and editing has been on peace and justice-related issues, where there are often strong differences of opinion and convictions, even and perhaps especially among Christians. This has always been true, but seems particularly pointed right now. We’re living in a world where there is so much that seems unjust and just plain wrong, where lies and distortions of truth are some people’s stock-in-trade, and where religious and political divisions often seem impossible to bridge. It’s hard to speak the truth as one sees it in a way that will not further inflame and divide. It’s hard to extend grace to others who see that truth differently. But I believe more than ever that it’s important to try because it’s part of what it means to be a peacemaker.

How does this actually work itself in my writing and editorial practice?

  1. I consider my audience, recognizing that there will be some who read or hear my words who are not at the same place I am, who disagree with me (perhaps vehemently), and so I temper my words. A real-life example: When I used to write promotional announcements for my congregation’s annual Peace Sunday observance, I always visualized an older gentleman who was very conservative and was not always supportive of all the ways we tried to emphasize the church’s commitment to peacemaking. Thinking about him as I wrote helped me frame the announcement in a way that was most likely to appeal to the compassion that I knew was in him and not bias him and others like him against our Peace Sunday efforts from the get-go.
  2. I often acknowledge my own lack of knowledge or understanding and that I could be wrong. While I have strong beliefs and opinions, I don’t see many things as black and white or either/or. Life usually presents itself to me in much more complex and ambiguous ways—in shades of gray rather than in black and white, as both/and rather than either/or. Even those things about which I have strong opinions are not always clear-cut. In my experience, there are not many genuinely easy answers.
  3. I try to be honest and truthful. I fact-check and use reputable sources. I also try to be honest about my own shortcomings, which are many. While I’m pontificating about this or that topic, I am often brought up short by the realization that the hypocrisy, inconsistency, and self-righteousness I’m attributing to others could perhaps be applied to me. I am constantly humbled by the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, which in one translation read: “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” To paraphrase it personally: Does the way I actually live my life agree with what I write? . . . the answer to which often gives me pause and reminds me that a little humility is a good thing.
  4. I try to be true to myself, and use personal stories to illustrate my point. It’s harder to argue with personal experience. That’s the way I framed an essay called “God Bless the Whole World, No Exception,” that was something of a rebuke of the “America first” mentality.” I told the story of having been integrally connected to three countries from the moment of my birth. I am the daughter of an American mother and a Canadian father, and I was born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). That reality has forever affected the way I view the world. Conversely, I recognize that the personal experience of others also affects the way they view the world.
  5. I try to acknowledge other points of view when I can. This is a particular challenge when those points of view feel like anathema to me, or when they contradict the official position of the church for which I’m writing or editing.
  6. As an editor, I believe in doing my best to maintain the writer’s own voice. Sometimes that probably means that I am not as ruthless an editor as some might think I should be, but it is also a gesture of respect for the right of people to express themselves in the words, phrases, and colloquialisms that are comfortable for them. I don’t like it when editors put words in my “mouth” that I would not say but that express what they think I mean, and so I try not to do that to those whose words I edit.

I confess that many many times over the years I have struggled with “speaking truth.” I hate conflict, and I’m an introvert, so I would just as soon run the other way as confront the conflict. I have remained silent when I should have spoken up (or written something). I have also struggled with the grace part, as I feel anything but full of grace for those whose words and actions I abhor or cannot support. Nevertheless, despite my failures, speaking truth with words that give grace remains a goal for the way I want to approach my writing and editorial life, as well as the rest of my life.

Truth Matters

Regular readers of my blog know that I have used this forum to tell stories from my childhood, to write down for posterity memories of my early life. As I have done so, I have been keenly aware that there are many details about my childhood I don’t remember but really wish I could. On occasion I’ve discovered that my memory of a certain event was not entirely accurate. Along the way, some people have generously encouraged me to write a book, but I have always resisted in part because I compare what I could write to other memoirs I’ve read and I can’t begin to match the detail that others seem to recall about their lives. How is it possible, I ask, for memoirists to write in such detail about something that happened when they were three years old, when my memories of my three-year-old self are sketchy at best and mostly nonexistent? Do they just make up stuff? Did their parents and others write down everything down that happened, and now they’re using that information to tell their story? Do they “enhance” their sketchy memories and other contemporaneous recollections to paint a scene that is plausible but probably didn’t happen exactly that way?

If I were to write a memoir, it would be important to me not to make up facts or incidents, and not to ascribe to others things they didn’t do or say. Or, if I used my imagination to fill in the missing details in sketchy memories, I would be honest and admit what I was doing and suggest that even though everything didn’t happen exactly as I’ve described it, the intent was to convey the reality of my life as I experienced it. I would call it something like a “fictionalized memoir.” Truth matters to me!

In my career as an editor and a writer, it has always been important to me to be sure that what I am writing and publishing is true and does not deliberately distort the facts. I am not a journalist by training, nor am I an academic researcher, but I value the ethical commitment in both disciplines to go where the facts lead and not make claims that are not supported by the facts. Much of my writing and editorial work over the years has been of the opinion, commentary, or memoir variety, driven more by individual perspectives, interpretations, convictions, or memories than painstaking research. However, I have always been careful not to be inflammatory in my opinions, even when I have expressed them strongly and without apology. And I have always tried to acknowledge that the facts might lead others to different opinions.

Since I was appointed editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society four and a half years ago, I have developed an even greater appreciation for those who research the past and write history, whether family or church history. Of course, historical research and writing often reflect the particular perspectives and biases of the researcher/author. Those unique perspectives and biases sometimes offer an alternative view of history that is important to consider (as in the case of American history as written from an African American rather than a white perspective). But, to be effective in helping us understand history, they also have to match the dictionary definition of truth: the information they impart has to be part of “the body of real things, events, and facts.”

In today’s environment, however, there is so much that doesn’t pass that simple test. Truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore, and we don’t even seem to be able to agree on what a fact is. It’s apparently okay to just make stuff up or claim that something did or didn’t happen when there is what we used to consider irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Many things upset me about the 2016 presidential campaign and outcome, but one of the most upsetting is what seems to have happened to truth, and what some have called the “gas-lighting” of America – that is, a form of psychological abuse where we are being manipulated into doubting our own memories, perception, and sanity. I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it “fake news,” or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth. The promotion and perpetuation of misinformation and falsehoods (okay, let’s be real and call them lies) destroys order and upsets our sense of equilibrium. The constant drumbeat of criticism of the press and journalists who are investigating the truth and correcting misinformation is a serious threat to the First Amendment and democracy itself. The dismissal of factual and well-researched stories as fake news not to be trusted or believed leaves everything up for grabs. Some days it feels like we can’t even trust that grass is green and not orange, or the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west, or that up is in fact up and not down. If nothing is really true anymore, if there are no such things as facts (as some political operatives have actually claimed recently), how can we have any sense of being one nation?

Functioning in this crazy-making “post-truth” world where even our highest elected official lies and engages in gas-lighting on a regular basis is difficult, but I’m trying to adopt a few strategies:

  1. Continue to trust that there are journalists who are committed to facts and who are doing their best to tell the truth. I choose to believe the news sources I have trusted for many years that have tried to be fair and have shown themselves willing to investigate the truth. These include NPR and Time magazine, both of which I’ve been listening to and reading for decades. I’ve also added Reuters and BBC News to my Facebook feed as sources that provide a less U.S.-centric view. I do so knowing that even these reputable sources have their biases, but also trusting that their journalists and reporters subscribe to a basic code of ethics.
  2. Be skeptical of stories that don’t make sense and sound unbelievable. And then, refuse to spread questionable information unless I have verified it through other sources, including the fact-checkers (my favorites are FactCheck.org and Politifact, and sometimes Snopes.com).
  3. Recognize bias and account for it, and make deliberate efforts to sort out the facts of the story from the interpretation. In web-based articles, there are often links to the primary source material from which the author drew his or her conclusion or interpretation. I often check out those primary sources to decide for myself whether the author’s interpretation is fair.
  4. Relatedly, look for the full context. Yes, the Bible says, “There is no God,” but if you check the context in Psalm 14:1, what it actually says is, “Fools say, ‘There is no God.'” Big difference!
  5. Call out lies.
  6. Be willing to change my view if the facts lead there.
  7. Always tell the truth myself.

I don’t expect that these strategies will always keep me calm and sane, but I hope they’ll help. I have to do something to protect myself from what feels almost like an existential threat, not only to my personal sense of well-being but also to the nation and world in which I live. Truth matters!

A Modest Proposal for Truth

We all know the story of Pinocchio, or at least the part about his nose growing every time he tells a lie. I’ve been thinking lately that many of the current crop of presidential candidates would have very long noses if that happened to them. Not that I am accusing them all of flat-out lying. I will grant that sometimes they aren’t deliberately saying something they know not to be true nor are they necessarily intending to deceive; they are simply choosing the details they want to emphasize to make their point in a way that isn’t actually false but also doesn’t tell the whole story. That said, there’s a whole lot of stuff being said that just doesn’t stand up to the truth test.

What if every time a presidential candidate or prominent politician gave a speech or news conference or participated in a debate, there was a fact-checker on hand to immediately challenge the person? Or what if over each person’s head there was a device (like Politifact.com’s “Truth-o-Meter”) with a dial that moved from “true” on the one side to “false” on the other, and perhaps even included a “pants-on-fire” setting, depending on what the person said? What if the meter dinged loudly when the dial hit the false setting? What if candidates and politicians were simply not allowed to get away with stretching the truth, distorting the facts, or actually lying about what they said or did or what their opponent(s) said or did?

We like to think that there is accountability. After all, political pundits on the cable news shows spend a lot of time exposing the ways in which politicians don’t tell the truth. And there are reputable and nonpartisan websites such as the aforementioned politifact.com or factcheck.org, and the Fact-Checker at the Washington Post that regularly evaluate the veracity of politicians’ statements. The problem, however, is that this is all done after the fact, after the damage is done. With nothing to call people to account for what they say while they are saying it, in front of everyone they’re saying it to, soundbites take on lives of their own. No amount of fact-checking will counteract all the damage to truth that has been done, or keep politicians and their followers from repeating the soundbites every time they give a speech.

Whenever I hear a politician I disagree with speak falsehoods, I get angry because these falsehoods will not only mislead people but are also often completely unfair to their opponents. On the other hand, when politicians I generally respect and agree with say things that aren’t true or cherry-pick the facts, I am also frustrated because I don’t believe it helps their cause. They become just like every other politician who spins the facts to suit his or her own purposes. I long for candidates and leaders to be confident enough of the rightness of their beliefs to speak the truth all the time and not feel like they have to rely on half-truths or outright falsehoods.

You know those real-time counters at the bottom of television screens that keep track of votes on a live poll? What would happen if you had something similar for truth-telling, but running right above the politicians’  heads where viewers couldn’t ignore it? What if they knew they were being fact-checked in real time as they were speaking and their audiences could see a dial move from “true” to “false”? Is it possible that most politicians might begin to be a lot more careful about what they said and would care a lot more about making sure that the meter stayed in the true to mostly true range? Perhaps they would work harder to make careful and reasonable cases for what they believe to be the right course of action.

Of course, there are objections:

  1. It isn’t practical and can’t be done, especially in real-time. Perhaps not, but wouldn’t it be great to try? Plus, a lot of falsehoods are perpetuated over and over again by the same people, even when they have been confronted with the facts. It seems like it wouldn’t take too long until at least some speakers would stop saying certain things that are demonstrably false and start being more careful to speak the truth. After all, who likes to be interrupted with loud dinging, and who wants to be shown up for lying on live TV?
  2. Debates and speeches could take forever, because they would be interrupted repeatedly with calls for truth-telling, and politicians would have to take the time from rehearsed soundbites to explain themselves some other way than with a particular falsehood. Eventually, however, we could hope that the incidence of lying would decrease. See #1.
  3. Fact-checking can’t be done impartially, and truth is often subjective because people see things so differently.  This objection is admittedly more difficult to address. Even in other settings besides politics, where disagreements and conflicts are inevitable, the truth is difficult to determine. Two people can sit in the same meeting, hear the same words being spoken, witness the same events, and still come away with a completely different description of what happened. One might be right and the other wrong about what really happened, but more likely they come to different conclusions about the truth of the event because of the preconceptions, experiences, beliefs, knowledge and biases they brought with them. These days, however, when there is so much video and documentary evidence of the facts of a situation, it’s often not too difficult to illustrate how certain versions of events simply don’t match what really happened.
  4. Some candidates wouldn’t be phased by any amount of fact-checking, but would shout down any attempt to get them to tell the truth. Perhaps, though, many people would eventually begin to recognize the truth themselves and stop accepting their repeated lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations.

I don’t expect that my modest proposal for truth will be implemented any time soon, and it likely isn’t really workable at all, but a girl can dream! In the meantime, I’ll maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when I listen to political speeches, do my own fact-checking (by going to primary sources whenever possible), and probably continue to yell at the TV.