Reflections on "truth"
The advent of television fifty years ago gave advertising experts and more recently political opinion manipulators a powerful tool with which they have gradually eroded the meaning of the word truth. Since 9/11 the balance between truth, half truths, spin and outright lies on TV tended so much towards the latter that I became confused and felt the need to look into the real meaning of that word.
Truth was a lot simpler when I was born in 1933. In my earliest childhood, truth was what my father and mother said. I was lucky because things almost always turned out the way my parents said they would. Consequently, in my mind, truth was a fundamental "good" right from the beginning along with mother's milk, love and dry diapers. Trust was natural to me in the secure environment of a happy childhood. My first perception of truth was also moulded by religious dogmas. I was told to believe in all kinds of unreasonable tales even if I did not understand them because they were "sacrosanct mysteries" and blind faith was a virtue that opens the doors of heaven. I belonged to a good catholic family, well sprinkled with priests and nuns. I never had a chance to think for myself so I went along with the idea that faith was more "true" than reality with a lot of good will, in spite of the great difficulty of doing so, until my early teens. Then, something had to go, it could have been my respect for truth but in the end, it was my faith that crumbled. Only much later did I realise how harmful that early conditioning had been.
I lost faith, or rather was liberated from it, for a number of reasons but probably mostly because of hypocrisy and the contradictions between the elitist rhetoric of the church about brotherly love and charity and the injustices it systematically condoned without shame. Witnessing sexual abuse in the boarding school I attended did not help my faith. It was naive on my part but the behaviour of church authorities failed to measure up to my expectations of truth. Liberated from the Christian faith, I felt lost, set adrift in a rough sea without sail nor compass. It was terribly traumatic to loose the meaning of life, the reason for all efforts, endeavours and pains. Managing the pressure of rising sexual urges within the limitations of acceptable social behaviour during my teen age years was difficult enough without having to seek the meaning of life. I read everything I could lay my hands on about "the supernatural experience" hoping to find peace and purpose on a higher "spiritual plane".
I flirted with the Rosicrucians, with Eckankar, with Theosophists and with a number of other such groups and grasped what I could like a drowning sailor. I was seduced for a few years by the appearance of justice in oriental religions where one's spiritual progression depends on a succession of righteous lives rather than the chance occurrence of a repentant mood at the moment of death. The air leaked out of that life raft however when I realised how, in actual practice, the tale of successive rebirths was used by Hindus to impose the unjust privileges enjoyed by the priestly Brahmin caste and by Buddhists to justify the indolence and power of monks in Tibet. Around 25, I was adrift again looking for a worldly purpose for my existence to replace the spiritual finality that I could no longer believe in.
I looked into political activity but soon realised that intrigue and manipulation did not suit me. Professional activity and career grabbed my attention but those activities did not dispel the need of a finality that had been foisted upon me by my religious education. I lost a lot of time getting rid of the idea that the universe had been created to allow humans to achieve a supernatural finality. After much searching and anguish I finally adopted the opinion that life had no other purpose than the expression of what evolution had made of us in an exclusively material universe.
I retained the idea that truth was a desirable value but that it was elusive and never absolute. I came to think in terms of probabilities and to recognise that whatever I think is never more than an approximation susceptible of improvement. The pursuit of "absolute truth" lost its high drama and was replaced by the more modest search for incomplete and partial truths. Following up on this, I developed the game of building my own model of the universe that I call " My Toy Village".
It is difficult to understand people without learning how their perception of truth was formed. I have met fundamentalists who sincerely consider their "absolute truths" to be more real than the material world we all live in. It is useful to understand that their inflexible, black-and-white attitudes are the result of a blind faith that has grown with time in spite of all evidence instead of crumbling like mine. I have also met individuals whose personal experience has not conditioned them to consider truth to be a fundamental good. Some of these pragmatic people manage to navigate through everyday contradictions without worrying about the validity of what they say. For them, the only "truth" is "whatever works".
"Truth" does not have the same meaning nor the same importance for everybody, it depends on how their minds work and that varies with everyone's personal experience. The term "truth" is widely recognised as meaning an exact correlation between what is said about "something" and the objective reality of that "something". However, truth is not so simple in practice because the correlation is not always exact or because the "something" cannot always be defined exactly. Perhaps an analysis of the areas of application of the term "truth" can help us understand how it can have such different meanings for certain people.
Three areas of truth
Our hominid ancestors learned to use internal images of their environment in ways that enhanced their survival and reproduction rates and natural selection favoured the gradual increase in the size of the brain that generated these representations of the outside reality. Increases of brain size allowed more and more sophisticated use of these images such as the ability to project them into the future and to share them with other hominids through the use of language. Evolution also favoured clans strongly bound by a common perception of their environment at the expense of less cohesive groups.
We have learned however that our personal subjective image of our natural environment does not necessarily represent the physical universe that is really out there. The correlation between the real universe and our representation of it, link "A" in the diagram below, is imperfect and incomplete but that approximate sketch is the only universe we know. In primitive societies, the unknown areas of our sketch were filled in with pure speculations involving a world of spirits for which there was no observable evidence. Our sketch of the universe is imperfect but it is getting better as modern science progresses. However, dogmas spread in the social environment by religious or ideological organisations, still pollute the world-view of believers with unfounded speculative elements (dotted "X" in the diagram).
We, as conscious individuals, are the subjective perception of ourselves in the universe around us. We are the sum of all that we know and we are changing all the time as we acquire new knowledge. The imperfection of our perceptions would be a minor problem if the absence of truth affected only the "A" relationship described above. Unfortunately, that is not the case because the social abilities gained through the evolution that led to the extraordinary growth of the human brain allow us to project images that do not represent our intimate self (our subjective representation of ourselves in the universe). The correlation between our subjective reality and the images we choose to project in our social environment, the "B" link in the diagram, is also generally imperfect and incomplete. The memes (ideas that circulate), currently fashionable in our social environment exert an influence (dotted line "Z") on our choice of the images we choose to project. That pollution tends to construct public personae calculated to produce more desirable results than those that would be obtained by the projection of our real intimate self. It appears that our ability to distort the "B" link has been naturally selected by evolution because of its survival and reproductive value. In other words, our ability to lie has been programmed into us by evolution and is perfectly natural!
Some people fall into the trap of believing in their own lies when these produce the results they seek. For them, the operational efficiency of the "C" link confers "truth" to the image they project into their social environment. The projected persona that obtains the desired results is "true" even though it has nothing to do with the real person. This is equivalent to claiming that homeopathic medications (or witch doctor magic potions) are "true" medicines because they produce a placebo effect. The error of taking such a "test of truth" as a proof of truth is frequent. Some lawyers will not hesitate to present any arguments whatsoever that might influence members of a jury, irrespective of their veracity. If it works, it's "true". Politicians also tend to think that anything their advisors and writers put in their speeches is "true" if it gets votes.
Tolerance to untruth
We like to think that truth is a fundamental good but we so seldom encounter it
that we develop a tolerance to the presence of untruths (i.e..
lies), in ourselves and in our environment. It cannot be denied that truth is severely
lacking in all three of the areas described above. It is a matter of degree...
A - In our intimate self
What we know about the universe comes through our own observations (link "A" in the diagram) or through the observations of others. Similarly, our knowledge of ourselves comes largely from what others see in us. Our self knowledge is strongly influenced by dogmas and memes about what we should think and what we should be (dotted lines "X" and "Z"). That kind of pollution clouds our view of what we really are by generating destructive feelings of guilt about any non compliance to the religious and social norms that we have accepted. In fact, most of us are not much closer now to the goal "know thyself" than the Greeks were when Socrates promoted it as the key to happiness 25 centuries ago.
Allowing dogmas to dominate other sources of information leads to religious and ideological fanaticism. Fundamentalists like Osama Bin Laden and Jerry Falwell believe in the literal content of their respective holy scriptures in spite of the absence of the slightest shred of evidence of a supernatural world. Ideological dogmatism can be equally alienating, for example, even now, some die hard communists still believe in the absolute validity of Marxism-Leninism in spite of the obvious failure of that system more than a decade ago.
Most memes carry only harmless content about our cultural values and our current fashions but they can become powerful tools of abuse in the hands of manipulators because we are generally unaware of the mechanisms by which we receive and transmit them ( see more sites on memes).
A successful integration into our social environment and good identification with it implies that we tolerate a certain level of untruth introduced into our self perception by dogmas and memes. Individual credulity varies greatly but beyond certain limits, uncritical acceptance of such pollution leads to an extreme conformism that impedes the emergence of a distinct personality.
B - In our public personae
We also tolerate some untruth in the images of ourselves we choose to show others. The personae we project protect us and provide a flexible interface without which interpersonal relations would be very difficult if not impossible. Maintaining an appropriate set of personae is however very complicated because the social environment is not always the same. The optimal image to project in one given group does not produce optimal results with a different group. We therefore have to modify our apparent personality to fit different social circumstances. We all do it to a certain extent. I did not project the same public persona while backpacking in Peru that I did while presiding board meetings in Quebec or that I do now by publishing this website!
A certain degree of untruth in our public personae can be perfectly legitimate not only as a diplomatic lubricant to facilitate human relations but also as a necessary step in our own personal evolution. Indeed, as I have explained in the paper "Life is a Statement" man has the ability to modify his inner program by wilfully adopting a new behaviour until it becomes integrated as an accepted modification. This is no problem when the distortion of his public persona is only temporary until the new elements become part of his real self.
The occasional "white lies" and diplomatic untruths are not a problem either. There are however, limits to the distortions that can be tolerated in public personae without affecting one's credibility. In any society, mutual trust is based on the observance of these limits. We are all susceptible to compliments as long as we believe them to be true but we soon reject flattery if we suspect it is not sincere. Seduction, manipulation and outright fraud are the next steps in the abuse of trust.
The seducer (or seductress), presents an untrue but seductive image of himself until he gets what he wants but he then has to continue living his falsehood to avoid being unmasked. The greater the distortions introduced into this mask, the more uncomfortable it will be to wear later.
The manipulator knowingly tells falsehoods to obtain what he wants from his victims. Such abuse of trust adds insult to injury. It is an intellectual aggression that compromises the integrity of the victim's perception of reality. It is a rape of the mind. To be manipulated by someone close is a rape of the heart, it destroys love and leaves only stiff, inert scar tissue. Beyond certain limits, manipulation becomes outright fraud that is sanctioned as criminal in most societies.
Manipulators and impostors have occasionally been successful but as Abraham Lincoln said:"It is easy to fool some of the people some of the time but you can't fool all the people all the time". At the end of the day, the real victim of the successful impostor is himself because when he is living out a contrived persona like an actor on the stage, he must necessarily neglect the inner self that holds the values and attitudes he calls his own. In isolating his real inner self in this manner, he deprives it of the opportunity to be loved, to develop and to make the statement of its own individual existence.
C - In our collective knowledge
Finally, we tolerate the presence of huge amounts of untruth in our collective knowledge because there is not much we can do to prevent it. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll regroup all our collective knowledge into four overlapping categories: dogmas, scientific knowledge, pseudo-science and the rest, our cultural heritage. Memes are "bits of this collective knowledge" that circulate from brain to brain as they self-replicate according to rules of that closely resemble those that govern the replication and natural selection of genes..
Dogmas are claimed to be perfect, absolute and unchanging "truths" generally revealed to some privileged individuals. They were probably initially invented to answer questions man had about his environment but they soon became instruments of power. For example, the awesome phenomena of thunder was once explained by the anger of some supernatural entity, the thunder god that had to be placated. Historically, shamans, priests and "holders-of-the-truth" have used dogmas to acquire power over those who believed them. Natural selection favoured belief in dogmas as clans that adhered to dogmatic religions had the advantage of a stronger cohesion and unity of purpose than more loosely organised groups. This made possible the completion of great works of collective interest such as irrigation and cathedrals but it also led to efficient organised warfare and to the ruthless domination of nonbelievers. Dogmas create distinctive identities and are necessarily lead to profound divisions because contradictory beliefs cannot all be absolutely true. Blind faith has been and still is one of the major causes of wars and bloodshed in the history of mankind.
Blind faith in a supernatural world has also led to innumerable cases of abuse of trust ranging from astrology to new age beliefs and alternative "medicines", to exploitation by unscrupulous millionaire sects and even to fatal manipulation by death cult gurus. ( See more sites on faith abuse)
Scientific knowledge is imperfect and incomplete but constantly growing. What we know about the universe is accessible to us through subjective representations of reality in somebody's brain, ours or that of some other people (link "A" in the diagram). We call objective those facts that can be observed independently by any qualified observer at a given epoch and consider the theories that explain them adequately to be the "truth" until disproved by further experimental evidence. As science progresses, new facts are discovered and explanations that were considered true are replaced by new, more satisfactory theories. Science proceeds stepwise. New theories presented to the scientific community remain in a questionable proto-science limbo until a positive or negative consensus is reached about them. The theory of memes is still in the proto-science stage but its growing acceptance augurs well for the recognition of memetics as a legitimate science. Scientific recognition takes time. It took decades for the theory of continental drift to be accepted.
Objective truth is not absolute and it can evolve, what is considered true today could be considered incomplete and inadequate tomorrow as we improve our hard won knowledge of reality. Like it or not, that's the way it is and we have to accept that our scientific knowledge is true only for the time being. Science is necessarily inclusive for it is the result of multiple verifications and peer consensus. It belongs to no particular group and is available to anyone of any race, colour or religion. Science has replaced dogmas to explain the physical world but man still has many unanswered questions that leave him vulnerable to the manipulation of "holders-of-the-truth" wielding dogmas about ethics and what happens after death.
New theories that fail to gain acceptance by the scientific community are abandoned by the latter and considered to be pseudo-science when defended by die-hard promoters ( for example, the cold fusion theory). Sometimes also, unscrupulous manipulators use the terminology of modern science to give an appearance of credibility to scams and unfounded theories that don't have the remotest relation to science ( demonstrated by the Sokal affair). The average individual who has not developed a habit of critical thinking can be easily taken in by adroitly presented pseudo-science in many fields of endeavour. The following websites explain how to distinguish pseudo-science from legitimate science.
Organised pseudo-science is particularly misleading. Christian fundamentalists interpret current scientific advances, that deal only with the material universe, in a manner designed to imply the existence of god and of a supernatural world. These manipulators are particularly active in the US where the wealthy Christian right finances organisations such as the Templeton Foundation that gives out a one million dollar prize every year to scientists who accept to support their fraud. The following websites and the links they contain can help to identify this source of much of the pseudo-science that pollutes our collective knowledge.
The rest of what we know, the arts and humanities and any other knowledge that is neither frozen dogma nor evolving science nor fraudulent pseudo-science can be lumped into the general category of man's global cultural heritage. All this collective knowledge is laid out before us like a great variety of appetising dishes in a buffet banquet. It is the responsibility of each one of us to choose the memes that are worth picking up and to resist the efforts of those who seek to stuff our brain with falsehoods.
We tend to take truth for granted because of healthy optimism, because of wishful thinking, of intellectual laziness and of individual irresponsibility. The preceding analysis shows however that there is a considerable amount of untruths in our intimate self image, in the personae we project and in the information we receive from our social environment. Looking hard at reality, it becomes evident that truth is an extraordinarily rare commodity.
We readily accept the most unreasonable answers to our interrogations to avoid facing our fear of the unknown. We prefer an untrue certainty to an uncertain truth. Science is only now beginning to learn how to deal with uncertainty, with quantum randomness and with chaos. The scientific community is facing these concepts not out of choice but because their in depth analysis can no longer be avoided. As for the rest of us, we are swimming in a sea of untruths and choose not to be aware of it. This is very much like the ostrich thinking that the lion ceases to exist when she puts her head in the sand.
With a little effort, it is however possible to reduce the "untruth content" in each of the three "areas of truth" mentioned above. We can begin to rid our self-perception of some untruths by becoming aware of the mechanisms by which the image we entertain of ourselves has been constructed out of our interactions with the people around us. Help is now readily available, modern psychometrics can provide us with statistically valid profiles that show how the values and attitudes that make up our personality compare with those of the people around us. You might want to try some of these tests that are available on the internet.
We can also work at becoming aware of the differences between the real person we think we are inside of us and the diverse images of ourselves that we choose to show others in certain circumstances. Becoming aware of these differences is a prerequisite to an improved knowledge of that part of ourselves we consider to be our inner self. Our public personae constitute a useful interface that adapts to our social environment in order to protect that inner self. That interface hides some aspects of what we really are and adds others that do not correspond to our reality. In doing so, it can however, isolate our inner self-awareness and prevent its evolution. The objective of minimising the differences between our public personae and our inner self has nothing to do with a moral imperative to be more "honest", is a matter of the self centred interest to empower our inner personality to operate more openly outside so as to develop its full potential.
As for the innumerable untruths that pollute our social environment, most of them are wilfully disseminated by organisations and individuals who derive power and wealth from the manipulation of what people think. Corruption is also an indirect form of manipulation when the perpetrator betrays the trust placed in his function for his personal advantage or profit. And so are all the scams, hoaxes and fraudulent publicity that exploit credulity.
We can remain passive and accept to be herded with the credulous masses. We can also choose to join the unscrupulous priests, gurus, faith healers and other abusers but responsible individuals will rather chose the path of critical thinking to defend their intellectual independence.
It is not a difficult path but it does require a certain degree of awareness and
the persistence to carry out the three following steps. First, we need to identify
the forces that threaten our capacity for independent thinking:
The struggle for intellectual independence is half won if you have managed to rid your worldview of all supernatural elements such as elves, gobblins, fairies, angels, demons, ancestral spirits and gods but you are still vulnerable to those who wish to separate you from your money, to indoctrinate you into some "ism" or just to get your vote.
The second step is to familiarise ourselves thoroughly with the following
common tricks used to manipulate us.
The list of tricks could be doubled or tripled and each one merits a fuller treatment than can be given here. A vast abundance of books, and websites deal with credulity and skepticism. Unfortunately, most people are either unaware of these traps or if they know about them, they don't bother to use their knowledge to protect themselves from manipulation. We are most vulnerable to be abused by these tricks when the manipulating force is sufficiently adroit and subtle that we don't see it coming.
I dissagree with those who think man cannot be good without God's help because the "original sin" has marked them as evil. I pity them for it must be unbearable to be constantly on high alert when meeting people. I think the overwhelming majority of people do more good acts than evil ones. I have travelled all over the world and have been exposed to more cultures than I can remember. (See The Globetrotter's Trail Through 208 Countries). I conclude from this experience that the great majority of people have maintained intact the gregarious qualities of cooperation and empathy inscribed in our genes for its group survival value. Travelling alone, I found most people to be warm hearted, hospitable and friendly even towards a stranger. Most people returned to me the attitude with which I approached them. I think manipulation comes more from organisations than from individuals.
But there are exceptions. I have been scammed, aggressed and robbed by cheaters who do not abide by the golden rule (do onto others what you would they do to you). I think that cheaters are a small minority. They are seldom found in small communities because they are rapidly identified, shunned and expelled. There is no room for cheaters in nomad Touareg communities of the sahara, or with the traditionnal Maya of Central America or the various mountain tribes of South-East Asia or in the great majority of small villages elsewhere in the world. Except, of course, where there is a high turnover of tourists (see the " Tourist Saturation Index").
Cheaters survive and thrive in big cities where they can find new victims to exploit. I am convinced that almost all who llive within a kilometer of my place in Montreal are as gregarious, cooperative and empathic as I would like to be myself. Cheaters are a minority but we nonetheless need to learn how to defend ourselves from their predations.
We need to develop the ability to recognise when we can afford to be open
minded and when we need to adopt a critical attitude instanteneously. This third
step is the most difficult. We risk remaining vulnerable or isolating ourselves in
an unhealthy paranoia. Clues like minor inconsistencies, body language and lack of
eye contact can help spot a cheating individual but they are less useful protection
from manipulating organisations than pro-active habits such as:
Fortunately, support for critical thinking is available from a growing number of
self-help groups that provide some defence against various forms of intellectual abuse.
Unfortunately, there is almost no organised defence against political indoctrination by the media. It is specifically this problem that has prompted me to carry out this enquiry on the meaning of the word "truth" in today's social environment.
Political manipulation by the media
I travel five months every year and have visited more than 200 countries and territories. One of the first things I do upon arriving in a new country is to read two or three local newspapers to feel the pulse of the political climate. The absence of papers presenting views opposed to the government in power tells a lot about the country's political process. When I was living in Paris in the 60's, I usually read "Le Monde" every day but whenever something special happened somewhere in the world, I would also read the communist "Humanité" and the right wing "Combat" to form my own opinion on the event. In Europe, it was considered normal for journalists to see the world through their own eyes and to report on it with their own personal biases.
It is different in America where mainstream journalists have been indoctrinated into believing they can report on events without letting their own personal convictions colour what they write. They claim to be able of " journalistic objectivity" but I think that they either have no convictions of their own or have decided to conform to the "conventional wisdom" currently acceptable by their immediate peers. To them, "truth" in reporting means "whatever is politically correct at the moment". In America, the media compete to get the latest story out first but once it is out, they all present it with the same bias.
I noticed that astonishing uniformity of opinion in North America for the first time when I came back from Europe in 1970. Since then, the pressure to conform to one "journalistically objective" view of the world has increased as the number of companies owning mainstream media has fallen from 50 to only 5. The result is very impressive, for example, when "China bashing" is fashionable, all the TV stations and all the main papers have a go at it in very much the same terms. Similarly, the message that "Israel can do no wrong" no matter all its excesses towards the "evil" Palestinians is quite overwhelming. Nobody dares voice the slightest criticism of "God's chosen people" for fear of being crucified as anti-Semitic. The net result of this conformist self-censorship is not very different from what happens in authoritarian countries where dissident newspapers are closed down and where outspoken journalists are jailed and sometimes killed. Here, journalists who do not conform are not killed but they are considered unreliable and have very short careers in the mainstream media.
After the September 11th destruction of the World Trade Center, the range of what is "politically correct" narrowed down considerably as all the TV stations and newspapers competed to appear to be the most patriotic and the most supportive of president Bush, the commander in chief. The administration's spin doctors worked wonders with the facts with the full support of the mainstream media. Mister Bush who had been perceived as rather ineffectual and not overly bright was transformed overnight into a heroic St-George in shining armour killing the dragon of terrorism with his great lance. Yesterday's "truth" was a thing of the past and the new "truth" was "whatever works" to achieve the public opinion desired by the administration's hawks supported by the conservative right. It was not difficult to see that the corporate media had become a docile instrument of the Bush regime.
The tight control that the concentrated corporate media exert on American public opinion was so obvious that any outside observer like myself could easily see how the media were dutifully clearing the way for the Bush administration's moves like broom handlers clear the ice before the stone in a game of curling. I therefore could not resist writing " America's New War", "Bush's New Chess Game", " The Struggle for Oil" and the first version of this essay in 2002, long before the Iraq war.
It became obvious to me that this great country that I had once admired so much for its freedom of speech (in spite of its retrograde social policies), was moving in a rather frightening direction, reminiscent of the witch hunting paranoia of McCarthyism in the '50s. None of the mainstream media felt the need to sound a warning. On the contrary, they applauded the loss of civic liberties in the name of the war on terror and outbidded each other in the promotion of war in Iraq. "Truth" was what the President said, and like the Pope, he was infallible.
I felt isolated and out of step with the regiment to see signs of the emergence of a police state where the Americans themselves did not. How could such a sophisticated society of reasonably well educated people fall prey to collective hysteria in such a short time? Something was seriously wrong with the American democracy! Had the average American lost the capacity of independant thought? The subservience of congressmen and senators to the interests of corporate America at the expense of ordinary people could be explained by the predominant influence that wealthy special interest lobbies exert on government decisions in exchange for financing elections. It is however hard to understand how the American people did not notice this ominous trend and take to the streets to reverse it.
Americans had been so well brainwashed by the media that most of them did not see the evolution to authoritarian rule. Those who did were generally cowed into silence by the media's patriotic frenzy. I did however find a few dissenters who had also observed a trend towards totalitarianism and can recommend the following websites for their articles on the manipulation of public opinion by the mainstream media.
My reference to totalitarianism might sound excessive but manipulating public opinion and silencing the opposition by social pressure or by coercion are the first steps towards a police state. After September 11th, the corporate media maintained a climate of fear and whipped up an emotional frenzy of patriotism in the United States of the "my country, right or wrong" variety.
Immediately after the September 11 attacks, the Department of Justice began questioning thousands of people who might have information about terrorist activity. The questioning led to the arrest and incarceration of at least 1,200 male Muslim non-citizens of which 752 were charged with immigration violations and deported. The rest were detained incommunicado for several weeks and some for as long as 10 months. There was no outcry in the media.
Big brother got bigger every day. The democratic checks and balances that are supposed to protect the citizen from abuses of power have definitely been weakened since 9/11. The country has been subjected to a persistent, deliberate, and unwarranted erosion of the basic rights that are guaranteed by the US Constitution and international human rights charters. The"Patriot Act" gave the American Justice Department extraordinary powers that violate these established rights. Anyone who dared to criticise the Bush administration was tarred with the "un-American" label by the media and exposed to retaliation.
Manipulation of the public opinion by the Administration's claims supported by the media was so successful that two out of three Americans agreed with the Administration's plans to invade Iraq in spite of opposition by more than 80 percent of the public opinion in developped countries. The US corporate establishment, the conservative right, Christian fundamentalists and the military-industrial complex had gained control over the "truths" dispensed by the mainstream media.
How could the average American think otherwise when the mainstream media in the US were unanimous in their support of the war? A grass roots movement of dissident websites and alternative periodicals did manage to express its views through the internet but it was too marginal to impede the American invasion and remodelling of oil rich Middle East. The websites of non governmental organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also provided information contradicting the US mainstream media but very few people bothered to seek it.
Since the Afghan and Iraq wars, more than 600 "enemy combattants" of 40 nationalities have been held in Guantanamo Bay without access to the courts, lawyers or relatives. News of human rights violations there and in the Baghram air base in Afghanistan were only timidly voiced by the American media until the Abu Ghraib photos exploded onto the world scene.
Now (2005), we know the claims of imminent danger were lies, it is obvious that the Iraq war has become a dramatic quagmire, the Adminstration's handling of hurricane relief was a failure and news of torture in secret CIA prisons abroad cannot be squelched. The media's support of the administration has faltered but "journalistic objectivity" and "political correctness" still dominate the "national truth" in the US. The average American has been so efficiently brainwashed that he does not notice the erosion of his civic liberties, the export of jobs to low wage countries and the ugly aspects of the new american imperialism abroad.
This 2005 update must mention that the Canadian media may have managed to avoid the extreme jingoism that infected their American counterparts after 9/11 but that they are not innocent of manipulating public opinion. They abundantly reported and commented on the shameful mismanagement, unearthed by the Gomery commission, of the 332 million dollar sponsorship program implemented by the federal government after the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum. However, they said nothing on the real issue behind that program.
By concentrating on the red herring of corruption by liberal cronies, the media successfully diverted everybody's attention from the underlying scandal of using federal tax money to manipulate Quebeckers' opinion about the benefits of federalism. Five centuries ago, Machiavelli proclaimed that the end justifies the means. Today, the ex-prime minister Jean Chrétien and his henchmen boast that they did everything they had to do in order save Canadian unity.
In my jugement, there is a difference between the legitimate use of paid publicity to inform citizens about changes in the law, about the availability of new services or about the dangers of smoking and the government's manipulative use of the same means to boast about partisan realisations or to demonise political opponents. I hold that the media's silence about the federal government's manipulation of the Quebec public opinion with their own tax dollars makes them an accomplice. I think that the media should have exposed that underlying issue so that it could be openly discussed.
I feel threatened by the "political correctness" and "journalistic objectivity" that lead to the presentation of a single perception of the world I live in. I would feel much more empowered as a private citizen if the media presented me with a variety of views out of which I could forge my own opinion. I should not have to search the vast internet resources to find the alternate sources of information that I need to generate a balanced view.
Some of my Canadian readers might have enjoyed my criticism of media manipulation in the USA but are our own media any better? If freedom from manipulation is good for the gander it should be good for the goose...
What can we do...
It was the extraordinary manipulation of the American public opinion by the Bush administration and the corporate media that prompted me to undertake this "thinking out loud" about truth in the fall of 2002 but I had felt the need to do it for some time to clarify my personal understanding of the word "truth".
I have always been impressed by bigmouth hucksters who have the gall to make unfounded statements with unshakeable assurance about things they don't know while I often labour with my doubts in areas of my competence. When this happens I sometimes think that the attachment to truth that has been burned into my virgin neural circuits as a child is a handicap that I would have been better off without. Even now, I can't avoid getting painful guilt feelings when I consciously lie to someone (which I occasionally do like most of us) and I am profoundly hurt when someone I trust does it to me. I sometimes think that I would have had more success and pleasure in my life had it not been for that hang-up on truth. Sometimes I even envy those who have been taught to lie from the cradle (and I know some). I certainly would not have lost so much time looking for truth and would not have been deceived for not finding it more often.
The problem as I see it now, is that I have been taught that truth is an absolute with nothing between true and false. I don't think that way anymore because I have learned that the everyday truths we deal with are more often relative than absolute. We can be more or less sick all our lives but we are only dead once. The people around us are more or less good (kind, generous, honest, intelligent, handsome, sexy etc.). No human being can possess or lack these qualities in an absolute manner. Intellectually I now see things in terms of probabilities as I have explained in the essay "My Toy Village" but I am still emotionally attached to the myth of absolute truth. Maybe that explains why I have felt so upset to be subjected to attempts of brainwashing by the American media since 9/11.
Now that I am obviously closer to the end of my life than to its beginning, I feel that I have been misled about truth in my youth and I see the same thing still happening in our schools today. The situation has improved considerably in Quebec since the Catholic Church has lost the stranglehold it had on education when I was a child. However, I am told that truth is still presented in terms of yes or no, on or off and black or white. It is easier to teach good and evil in absolute terms and to present the world to young inquisitive minds in a bipolar fashion like grade B movies of the "cops and robbers" or "cowboys and indians" style, but I think it is wrong to do so. I admit that it is sometimes necessary to simplify complex concepts to make them easier to understand but I think such simplifications should be presented as the approximations they are.
So, if the truth is really as heavily diluted with untruths as this essay suggests, then, I think that one of the priorities of early education should be to train young people to recognise that truth is generally relative and to be able determine for themselves the degree of credibility that they choose to grant to the various information and disinformation that they are bombarded with. The first chapter of this training would focus on the identification individuals and organisations that could gain wealth or power from manipulating the information that circulates in our social environment. The remainder of the curriculum could deal with specific areas covered by specialised self-help groups and with all the other resources that we can call on to verify the veracity of the avalanche of information that we are exposed to. In other words, a high priority should be given to a course on autonomous critical thinking.
It is to be expected that the forces that presently control the content of much of our information will generate a furious opposition to such courses but I think that their implementation will be the inevitable reaction to the overwhelming concentration of influence reached by the mainstream media in the last two decades. I think it is now time for the pendulum to swing away from collective manipulation towards individual awareness and responsibility if we are to salvage the values of what we call democracy. Indeed if information is power, the only way democracy can work is for all the people to have access to the best information possible. Information and disinformation must both be free to circulate because censorship would lead to other excesses. Therefore, the only solution is to arm each citizen so he may defend himself from all attempts of manipulation by churches, sects, political ideologies, corporations and other interested parties.
Intellectual manipulation has been with us ever since the first shaman imagined plausible but unfounded explanations to allay the fears of his fellow clan members before the forces of nature. Intellectual manipulation is not new. It reached a maximum in the western world during the dark ages when the catholic church had a monopoly on truth. The Reformation and the Enlightenment loosened the grip of religious manipulation and the development of science further eroded blind faith but now the overwhelming concentration of pervasive media has become a global threat to autonomous thinking.
Few can excape commercial and political manipulation and "truth" is an increasingly elusive comodity in these areas. Individuals are at a serious disadvantage and only a concerted action to develop critical thinking might restore people's capacity to generate independent opinions. I hold very strongly the opinion that teaching critical thinking should begin in kindergarten and extend up to the university level but that does not seem to fit government priorities at this time.
Concerned citizens have organized skeptical and humanist groups in many countries to oppose various forms of manipulation. Of particular interest is the California based Foundation for Critical Thinking created in 1983 to promote educational reform through the cultivation of fair-minded critical thinking.
In Montreal, the " Mouvement laïque québécois" watches over the separation of church and state, " Les Sceptiques du Québec" exposes paranormal scams and hoaxes, Infocult answers the public's questions about sects and cults and offers assistance to their victims and the " Protégez-vous" magazine helps consumers to see through misleading publicity.
Their scope is however restrained by their limited funding. It is largely this situation that has moved some friends and I to set up the Humanist Foundation of Québec (HFQ) in December 2004, to collect donations and legacies in order to provide financial support to all organisations who directly or indirectly contribute to the development of critical thinking. Recognised as a charitable organisation the foundation is empowered to issue tax receipts applicable for relief from the federal and provincial governments. In July the Humanist Association of Quebec and Humanist Publications of Quebec were set up as complementary organisations to promote the same goal of promoting critical thinking.
Wherever you are, you can help by resisting manipulation and condemning it whenever you become aware of it in your environment. You can also help by supporting the skeptical and humanist groups closest to your home and of course by providing something for the Humanist Foundation of Quebec in your will.
January 2003 (revised in December 2005)