On Election Day: “Post-truth society”?

What was society before “post-truth”? And when did it end?

More than once, I’ve heard friends, colleagues, and news casters remark that we “live in a post-truth era”.

To me, this isn’t a particularly shocking claim. People don’t care about truth? In other news, water recently discovered to be “wet”. Could this be related to the sky being “blue”? These stories and more, tonight, on 60 Minutes. (Tick tick tick tick…)

However, my friends are not making a simple “observation” about the state of affairs. You see, this is a mournful dirge for the recently deceased! “The 2016 Election was a tectonic shift in the way Americans think and behave! No one cares about truth any more!” they lament. “Now, people make irrational decisions based on emotions, and refuse to think logically!”

Thank goodness this is an election year, so we can all go vote to “Make America Truthful Again”. If you think disdain for the truth only started two years ago, I have some bad news for you!

I clearly remember the day I realized that popular people decide what is true. I was in second grade. We were in Mrs. Brodt’s classroom, standing at the activity table before class started. Recently in the news, someone had died in their sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning, and it was the talk of the town. The boys around the table were saying “carbon dioxide” — a simple mistake.

“It was carbon monoxide!” I pedantically corrected them. (You can tell, I wasn’t the most popular kid.) I was quickly shutdown. “It wasn’t carbon monoxide,” said Matthew. “Carbon dioxide has the word die in it, because it’s more deadly.”

Hearing that was like driving splinters under my fingernails! That’s not how science works! The “di-” was a prefix, and referred to the two oxygen atoms! I know, because my dad was an engineer, and he explained it to me the other night over dinner. My cries for technical accuracy fell on deaf ears, and we went to say the Pledge of Allegiance like all good school children.

Epistemological concerns and “woke 8 year old Twitter” aside, things haven’t changed that much in 20 years. The popular and powerful children still decide what’s right. They always have.

Nikolai Ge — Christ and Pilatus (1890)

The painting above depicts the end of Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus. To set the scene, an angry mob has arrested Jesus for blasphemy. Of course, there’s not a crime the Roman government punishes, so the crowd goes for the closest analog: treason.

Pilate, a Roman prefect, shows his contempt for Jewish culture, and his ignorance of current events affecting his province. All he knows is the angry mob is on the verge of rioting. From John 18:

33 Then Pilate went back into his headquarters and called for Jesus to be brought to him. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked him.

34 Jesus replied, “Is this your own question, or did others tell you about me?”

35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate retorted. “Your own people and their leading priests brought you to me for trial. Why? What have you done?”

I’m amazed by Jesus’ response. Jesus already knows this is such a non-issue, that Pilate could have dismissed it at first glance. The only reason Pilate would ask such a ridiculous question is if someone was forcing his hand. (If you ask me, this is Jesus’ subtle way of acknowledging and sympathizing with Pilate’s difficult situation.)

Clearly, Pilate has no time for this nonsense. He doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. Here’s this ordinary man, brought before him by an angry mob on thinly veiled charges.

Though Pilate doesn’t perceive Jesus as a threat to the empire, he still has administrative tasks to fulfill. The machinery of the state must process every charge, there’s paperwork to be filled. Did Jesus claim to be King? All Pilate needs is a simple answer, so he can check the “yes” or “no” box on the paperwork, quell the angry mob, and perhaps get back to sleep.

36 Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”

37 Pilate said, “So you are a king?” […]

Jesus knows what Pilate wants, and gives it to him indirectly — while still maintaining the truth. Pilate’s exasperation is almost audible. Just give me a simple “yes” or “no”. There’s no box for “king of alternate dimension”. Briefly, he threateningly hovers his quill over the “yes” box, perhaps in an attempt to draw out a more straightforward answer from Jesus.

Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”

38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked. […]

Jesus tries to explain his mission, but how can you summarize a complex issue in a single sentence? He’s not here to usurp power!

When tempted in the desert, Jesus rejected Satan’s offer of authority. When the 5,000 wanted to make Jesus king after feeding them, he fled. Only hours before his arrest, Jesus lowered himself to the position of a servant, washing the disciples feet. Nothing in the entirety of Jesus’ earthly ministry was an attempt to gather power or authority. The only thing Jesus came for is to testify to the truth.

Just the mention of the “T-word” seems to trigger Pilate’s anger. Is Jesus suggesting that he doesn’t love the truth? As an authority figure, plenty of people come to Pilate, begging for government intervention on their behalf. “It’s the truth!” the people cry, deliberately telling a one sided story.

“Truth? What is truth?” Pilate spits out indignantly, throwing the quill down on the paper. The evidence is clear: Jesus is not a credible threat to the Roman empire.

Then he went out again to the people and told them, “He is not guilty of any crime. 39 But you have a custom of asking me to release one prisoner each year at Passover. Would you like me to release this ‘King of the Jews’?”

40 But they shouted back, “No! Not this man. We want Barabbas!” (Barabbas was a revolutionary.)

Amusingly, Pilate still seems to have some faith left in humanity. He goes back to the angry mob, and tries to reason with them. Look, the investigation is over, Jesus is not guilty. Executing him is wrong, but we can still make it look good on the official record! How about we say we prosecuted him, found him guilty, and then pardoned him using a loophole in the law?

The mob won’t have it. If any pardon is to be issued, they’d rather it go to an actual criminal. A shocked Pilate realizes that the crowd is perhaps crazier than this Jesus person. Disgusted, and wanting to have nothing more to do with it, he throws in the towel. Fine, I’ll turn a blind eye to your demands, but I wash my hands of it.

Later in chapter 19, Pilate gets the last laugh against the angry mob.

19 And Pilate posted a sign on the cross that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so that many people could read it.

21 Then the leading priests objected and said to Pilate, “Change it from ‘The King of the Jews’ to ‘He said, I am King of the Jews.’”

22 Pilate replied, “No, what I have written, I have written.”

You can’t just publicly execute someone for no reason. The citizens need to know that their government isn’t arbitrarily executing people. Pilate hangs a plaque on Jesus cross to answer two questions: who is being executed, and why? (You can even see the cultural sensitivity the government exhibits — the plaque is written in three different languages.)

Vying for technically correct statements, the mob petitions Pilate to make sure the official record is set straight. Right now, the sign makes it look like Jesus is actually a king to a passer by. Could it be amended, so history wouldn’t mistakenly recognize Jesus as a King? Pilate shuts down their request, perhaps as a way of maintaining some control over a situation already running off the rails. Besides, it would look bad to say what’s really going on.

Though Jesus may be too hot of a political or ideological issue for you, this story has happened over and over again in history. Look at the Amarna Letters, now over 3000 years old. In the ancient Egyptian diplomatic letters, rulers literally fall over themselves trying to win the favor of the Pharaoh in “he said she said” style arguments.

Oh, the other guy bowed to you? Well I bow seven times to you! This style of absurd one-up-manship resulted in some pretty ridiculous gems: “I indeed prostrate myself, on the back and on the stomach, at the feet of the king, my lord, 7 times and 7 times.”. You can only imagine the Pharaoh rolling his eyes as he tried to sift through the truth and lies. (Or perhaps he ate it up. They’re already starting to bow backwards… maybe he could get one of them to bow sideways.)

Over and over, society discards truth and tramples it underfoot. The government often only cares about maintaining authority and order. Sometimes, a few innocent people have to get thrown under the bus. The angry mob only cares about their concept of justice. Truth is simply a term they sling around as a justification for their actions — but when reality disagrees, they throw it in the mud.

Are we in a “post-truth” society? That depends on whether or not you believe in Jesus. If you believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; the answer is clear as day: we are in a “post-truth” society! However, we literally (not figuratively) put Truth to death 2000 years ago, not last week. In fact, one might argue that the turning point was even longer ago — when the snake in the garden questioned if God really said humanity would perish for simply eating an apple!

If you don’t believe in Jesus, I’d ask who (or what) defines your idea of truth. Is it the government? Or perhaps the news? Maybe angry Twitter mobs? Given this history lesson on the human condition, none of these seem to be good sources of truth.

Perhaps truth can be found in science, an apolitical figure. Scientists calculated the gravitational constant, after all. Maybe they define your truth. I would remind you of two things. First, numbers don’t lie, but the people that collect them do. Second, science does not have universal scope. No scientific instrument will ever be able to tell true love from infatuation, truth from lies, or what action best solves society’s problems.

A fourth option is on the table, though it is rather unpalatable. Perhaps absolute truth doesn’t exist. Life began as a cosmic accident, and it will end when the universe collapses in on itself. Meaning cannot be derived from the meaningless. Therefore, all our observations and actions in this world are meaningless, and will die with it. At the best, “truth” is something we constructed to pacify our existential angst, and give us some arbitrary sense of purpose to preoccupy us during our short and absurd existence.

Philosophers have pondered about the meaning of life since the dawn of time, and have yet to come up with a convincing answer. If you don’t believe in Jesus, I’d argue that your society isn’t “post-truth”. If anything, society is “pre-truth” (or worse: a Nihilistic “a-truth”).

As far as this author is concerned, these questions are all moot. While voting in a peaceable election is a marvelous thing, I don’t expect it to usher in a new era of truth. (In fact, government defined truth is a particularly frightening concept.) If you share my concern about “post-truth” society, then your best bet is to put your hope in the living Truth.

Tim builds circuit boards in Virginia Beach, and enjoys writing about current events, history, theology, and philosophy.

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