Integrity in a post-truth world

I’m worried about our country. A few years ago, I read a book  called The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt that described the century of ideological groundwork which set the stage for the Third Reich in Germany. If it’s silly to compare our country today to Germany in the 1920’s, that’s because we don’t have millions of displaced Eastern European refugees and the 30% unemployment rate that created enough desperation and messianic need to clear the way for Hitler’s rise to power. But what scares me is that our national political discourse over the past two decades has developed the same contempt for integrity and embrace of hyperbole and paranoia that Hitler exploited. The more we acclimate to thinking that our political opponents are not just wrong but are servants of Satan and that the race or religion of our enemies is sub-human, the easier it will be to accept a totalitarian fuhrer one day if our economic conditions ever get desperate enough to justify “extreme measures” like the abandonment of democracy.

We live in a post-truth world today. Few people are invested in defending the truth itself, since most people would rather argue on behalf of whatever ideological tribe they’ve chosen. This reality is somewhat created by the nature of the information age. In order to stand out in a sea of information, public figures have to attract peoples’ attention by casting their positions in terms that are as extreme as possible. Being reasonable and having integrity is boring. Nobody wants to retweet you. No reporter is going to write an article about your press conference. That’s why you have to say at your press conference, “Those commies/fascists/racists/etc that I’m here to stand against have brought our nation to the brink of disaster” instead of saying something banal like “Their proposal has some good points which I appreciate, but here’s where their logic is insufficient.”

In addition to our public figures using controversy as a publicity stunt, our culture has developed an “outrage industrial complex” of writers, pundits, and talking heads whose livelihood depends on keeping their audience perpetually whipped up into a state of hysteria and instilling the paradoxical paranoia about persecution that gets used to justify persecuting others. There is little that is more purely satanic than to be a deliberate instigator of outrage. It’s actually very close to the original Hebrew meaning of the word Satan, which is “accuser.”

Another aspect of our post-truth world is that no public figure will ever admit to wrongdoing when they are accused of it, because there is no incentive to be publicly truthful. This is partly the product of the awful gotcha-minded political discourse that we have. We assume that if a public figure gets caught doing something scandalous (cheating on his/her spouse, saying something racist, etc), then that means a giant X can be drawn over that person’s general credibility. Their ideas and talents are completely discredited because they sinned in one area of their lives.

Personally, I think you can be an important leader, even one anointed by God, and a scoundrel at the same time. Martin Luther King, Jr. cheated on his wife dozens of times (yeah, I know, that part of the story doesn’t usually get told). He was also horribly guilt-ridden by it, as some of his closest friends shared after his death. If King had been organizing in the media climate today, he would have gotten slaughtered and the civil rights movement would have been discredited as a result. So I can understand why politicians feel like they can’t possibly admit to marital indiscretions even after four or five women have stepped forward to confront them. But every time they project their own dishonesty onto their accusers or the media, our culture’s sense of integrity is crucified yet again.

What takes the place of integrity in our world is loyalty to our own ideological tribe. Because the truth is too complicated and difficult to discern in a sea of manipulative opinions, it’s easier to subscribe to a black and white overarching metanarrative about the world and regurgitate the talking points that this metanarrative gives us for defending its infallible accuracy. Our country’s two basic ideological metanarratives give us a choice between defending the world from racist, filthy rich fundamentalist Christians or atheist homosexual socialists. There’s no possibility that the people on the other side could share some of our values or even be decent human beings, because when ideology replaces truth, we choose the more wildly extreme explanations for the other side’s behavior in order to prove our ideological loyalty, since integrity no longer has any currency.

This is where it gets scary to me, because some people say things online that would cause blood to be shed if they acted on them. Right now, there’s a big gap between what people are willing to say online and what they’re willing to do in the physical world. To some degree, the monotony of our physical lives which we spend in mostly spirit-numbing surroundings may be part of the reason that people overcompensate with online extremism. Rage is a fairly natural byproduct of the oppressive uneventfulness of modern life (at least in the white middle-class world that I live in). But after decades of allowing hysterical, paranoid views about other people to be normal conversation that goes unchallenged, what will we be willing to accept and do in the future if a charismatic populist leader with a perfect set of scapegoats rises up? Even if we’re not part of the 2% that smashes shop windows and beats up the scapegoats in the street, will we be part of the 98% who just want to go about our business without stirring up controversy or saying things that cause others to question our patriotism (or whatever other word they will use in the future)?

If integrity has as little value then as it does now, then we will be in trouble. That’s why I think one of the greatest civic responsibilities that each of us has as individuals is to yank ourselves out of the seductive gravitational pull of our supposedly infallible ideologies and make a genuine effort to understand whichever people we have been told to oppose as enemies. We should not assume that our system of government will protect us forever from the consequences of a post-truth world. For the same reason that non-violent political protest only works when dealing with people who have a conscience, a democracy is only as good as its society’s respect for integrity.

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