Sermon: Truth, Facts, and Other Endangered Species

Reading: "Telling," by Laura Hershey

As I was preparing for writing this sermon, the perfect quote for the top of the order of service popped into my head.  “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”  But I didn’t know how perfect it was until I went to look for the source of the quote.  I couldn’t remember who said it, which is not unusual for me, so I started to do some research.  And I quickly found it widely attributed to George Orwell.  In fact, you can buy all sorts of merchandise, from bumper stickers to t-shirts with these words accompanied by pictures of the author.  The only problem?  He never actually said it.  Or rather he never wrote it.  Various people who do this sort of thing have looked through the entirety of his published works, and these words do not appear. 

I found a website called Quote Investigator which did an extensive study of this quote.  The first instance they can find is of a letter to the editor of a scientific publication complaining about something the letter writer believed to be less than truthful, and the letter writer attributed these words to George Orwell.  Their best guess is that this was the letter writer’s summary of his interpretation of the message of 1984.  After that, it gradually spread until now it is everywhere, and very often attributed to Orwell. 

This seems like just such a perfect metaphor for these times.  Where misinformation spreads unchecked, where lies or even simple mistakes are broadcast over the internet and repeated until they are believed as facts.  Where finding the real truth takes work, and can be deeply challenging, at times, even seemingly impossible. 

The day after the presidential inauguration, brand new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in his first statement to the press, announced that the crowds at this inauguration were the largest in history, which is demonstrably false.  The Washington Post laid out a detailed description of all the false information that was contained in two different statements Spicer made to the press, from incorrectly stating that this was the first year white ground covers were used on the national mall – they were first used in 2013 – to estimates of the number of rides on the DC public transit system this year as compared with Obama’s two inaugurations which were wildly inaccurate, to estimates of TV and online viewership which did not have any solid foundation. 

The press, of course, was not having any of this, and widely took Spicer to task for the blatant lies in this statement, with much speculation that Spicer was ordered to lie by the president.  The next day on Meet the Press, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway said that Spicer had presented “alternative facts.” 

This, of course, follows a campaign season characterized by so much blatant dishonesty that some media pundits have proclaimed that we are living in the “post-truth” era.  The era of alternative facts seems to be upon us. 

There are so many kinds of untruths out there.  Spicer’s assertions about crowd size are just plain false.  I think it would be hard to conclude that he was not just out-and-out lying in that report.  But not everything is that simple.  Sometimes there are just mistakes, like the report that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office.  In that case, it was a simple error, and the reporter who made it quickly corrected the record and apologized when he realized his mistake.

And sometimes, there is a narrative built around factual information that is nonetheless misleading because it lacks context or is not the whole truth.  Take, for example, the story of the White House website. 

Immediately after the inauguration, a story began to be widely circulated on Facebook and other social media that the terms “lgbt” and “climate change” had been scrubbed from the White House website.  Other reports had other lists of missing terms.  The story was that the Trump White House had taken down these pages, presumably as a reflection of his agenda and biases.  But this is not actually what happened.  According to Snopes.com, which fact checks urban legends, rumors, and other such things in the social media world, while it’s true that those terms did not appear on the White House website immediately after the inauguration, not much of anything appeared on the site at the time.  What had happened was a routine transition in the White House web content, whereby the material belonging to the Obama website – all of it – was migrated to an archive site, so that the incoming administration could repopulate the White House website with their own materials, which had not happened in the first few hours of the new administration. 

It is true that the new White House page does not contain sections on LGBT issues or climate change – or still really much of anything a few weeks into the term.  And I think it’s very clear that this administration is hostile to the lgbt community and to the science of climate change.  But it is not true that the incoming administration specifically took down those parts of the website.

Nevertheless, the story fit so well into the image of the incoming administration in the minds of their opponents that the story got quite a lot of circulation.  I saw versions of it all over my Facebook feed, and it was brought up in conversation to me several times.  But a friend of mine was skeptical, and she tracked down the Snopes report, and so I learned that this wasn’t the whole story.

We are so used to politicians lying to us during campaigns that we almost don’t even notice unless it’s as blatant as it was during this election season.  But I think real democracy relies on truth telling among candidates as well.  How can we adequately assess who we want to lead us if they are dishonest about their real goals and motivations? 

When my wife Rachel was in graduate school studying public policy, she told me about a class discussion based on this question: is it ever right to lie to the public about your policy intentions to support something that is good policy but unpopular?  The idea is that sometimes the right thing to do is hard to articulate, and that people cannot always understand nuance.  So maybe at times it is best to say that you will pursue one policy during a campaign in order to have the power to take a better course once in office.  I was a bit surprised by the vehemence of my own reaction when Rachel talked to me about this.  I was so adamantly opposed to this idea. 

I believe that to the extent that voters are making decisions on the basis of lies and manipulation, we do not actually live in a democracy anymore.  The will of the people cannot be expressed under such conditions.  It is simply the will of those who think they know better, or those who want more power, or those most willing to say whatever they need to say to get elected.

Everywhere we turn, there are people hiding the truth, bending the truth, spinning the truth, telling half-truths, making mistakes, and flat out lying.  About crowd size and climate science, about motives and intentions.  About big things and little things, and sometimes things that are so inconsequential they hardly seem worth lying about.  This feels like the closest I’ve ever witnessed to a time of universal deceit. 

But I am not ready to give up on the truth.  And I know I’m not the only one.  There were so many funny and creative signs at the Women’s Marches around the country several weeks ago.  This is one of my favorites. 

As Unitarian Universalists, one of our Principles is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  We often focus on the freedom part of this Principle, but what I am reflecting on lately is the responsibility part.  The responsibility we each have to search for the truth, to tell it and amplify it when we find it, and to avoid being ourselves the source of untruth, wittingly or not. 

This is a challenging task in an age of such deceit.  When there are lies around every turn, how do we know what is true? 

I think there are actually several different kinds of truth, just as there are different kinds of falsehood.  And by this I do not mean facts versus alternative facts.  I mean on the one hand facts, evidence, science, the concrete, verifiable truth.  And on the other hand, the truth of our own personal experience, the truth of our own stories.  Both are kinds of truth, and both are foundationally important to a democracy. 

In order to live in a democracy, to make decisions together about the best way to deal with challenges, the best way to create a commonwealth of the most good for all, we need actual, concrete facts.  We need real science and real journalism.  We need the people who keep looking for the truth and do not stop at convenient guesses or suppositions.  We need to know the real science of things like climate change.  We need to know the real statistics that demonstrate where we are succeeding in creating wellbeing and where we are not.  We need the real stories about how decisions were made or how events unfolded.  We need real facts. 

Some of you are scientists and journalists, those who do the actual, on the ground investigation on which our society relies.  And to those of you who do this important work, thank you.  We need it always, and now perhaps more than ever.  But even you are experts only in a limited number of areas.  And so all of us have to rely on others in most areas of our life for accurate information.  So how do we do that in this time?

Now more than ever it is important to know where our information is coming from, and to find sources that we can trust.  A healthy dose of skepticism will serve us well in these times.  I think we should be skeptical of things that feel doubtful, and doubly skeptical of stories that confirm our own biases, because these will be all too easy to believe when we should not.   

I have found this chart helpful in thinking through this.

We need to find good, reliable sources of accurate information.  And then disseminate that information, rather than things that are more dubious or have a spin to them.  We can help be sources of accurate information and real facts for our own friends, coworkers, family members, and the others we interact with.

The other kind of truth is personal truth, the telling of our own truest stories.  What do you care about?  Why?  Who are you?  What are your values?  What has your lived experience taught you?  What do you know because of who you are and what has happened in your life?

Laura Hershey says, “Those without power risk everything to tell their story and must.  Someone, somewhere will hear your story and decide to fight, to live… Someone else will tell her own story, risking everything.” 

This kind of truth telling brings us the deepest wisdom of the lived experience of ourselves and others.  Telling and receiving the truth in this way can get us to our most compassionate decisions and our deepest core values.  So, we must learn to tell this kind of truth, and to be willing to listen when others tell us their true experiences.

I believe that truth is foundational to democracy.  Both of these kinds of truth.  We need to make decisions on the basis of the lived reality of our citizens and the basis of sound science, evidence, and fact.  When we come to the core of both, they do not lead us in different directions.  The lived experience of African Americans that they are often in danger in encounters with police is born out in the statistics, for example, the ProPublica study from 2014 which showed that young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police.  The science of climate change is confirmed by the ways farmers are experiencing their land shifting and changing, and the ways they are having to adapt. 

Whoever said it, I think it remains true that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.  At this moment, in this time of such widespread falsehood and dishonesty, we can continue to be responsible searchers for the truth.  We can be tellers of the truth, both concrete, factual truth, and personal, experienced truth.  Every time we interrogate something we are being asked to believe that feels a little off and continue to pursue it until we find the truth, we are helping turn back the tide away from the spreading of misinformation.  Every time we tell our own stories with all the presence and honesty we can muster, we are giving ourselves and others a path to deeper wisdom and better understanding.  Every time we receive the gift of a vulnerable truth told to us by someone else, we are creating the space where truth and compassion can meet. 

I am not ready to give up on the truth.  It is too important. 

So, my friends, let us search diligently for the truth.  Let us not give way to a time of deceit, but struggle to keep the light of truth shining as brightly as we can.  Let us tell the truth as clearly as we can, when we have found it.  And let us tell our own inner truths into each other’s keeping, so that we may hold each other in the work of creating justice and peace.

May it be so.