Do We Still Value ‘Truth’?

When I was in the first grade, I initially struggled with carrying when adding numbers.  So, one time, when stumped I copied the answers from the kid next to me.  The problem was he had gotten them all wrong and of course so did I.  “David, did you copy from so and so?” Ms. Stark, my first-grade teacher asked.  “Nooooo.” I replied.  Even at this age I understood that copying was wrong, although lying about the deed had not yet registered as being an equal if not worse moral offense. 

Scientists know there are stages in our lives when we are more predisposed for cognitive, affective, and motor development.  Like these other developmental processes, psychologists have created models of moral development based on maturation; our moral lens gains more complexity as we age, and our brains mature. 

Psychiatrist Andrew Newberg points out that moral development in children is related to physical changes in a child’s developing brain.  Young children respond more to external controls, such as rewards and punishments, than to internalized self-modulation.  And they need criteria to base their behaviors on, thus the admonitions from our teachers to share, help, play nice, and keep your eyes on your own paper.  Consequently, the environment also plays a large part in moral development, such as the nurturing, education, and support we receive from our parents, families, schools, churches, and other social institutions.[1]   

The next stage of moral development, between ages six and ten, is when children learn to play fair.  Reciprocity – exchanging things for mutual benefit – begins to govern social interactions as does budding recognition of ingroups and outgroups.  The fact that, more than sixty years later I remember my first grade incident demonstrates how powerful moral behavior and moral lessons can be.  Throughout my life I have found that even when I try to fudge the truth, I quickly recognize it is “dishonest behavior” and nothing good will come of it, so I quickly clarify information if I believe I have made a misstatement; i.e. I have a conscience based on a moral foundation. 

I initially got interested in lying and politics when I was writing the chapter on the moral and ethical case for universal health care.  I was trying to figure out why conservatives are not supporters of universal coverage let alone why so many actually oppose it.  Afterall, regardless of political affiliation, liberal or conservative, we will all benefit from it.  What I discovered was that Republicans lie to their constituents much more than Democrats and that conservatives are more susceptible to those lies.  To be clear, all politicians stretch the truth, but Republicans are downright dishonest; they know they are lying, and they don’t have moral boundaries holding them back from lying.

I was watching The View one day and when an issue came up, Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Senator John McCain, noted that distorting the truth was common in politics; it’s what politicians do.  I agree.  Framing issues to support your position is something we all do, both consciously and unconsciously. 

Here’s where things get problematic.  Framing involves structuring facts and data to support your position.  However, the process doesn’t involve creating false facts.  What concerns me is the trend in politics, particularly on the right, to ignore facts/data/evidence and instead create a false reality based on false information.  For example, one study found that politically left oriented media outlets presented false information in 4.7% of their reporting compared to politically right outlets with 12.3% of their information being mostly false – nearly three times as often as liberals.[2] 

Comedian Stephen Colbert brought this to national attention when he coined the term “truthiness”, which Wikipedia describes as: “the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.”[3] 

The best example is the Republican Party’s position on climate change, which the Party still contends is a hoax and a conspiracy concocted by “tree-hugging” environmentalists.  We could live with this if it wasn’t for the fact that climate change has already begun to impact human existence, such as through extreme weather events.

Similarly, Donald Trump has concocted his own disinformation about the COVID19 virus, especially information about a vaccine, which directly contradicts the information being put out by scientists and even the pharmaceutical companies developing the vaccines.  And because they are caught up in his web of deceit, Republican members of Congress will not confront him on his duplicity. 

The Republican positions on climate change and vaccines are examples of creating a false reality by repeating a lie.  Tell it often enough and even create false information to support your claim, and eventually you’ll convince an increasing number of people that the lie is the truth.  Ex-Congressman Newt Gingrich knew this when he told a reporter that the truth doesn’t matter, only what people believe.  And in the case of Republicans, the goal is to convince people what to believe regardless of the facts.  It’s a page right out of the book 1984 where the main character works for the Ministry of Truth, whose purpose is actually disinformation and propaganda.

It is one thing for someone to lie, however the lie only works if someone believes it and there is some evidence suggesting that conservatives are more susceptible to believing lies.  For example, there have been studies indicating differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives.  These studies indicate that the anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala appear to be stimulated more in the brains of conservatives when they are presented information that confirms their biases, including hearing lies.  These studies have also found that conservatives are more likely to have false memories about events.[4]  Unfortunately, the problem is exacerbated by media outlets like Fox News which purposely distort and propagate false information.  This helps explain why conservatives are more likely to believe hoaxes and conspiracy theories, such as COVID19 is not real and was concocted by CDC scientists sympathetic to the Democratic Party.

I based the moral and ethical case for universal health care on the concept of the common good, i.e. actions based on trust, caring, and empathy, that benefit all members of society.  However, thanks to continual lying, many conservatives reject the concept of the common good and along with it activities that would be beneficial to them, such as clean air and water, a living wage, and access to affordable health care.  

In American society lying used to be considered wrong, even sinful behavior, because it diminishes trust and enhances opportunities for deceitful interactions.  So, while we’re not perfect, most of us try to be honest.  The late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”  Unfortunately, in Republican Party America that’s no longer true.

[1] Newberg, Andrew and Waldman, Mark (2006).  Why We Believe What We Believe.  Free Press, N.Y.



[4] Ibid.

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