In public remarks from late November, 2020, President Barack Obama used the catchy phrase “truth decay” to draw attention to the corrosion of truthfulness as the moral backbone of public discourse. If, as Obama observed, issues, facts, and policies “don’t matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy,” how can we disseminate accurate information in support of meaningful discussions about matters of common concern? Obviously, we can’t. When gamesmanship and the pursuit of self-interest take priority over accepting reality as it comes to us through honest observation, logic, or common-sense, there is no foundation for either correct understanding or genuine dialogue.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, in today’s information-saturated environments, dis-information is an epidemic. Current technological wizardry is so adept at capturing and molding public attention that, with apparent ease, it can instill enough confusion and uncertainty in the public sphere to produce a widespread state of uncertainty, where virtually any idea (even those that are patently false, dangerously divisive, or even ridiculous) can be made to appear plausible. And when public figures or organizations are willing to exploit this manipulative power to further their individualistic interests (rather than the common good), they are indeed acting as information-viruses within the public sphere.
Of course, dishonesty and manipulation in the pursuit of self-interest are aspects of human nature that make regular appearances at various stages of our development, both as individuals and societies. But surely, our tendency to put ourselves first—to do whatever we can to exert ourselves as independent individuals—is only part of a lifelong learning process that ultimately teaches us that we exist primarily as interdependent individuals with unique attributes that belong to the whole of reality. Consider, for instance, how children often test the limits of what they can “get away with” as a way of learning how to belong to their families, that is, as a way of realizing the fundamental significance of sustaining good family relationships. And consider how the transition from adolescence into adulthood (or from any stage of life to another) is most beneficial when it is accompanied by a sense of “fitting in,” of recognizing the value of being a viable and valuable contributor within one’s social milieu. Clearly, at many times throughout our lives (as both individuals and societies) we need to reinforce our awareness of our natural interdependence—an awareness that began in our mothers’ wombs and will end when we finally and fully embrace the inevitability of dying.
As seen in the context of our overall development, the pursuit of exclusive self-interest can be understood as a way of reinforcing what is not fundamental about our existence. In this sense, the widespread fragmentation of societal life and the prospect of planetary devastation we face today can be understood as the tragic consequences of having ignored the basic fact of our interdependence. Given this situation, we urgently need to bolster our ability to communicate in ways that nurture our togetherness by resisting the “truth decay” currently infecting us.
As I reflect on our need to resist the erosion of trust and truthfulness in the public sphere, I imagine that many, if not most of us would think immediately about what we can do about this situation, individually and collectively. However, my philosophical orientation leads me to believe that the kind of resistance needed is not primarily a matter of doing something; it is matter of being someone. Of course, concrete actions need to be taken, but unless they flow from a way-of-being that embraces the fundamental reality of our interdependence, their efficacy will be short-lived at best, and perhaps even harmful in the long run if they result in a kind of non-reflective complacency. If we are genuinely in tune with the interdependence of everyone and everything, I think we can be confident that whatever we do will be aimed toward a universal common good, which implies resisting the “truth decay” running rampant today in ways that suit our individual abilities and circumstances.
As I see it, our main task today (as individuals and societies) is to live in ways that continually remind us of our basic interdependence. And what a difficult it is, given the many temptations to put ourselves first that permeate our cultural environments, and given the potency of modern communication technologies that allow us to do this with relative ease. Moreover, the internet provides us with a novel and incredibly vast operating field within which to exercise our technological prowess—one in which we can assert our individual identities in unprecedented ways. This situation reminds me that we are at a major developmental turning point in terms of expanding our capacity to perceive and understand ourselves and our world, similar to others in our evolutionary past, such as: the emergence of the written word, after a long period of mainly oral communication; the beginnings of our capacity for human language; even that momentous age when our remote ancestors first began to explore our world by walking on two feet.
In the light of our evolutionary history, it is not surprising that the tremendous growth spurt we are experiencing today (in terms of being able to explore ourselves and our world) comes with major challenges, in particular, those related to living in socially responsible ways. To meet these challenges most creatively, we need to be in tune with what is most fundamental about our lives by embracing our interdependence wholeheartedly. A genuine embrace is by nature an expression of good will and togetherness. So, it stands to reason that the more we live as together-minded individuals, the more we will create spaces in which “truth decay” has no place among us apart from reminding us about what to resist.
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness