Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.
— Valery Legasov, “Chernobyl”(1)
As a secondary-level instructor of composition, one method I often share with my students to bring closure to an argumentative essay is to offer the reader a “call to action.” Once you have successfully convinced a reader of your position, it is necessary to empower them to take some action regarding the issue you have presented. You could suggest that they make donations to causes that support what you have argued. They could contact their senators and representatives in their respective states or at the federal level. They could volunteer in their communities to help make a difference at the local level, or run for office themselves to help advance the change they wish to see. All of those are perfectly valid and appropriate options for pursuing change. This entire essay could be considered a call to action, because the hour is late, and there is too much at stake. I’m calling on you to become a Truthseeker.
All around us, we are witnessing an assault on truth and fact. This is a worldwide phenomenon that is gathering momentum and shows no signs of slowing. We, the seekers of truth, need to stand against the forces of mis- and disinformation and vehemently demand a restoration of conciliation, compromise, and constructive conversation. We have to learn how to talk to one another again and view our differences as a source of diversity and strength as opposed to things that so vehemently, and in some cases permanently, divide us. One of my life mantras is the quote from Andre Gide: “Trust those who seek the truth, but doubt those who have found it.” I have never heard a more applicable statement to our current situation.
We all need to be lifelong Truthseekers. No matter what we believe, in any aspects of our lives, we must be willing to alter and amend those beliefs and adapt them to new information. When you come across an argument that challenges something you believe, do a deep dive and get to the truth of it. Don’t just dismiss the person and that person’s idea when what they said runs counter to your own currently held position. Don’t live in some impenetrable echo chamber where you surround yourself only with viewpoints that mirror your own. Work to truly and deeply understand what those who share different ideas than you think and why they think what they do. It may be, that after you have conducted a deep exploration of those alternative positions, you fail to uncover an argument sufficient to make you change your position. If that is the case, then by all means, hold on to what you believe and defend it. If, however, you come across an argument coming from a perspective that you have never before considered or that causes your convictions to waver, don’t run away from it. Ask questions. Research more. Seek additional information using phrases such as: “Help me to understand…” or “I am trying to understand this.” Then, when the fog of confusion and irrational resistance eventually clears, you may find you have learned something new, and need to adapt your belief to accommodate for the new information. To claim that you have already reached the finish line, that the quest for truth in your case is over, is to declare an end to your education. As an educator, the fostering of the philosophy that we are working to create “lifelong learners” is at the center of what I do and what my colleagues do on a daily basis. By definition, the lifelong learner never stops learning.
My own beliefs, on a myriad of issues, are in a constant state of flux and evolution. I examine the origins of what I think and feel, I read incessantly about things of which I am totally ignorant, and I work to build a framework of beliefs that can help guide my works and actions as I navigate through my society and life. I work to keep my emotions out of it and appeal to my sense of reason, basing my beliefs and decisions on tangible evidence that can be verified. There are many things I would like to believe, but I am unable to commit to them due to a lack of evidence that supports them. The key here is that my mind, on just about any issue you can name, can be changed if a compelling enough argument is presented. I will listen. I will respect the person making the argument that runs counter to the beliefs I currently hold. That’s what a truthseeker does; he or she listens, learns, adapts, and advocates for the quest to go on.
Too many people today haven’t reached that point. They are no longer Truthseekers; they have found the truth, in all things, and actively resist any efforts to dissuade them from the truths they currently hold. They mischaracterize those who disagree with them as being actively malicious or not mentally stable. Relationships end. Families are shattered. Is it worth it? Are the current sets of beliefs you hold so inviolably true that you would sacrifice all other human connections until those who disagree with you “come around”? That is tragic, and is not sustainable if our society is to live up to its promise.
“Misinformation” is spread by people who really do believe what they are saying, despite evidence to the contrary that shows their beliefs to be counter to fact. I feel there is still hope for them once they learn to be genuine Truthseekers, once they learn to listen again. It won’t be easy. It is easy to jump on bandwagons based on soundbites and bask in the feelings of belonging when surrounded by like minded “thinkers.” Making sound arguments based on reason and evidence, and then defending that position, in a respectful and civil manner, is the hard but necessary part of the Truthseeker’s work. The hardest part of all is to say, when the epiphanic moment arrives, “Wow. I have never thought about it in those terms before, or from that perspective. You have given me a lot to think about. Thank you for helping me along the journey.” This is not a weakness; this is where true strength is found. The person willing to concede that they might not know everything yet is the kind of person we want heading up every cause we as a civilization wish to pursue.
I am no fan of the word “debate.” This implies that there will be a winner and loser in every interaction, the goal being to win at all costs. That’s not how problems get solved, or how discussions move forward. The “winner” smugly walks away having “owned” their opponent, where the “loser” walks away filled with anger and resentment. No progress is made. I prefer the word “conversation.” This implies that we are putting all possibilities and perspectives out on the table for all to see, conversing about their merits and drawbacks, and coming to the conclusion that seems best for everyone. Most people just want to be listened to, and if you show them that you are willing to do so, they will likely listen to you as well—both of you will learn something, and feel gratitude to other another. Logic, reason, and demonstrable evidence take the place of the greed, competitiveness, and fallacious appeals to emotion that are easier to fall back on. When Luke Skywalker asked if the dark side of the Force was stronger, Yoda said, “No. It’s quicker…easier…more seductive.” That’s what the misinformation and disinformation bandwagons are like. Getting to the truth takes more hard work, but you know that the work you are doing is real, and you can go forward with confidence knowing that you are making a positive difference.
“Disinformation” involves willfully spreading false information, knowing full well what you are saying is demonstrably false, and not caring. This causes great harm. Personally, I cannot imagine how the mind of anyone who engages in this behavior operates. They seek to prey upon the minds of others in order to profit from their lack of knowledge. How do we, as Truthseekers, stop this? We can start by calling it out when we see it. Let’s not just shake our heads, roll our eyes, and go back to doom scrolling. Defenders of the search for truth need to vocally denounce claims that cannot be defended and demand that verifiable, reliable, valid evidence be produced that supports the claims being made.
We, as the consumers of information, need to be constantly vigilant and do the hard work to verify what we see, read, and hear. The benefits of having so much information at our fingertips today is counterbalanced by the dangers of much of it being false, and the disinformation peddlers are relentless and clever at their craft. We have to be vigilant, and that’s where it gets hard again. Investigation and real learning takes time. Most don’t have or don’t wish to make that time; they are too busy just trying to hold all the disparate pieces of their lives together. Truthseekers, let’s work to be their allies. Let’s help engage with them, direct them to strategies that help them sift through the copious amounts of information they are exposed to, and challenge them to be open to new perspectives that can be demonstrated to be sound, reasonable, and defensible.
George Orwell, in 1984, said: “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing” (p. 266).(2) That’s it. That’s what the disinformation peddlers of the world work to do, every single day. They prey on our ignorance, our fears, our laziness, our apathy—they count on these things, triggering our emotions, making us feel powerless and hopeless in the face of forces we can’t control. They believe their ability to “tear our minds to pieces” and then reassemble them in a way that serves their interests gives them power. We, as Truthseekers, seek a wholly new form of power: the power of individuals to logically, reasonably, and thoroughly analyze the information at our disposal, burning away that which cannot be defended or shown to be beneficial to human flourishing. We must unite and refuse to cede ground to those who seek power for solely self-aggrandizing purposes. I am calling on you to be a Truthseeker in every aspect of your life, be it personal, spiritual, historical…any aspect of your experience that requires you to differentiate between truth and fiction. Engage with other Truthseekers around you, and work to get involved in the issues that matter the most to you, applying the Truthseeker philosophy in whatever context best fits your current situation. You aren’t alone. Together, we can make sure that the debt that has been incurred to the truth will ultimately be paid.
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(1) Chernobyl. “The Trial Final Scene and Cassette Tapes.” You Tube, uploaded by Chernobyl, 4 Aug. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGFFo_Y2BVI 7:46-7:55.
(2) Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classic, 1950.