A couple of years ago I attended a meeting of about 30 people to address a highly sensitive topic and an argument broke out about whether several incidents that had been reported were true. A man, ironically a pastor, sitting next to me whispered, "Truth is a dangerous thing." I responded, "It must be; they seem to be afraid of it."
As I get older, I realize that my grasp of human nature has been horribly naÃØve and mistaken. Until the last few years, I believed that if, on any given topic, you presented facts and truth in a logical way people would understand and agree. I couldn't have been more wrong.
An NPR broadcast of Talk of the Nation on July 13, 2010 presented new research from the University of Michigan which suggests, "misinformed people rarely change their minds when presented with the facts -- and often become even more attached to their beliefs. The finding raises questions about a key principle of a strong democracy: that a well-informed electorate is best. The phenomenon is called backfire, and it plays an especially important role in how we shape and solidify our beliefs..."
According to the researchers and panelists, backfire is a defensive reflex and afflicts most people. They cling to false beliefs in part because giving them up would threaten their sense of self. Not everyone wants to hear the truth, especially when it is counter to one's belief or is just too awful to bear.
Sadly, truth is not the absolute I once believed. Rather, it seems to be in the eyes of the beholder and comes in various degrees, sizes and forms. The following are a just a few of the more common variations I've observed recently. See if you recognize them:
1) Selective truth ("Oh, did I forget to tell you about my DUI?"), 2) Deflected truth ("Bush gave the auto industry bail-out money; yeah but ... so did Obama."), 3) Foggy-logic truth ("Democrats believe in Social Security so they are Communists"), 4) Minimized truth ("Yes, I cheated on my wife but it was just a youthful indiscretion"), 5) Denied truth ("The Holocaust never happened.").
Unfortunately, there are serious consequences if "backfire" is allowed to permeate and control our lives. If truth can be so easily ignored, manipulated and formed to our own choosing like so much Silly Putty, then finding an absolute truth in our daily lives is difficult and finding absolute truth in politics is virtually impossible.
If everyone puts a biased spin on every fact or event; if everyone ignores overwhelming evidence in favor of their personal agendas; if everyone manipulates data to support their position; how can we find the absolute truth? Or, do we just accept that our decisions might be based on false data? That is perhaps the deadliest consequence of them all.
Politicians and party-leaning talk show hosts are masters of truth manipulation. They know very well how "backfire" works. No wonder we have a truth-manipulating, finger-pointing Congress. No wonder there is so much hatred and misinformation. Add the infamous "swift-boat" tactics, false discrediting of sources, shooting of the messengers, smut peddling and negative ad campaigns and we have our current atmosphere of misinformation, hatred and divisiveness. How will we even recognize truth when we see it? What kind of example does this give our children?
Professional party pundits and critics in the media, both left and right wing, use their well-honed truth-twisting skills to defeat the other party. It serves their purposes well enough, but for anyone trying to learn the absolute truth about important issues, forget it! For them it is best to turn off the TV and radio and start reading the history books and congressional records.
If you're interested in testing the University of Michigan study findings, you can run a simple personal experiment over the next few weeks. When you read or hear something counter to what you believe to be true, ask yourself; did I thoughtfully consider the new information, did I check it out or did I simply dismiss it? Then for fun, see if it fits any of the truth categories described above.
When you read or hear an argument in favor of your belief, ask yourself; did I automatically buy it or did I check the facts? And again, see if it fits any of the categories above. If you are fair in your appraisal and you conclude that what you heard or read is the "absolute truth," give yourself a gold star for seeking truth. If you conclude otherwise, you might want to consider finding another source of information because the pastor was right ... truth is a dangerous thing ... with consequences ... especially when it has been manipulated.
Beauchamp is a retired aerospace marketing director and consultant and a member of the local Coffee Party. He now lives in North Ogden.