Truth in Society

by Wendi Momen

 

The value of truthfulness is embedded in the heart of a range of the ebbf values and operating principles.

However, in November 2016 Oxford Dictionaries announced that its Word of the Year was ‘post-truth’. This adjective relates to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

This is in contrast to the definition of ‘truth’: 1) the body of real things, events, and facts: actuality; 2) the state of being the case: fact; 3) a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality.

Discourse in several fields — including politics, economics, business, law — has focused on the phenomenon of ‘post-truth’ and has prompted questions about public opinion, about truth, and about the relationship between public opinion and truth:

If ‘public opinion’ is ‘the collective opinion of many people on some issue, problem, etc., especially as a guide to action, decision, etc.’, what percentage of a population has to accept something as true to be able to state that public opinion holds it as true? Is it then true?

Is a concept more — or less — true if is upheld by facts? by public opinion?

What does truth mean? Does it even matter in this post-trust era of post-truth, fake news, alternative facts and content-free ideas? What is truth? And how do we know?

In past ages, public opinion in many societies held that the earth was both flat and at the centre of the universe. This opinion was eventually overturned for most people through scientific investigation on the one hand — we now have photographs and recordings of the earth and the solar system — and their own personal experience on the other  — they did not come to the edge of the earth no matter how far they travelled. This suggests that knowledge, and therefore public opinion, evolve over time, as both information and experience are gained. In a post-truth era, however, these sources of knowledge are abandoned altogether in favour of personal beliefs and feelings, causing us to respond positively to messages that validate what we personally like and which uphold our own belief system, and to respond negatively to those that present ideas we do not like and challenge our beliefs. 

Truth, trust and trustworthiness are closely related concepts at the base of society and have been shown to be key attributes to build the foundations of a prosperous economy. People tend to accept truth from those they trust; and they trust those they believe, or feel, to be reliable, having faith in their goodwill and integrity. Trust implies a willingness to take a risk that the person is sufficiently faithful and trustworthy, has integrity and will deliver on promises. Such individuals — and the truth — are susceptible to negative campaigns that undermine their reliability through the dissemination of disinformation, ad hominem attacks and uninformed reporting, resulting in, on the one hand, a suspicion of, and withdrawal of trust from, politicians, economists, specialists and experts, and, on the other, undue, or misplaced, trust being given to those whose speech validates one’s own beliefs and feelings. This phenomenon prevails in many societies today and is eroding confidence in governance at all levels, the banking system, science and many other pillars of contemporary society.

ebbf is inspired by the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith so it turns to the Bahá’í writings to explore these questions further. Here we share some of the concepts found in those writings that relate to truth which shed some light on these questions

Public opinion:

Public opinion must be directed toward whatever is worthy of this day, and this is impossible except through the use of adequate arguments and the adducing of clear, comprehensive and conclusive proofs. For the helpless masses know nothing of the world, and while there is no doubt that they seek and long for their own happiness, yet ignorance like a heavy veil shuts them away from it . . . Observe carefully how education and the arts of civilization bring honour, prosperity, independence and freedom to a government and its people. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 110)

Truth:

. . . truth or reality is not multiple; it is not divisible. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation, p. 106)

The light of truth is the divine teaching, heavenly instruction, merciful principles and spiritual civilization. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation, p. 12)

. . . whatsoever hath been revealed [in this era] by the Source of divine Revelation is the truth and the essence of all principles. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tabernacle of Unity)

Does truth matter?

As the nations of the world are following imitations in lieu of truth and as imitations are many and various, differences of belief have been productive of strife and warfare. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation, p. 180)

Are we able to discern what is true?

We have been created with the capacity to discover the truth: ‘God has created man in order that he may perceive the verity of existence and endowed him with mind or reason to discover truth. Therefore, scientific knowledge and religious belief must be conformable to the analysis of this divine faculty in man.’ (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation, p. 287)

What is the relationship between truth and public opinion?

Furthermore, know ye that God has created in man the power of reason, whereby man is enabled to investigate reality. God has not intended man to imitate blindly his fathers and ancestors. He has endowed him with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. He must not rely implicitly upon the opinion of any man without investigation; nay, each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation, p. 291)

Leadership and public opinion: 

. . . any agency whatever, though it be the instrument of mankind’s greatest good, is capable of misuse. Its proper use or abuse depends on the varying degrees of enlightenment, capacity, faith, honesty, devotion and high-mindedness of the leaders of public opinion. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 16)

Again, there are sagacious leaders among the people and influential personalities throughout the country, who constitute the pillars of state. Their rank and station and success depend on their being the well-wishers of the people and in their seeking out such means as will improve the nation and will increase the wealth and comfort of the citizens. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 22–3)

What responsibility do we as individuals have towards seeking truth?

The first teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the investigation of reality. Man must seek reality himself, forsaking imitations and adherence to mere hereditary forms. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation, p. 180)

One should not ignore the truth of any matter, rather should one give expression to that which is right and true. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets, p. 38)

He must be a seeker of the truth no matter from what source it come. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations, p. 15)

Shaping public opinion: how can we find truth together?

A practical way to engage various members of the community to help set goals and execute plans is to create spaces for consultation. Whether concerned with analysing a specific situation, trying to gain a fuller understanding of a given issue, exploring a possible course of action, or arriving at a decision, consultation may be seen as a collective search for truth. The participants in a consultative process are not interested in exercising power over one another or convincing one another of the validity of their perspectives. Rather, they participate with an understanding that different people see reality from different points of view, and as these views are examined and understood, new insights emerge and clarity is gained. (Bahá’í International Community, ‘Rising Generations’, 25 January 2018).

What responsibility do we have regarding speaking truth?

Endeavour to the utmost of thy powers to establish the word of truth with eloquence and wisdom and to dispel falsehood from the face of the earth.

(Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets, p. 139)

Show forbearance and benevolence and love to one another. Should any one among you be incapable of grasping a certain truth, or be striving to comprehend it, show forth, when conversing with him, a spirit of extreme kindliness and good-will. Help him to see and recognize the truth, without esteeming yourself to be, in the least, superior to him, or to be possessed of greater endowments. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 7)

Beautify your tongues, O people, with truthfulness, and adorn your souls with the ornament of honesty. Beware, O people, that ye deal not treacherously with any one. Be ye the trustees of God amongst His creatures, and the emblems of His generosity amidst His people. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 296)

What is the responsibility of the media in broadcasting the truth?

In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets, pp. 39–40)

A newspaper must in the first instance be the means of creating harmony among the people. This is the prime duty of the proprietors of newspapers, to eradicate misunderstandings between religions and races and nationalities and promote the oneness of mankind. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Mahmúd’s Diary, p. 270)

Telling the truth — honesty — is a quality of the soul and not only a tool for deciding among various options:

Honesty, virtue, wisdom and a saintly character redound to the exaltation of man, while dishonesty, imposture, ignorance and hypocrisy lead to his abasement. By My life! Man’s distinction lieth not in ornaments or wealth, but rather in virtuous behaviour and true understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets, p. 57)

Thus there are some principles that can be drawn from these insights:

Find out for yourself: ‘If a man were to declare, “There is a lamp in the next room which gives no light”, one hearer might be satisfied with his report, but a wiser man goes into the room to judge for

himself, and behold, when he finds the light shining brilliantly in the lamp, he knows the truth!’

Use your intelligence: ‘Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence?’ (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 44)

Look for truth at its source: ‘We must not look for truth in the deeds and actions of nations; we must investigate truth at its divine source and summon all mankind to unity in reality itself.’ (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation, p. 87)

Accept the truth: One should not ignore the truth of any matter, rather should one give expression to that which is right and true. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets, p. 38)

When we have identified the truth, offer it to others humbly: ‘If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and goodwill. If it be accepted, if it fulfil its purpose, your object is attained. If anyone should refuse it, leave him unto himself . . . (Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle, p. 15)

Uphold truth: Endeavour to the utmost of thy powers to establish the word of truth with eloquence and wisdom and to dispel falsehood from the face of the earth. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets, p. 139)

Consult with others: ‘The participants in a consultative process are not interested in exercising power over one another or convincing one another of the validity of their perspectives. Rather, they participate with an understanding that different people see reality from different points of view, and as these views are examined and understood, new insights emerge and clarity is gained.’ (Bahá’í International Community, ‘Rising Generations’, 25 January 2018)

Much of the passion about what is truth in this post-truth age centres on identity: who do we think we are? with whom do we identify most strongly? ebbf has considered this over many years and has concluded that ‘we’ are more than our gender, race, nationality, political belief, ethnic heritage, ability level, educational attainment, wealth, position in society, career, marital status, or other categorization that might otherwise define us. ‘We’ are all born noble: 

The human being has physical, intellectual and spiritual realities, with human experience essentially spiritual in nature. We can direct our energies to lower things like ego, greed, apathy and violence, or rise to develop the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness. (http://ebbf.org/resources/knowledge-network/the-7-ebbf-core-values/)

So important this idea that ebbf has made human nobility one of its core values. The impact of this idea on our thinking about what is true — about ourselves , our society, our work — is overwhelming.

Many of these ideas may be new to you, you may disagree with them, or find them challenging in the light of current political events. ebbf welcomes your own insights into these issues to enrich the discourse.

Bibliography

‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Foundations of World Unity. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979.

Paris Talks. London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1995.

The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982.

The Secret of Divine Civilization. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990.

Bahá’í International Community. Rising Generations: Weaving a New Tapestry of Community Life

Offered as a contribution to the 7th Annual ECOSOC Youth Forum at the United Nations, New York, 25 January 2018.

Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1983.

Tabernacle of Unity. Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2006.

Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988.

The 7 ebbf core values

Mahmúd’s Diary. Oxford: George Ronald, 1998.