“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate famously asked of Jesus. It’s a fair question, especially in our present media environment where facts have become increasingly malleable. As the provincial governor interrogating a notorious figure, Pilate put many questions to Jesus that day regarding the nature of his authority. It was a critical point to clarify, since any claim to power intersected uncomfortably with Rome’s occupation of Judea.
During his trial, Jesus doesn’t cop to being a king. Nor does he deny the title. He simply asserts that he was born to witness to the truth. He adds that anyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. This is the moment Pilate loses interest in the conversation. Truth? What does truth have to do with authority?
It’s a dismissal too many people in powerful places tend to make.
Truth is its own authority. If something is true, that claim is binding on reality itself. Gravity draws things down to Earth. Say it isn’t so, if you prefer. But those who trip fall down and not up. The gravity of the truth, we could say, compels our surrender to it. No matter how many lamps we light after dark, night does not become day.
It may appear that way, but it is not. People of discernment learn to perceive the difference between what appears to be so and what is so; what sounds reasonable and what is reasonable. Most of all, we have to appreciate the sincere difference between ideas we like and incontrovertible facts. We have to draw a line in the sand between our comfortable opinions and the often very uncomfortable genuine nature of our circumstances.
This month is a good time to meditate on our relationship to the truth and perhaps our dubious dedication to it. The Sunday before Pentecost each year is designated as World Communications Day. When Pope Paul VI established this observance in 1967, he was acknowledging the very real power that media wields in the world. By media, the pope nodded toward the press, radio, motion pictures, and television. The internet had yet to come into its own as a vital channel of information and misinformation.
Paul VI viewed World Communications Day as an occasion of celebration. Contemporary media had made the communication of ideas faster and more widespread than ever in history. Such rapid and pervasive media saturation brought with it the hope that the gospel could go out to the ends of the Earth in ways never dreamt of. This hope was fostered by the Second Vatican Council of those years, during which the church pledged to relinquish its centuries-old fortress mentality in favor of a renewed mission to engage with the modern world. Finally, the good news of Jesus Christ would be carried on the airwaves to every corner of the globe!
Well, that may have been an optimistic assessment of media’s potential to spread joy to the world. It soon became evident that what might spread joy could also disseminate fear. What brought good news with lightning speed into every home could also seduce with mind-dulling entertainment, drumbeat endless advertising, and reinforce prejudice. Not to mention the casual access to pornography and a slow creep toward partitioning the news into your-spin-versus-mine.
Pope Paul VI was right. Media did indeed have the power to transform society with its message. And while upbeat outlets such as the Oprah Winfrey Network or the Hallmark Channel have made their unique attempts at offering uplifting values, such efforts are fiercely outnumbered by the greed of shopping channels and game shows; the relentless gluttony of cooking channels; the excessive remodeling lust of home improvement programs; and the circular, vacuous plots of sexy serial dramas. I’ve done my share of binge-watching in the COVID-19 years, and I ask myself what creative use I might have made of all the long nights of streaming stories and comedy routines that were hardly edifying straight into my brain. Was I really so anxious to kill time?
Yes. Time did feel like a terrible burden for many long months, and murdering it was the unstated intention. But in the end, I had to stop streaming all the gunk, because it wasn’t doing what I thought it should do. Rather than cheering me up and passing the time until health would return to the world, I felt strangely bored and addicted at once. The masters of comedy, in fact, left me feeling depressed about our society as well as mean-spirited about folks who see the world from a perspective I don’t share. After spending hours watching the opposing worldview skewered in stand-up, compassion and empathy seemed downright impossible.
As a result, I’ve felt a renewed interest in World Communications Day. Pope Francis has announced the theme for this year: “Speak with the heart” (Veritatem facientes in caritate—literally, speaking the truth in love). The pope is asking us to build bridges of hope rather than reinforce walls of contention and hostility. As we seek to discern truth together, we can use gentler words, more inviting language. We don’t have to decimate or belittle the opposing view, or even to view our dialogue partners as oppositional. People of good will are all on the same side, the human side, the party of the common good. Could we try to begin with that simple assumption and see where it takes us?
“Nonhostile communication is more necessary than ever,” Francis declares in a global environment tipping toward drawing rigid enemy lines: East and West, Christian and Muslim, one form of government against another. The pope seeks to create a respectful dialogue that will help “to dismantle the ‘psychosis of war’ that lurks in our hearts.” His metaphor took me aback: the psychosis of war. Psychosis is a derangement of the mind that results in lost contact with reality. Psychosis is displayed by delusions and disorganized speech and behavior. This deranged warrior mentality is visible in our news media that demonizes groups in our society and pits them against “us.” Policy, religion, race, class: Each distinction between us has become a potential cause for the warrior mindset to prepare to go into battle.
Is it any wonder that every day in the United States someone takes up arms and shoots into a crowd of strangers? The psychosis of war is fed daily by our media. And the pope locates that psychosis not in the media itself, but in our hearts. We have to take responsibility for what we choose to nurture or poison our souls with: in the programs we listen to, the news sources we trust, the spiritual mentors we choose, and the leaders we follow.
Telling the truth is a hard responsibility to which those in the communication business must recommit. But how to tell what the truth is: that’s your responsibility and mine. To recover from the warrior psychosis that has invaded our culture in every aspect, we have to learn to speak with our hearts and not from our positions and talking points. I can’t enter into a dialogue intent on winning, since no one wins if both parties retreat into their respective foxholes of unyielding opinion. Respect is possible even when agreement is unlikely.
I want to put down my sword and tell you what’s in my heart without fear of a violent reprisal. Can we find a way to turn down the volume and soften our speech? Can we agree, at least, that no one is the enemy?
This article also appears in the May 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 5, pages 47-49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Amanna Avena