May 11, 2021

Truth and Propaganda in a Polarized Society

“What does it mean to search after truth?” This question opened a spring 2021 presentation in the Big Ideas series to an online audience of over 80. Dr. Geoff Cameron, a political scientist specializing in immigration and refugee policy, and currently Director of Public Affairs for the Canadian Baha’i community, spoke of propaganda, truth, the meaning of freedom and the power of human speech. It was a kindly delivered challenge.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the Paris Theosophical Society in 1912. Son of the Faith’s founder, chosen to lead his followers into the 20th century, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá praised the audience as seekers after truth, “the first principle of Bahá’u’lláh”. Bahá’u’lláh made the unfettered investigation of reality an obligation, but how do we seek it freely? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá established two conditions. First, relinquish prejudice, the greatest hindrance to the quest. Second, recognize that truth, though endless and profound, is essentially one. He gave the example of religion: it is as the sun, a single source of enlightenment, though arising from various points on the horizon of history.

Cameron described propaganda as organized opposition to truth-seeking, designed to control or influence whole populations. Philosopher Jacques Ellul argued that “the structure of society puts individuals into position to receive propaganda”, suffocating independent thought. Its bluntest expression – there are bad people out there who want to hurt you, and only we/I can protect you – is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the waterline lie subtler forms of propaganda.

The Internet could be a potent defence, giving voice to more people, but it powerfully enables political, consumerist and pseudoscientific propaganda, and compromises our ability to think. In The Shallows, writer Nicholas Carr laments, “[T]he Net…is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation….[M]y mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it…” Cameron noted that social media foster narrowness and “are built to encourage snap judgements”, whether about entertainment or ideological positions that derange civic discourse.

So how to search for truth? Cameron gave homework: root out our prejudices; abandon triviality; examine our practices; consider social media themselves. Do I really need to know this? Or like that? He urged us to build our humility, detachment and moderation, freeing ourselves from the snares of propaganda. “We also need to learn how to consult with each other, to investigate reality together,” and not those “consultations” that recruit a constituency for some existing viewpoint. We must practice “wise and judicious speech”. He quoted advice from a 1988 letter of the Universal House of Justice, the Bahá’í world’s governing council: while “…freedom of expression [is] a fundamental principle of the Cause…[it] must necessarily be disciplined….[B]oth the limitation of speech and the excess of it can lead to dire consequences.”

Above all, Bahá’ís strive to contribute to unity. We cannot change our societies simply by appeals to free speech. It’s obvious: our present discourse, even about freedom of expression, leads inevitably to division, using speech for selfish, power-hungry ends. Last July, the House of Justice wrote to the Bahá’ís of the United States, consoling and advising them in their nation’s struggles with racism, “a profound deviation from the standard of true morality”.

It is not possible for you to effect the transformation envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh merely by adopting the perspectives, practices, concepts, criticisms, and language of contemporary society. Your approach, instead, will be distinguished by maintaining a humble posture of learning,… consulting to harmonize differing views,…and marching forward with unbreakable unity…

“To be a Bahá’í,” said Cameron, “is, among other things, to strive to be open-minded.” His presentation was exemplary: “to listen well and to speak well” are essential to a truth-seeking context, including what we listen to. Ultimately, we must not disparage or ignore the two systems of knowledge we have – science and religion. Contrary to much modern propaganda, Bahá'í thought sees reason and faith as complementary.

Searching for truth is more than an assistance to finding common ground. It’s fundamental to personal, spiritual thriving as well. “We have a soul that is attuned to truth,” said Cameron. Truth-seeking is necessary, natural and, yes, possible.

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