Stephen Colbert, the youngest of eleven children from an Irish Catholic family, created one of the shrewdest political satire television shows in recent years, The Colbert Report.
In his first appearance, Colbert launched the show’s trademark word: truthiness. He put it this way:
Now I’m sure some of the word police, the wordanistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist, constantly telling us what is or isn’t true; or what did or didn’t happen. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats or Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart … The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.‘
Speaking out of character about modern political debate, Colbert later said: “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything … I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?” He added: “Truthiness is, `What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”
People laugh because Colbert is right. Once upon a time, words had weight. Now they float. In the past, Americans understood equality as something basic that we all share before God and the law. Now it means that almost everyone feels anointed to have his or her views taken seriously, no matter how unfettered by fact, logic, civility, or common sense. Unfortunately, experience teaches the opposite. Some ideas are bad. Some opinions are foolish. Some feelings are vindictive. And some people lie. The American genius for marketing, however, is a neutral skill. It can sell sand in a desert, and cigarettes just as artfully as vitamins. So it becomes very important for citizens to think their politics, not feel them; to examine the language of public discourse for what the words really mean.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell observed that “one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” Writing at the close of a world war that killed more than 30 million people, Orwell warned that the deliberate abuse of language had played a big role in the political collapse the world then suffered. If Joseph Stalin could claim to be a “democrat,” the word meant nothing at all; or even worse, the opposite of its original meaning. Orwell argued that, in the modern era, political language has become mainly a tool to obscure or defend the indefensible.
Orwell knew that words have power because they convey meaning. Words shape our thinking, which shapes our actions. Dishonest public debate with its misuse of words leads to bad laws and dangerous politics. When. the meaning of a word is subverted, it acts like a virus.
It infects other words and ideas. It spreads the habit of adjusting the facts and what they mean to serve predetermined political ends. In a different age, we called this lying. Now we call it spin. But whatever we name it, voter cynicism and a weaker democratic life are the result.
Massaging the facts to get elected — what candidates call “framing the issues” — is hardly new to American politics. It goes with the messiness of an open society. This is why George Washington and other founders spoke so forcefully about the need for a literate, educated citizenry. Democratic life depends on a people with the reasoning skills to see through the chicanery that often goes with political debate.
The new mass media that shape our views, however, have much more power than in the past. Americans now spend large parts of the day watching television, listening to the radio, or exploring the Internet. More books than ever are in print, but serious reading has declined.
This has political implications. Just as the American idea of human rights depends on a vocabulary shaped historically by religion, so does our political process depend on an ability to judge and reason shaped by the printed word and the culture it helped create. Reading cultivates the skills of abstract thought, mental acuity, and attention to the logical structure of a sentence. At its best, reading breeds an appropriately critical mind; that is, a mind able to sustain focus, judge information, imagine alternatives, and choose logically. It’s no accident that Tocqueville noticed two striking qualities about the newly independent Americans: their religious practice and their love of the printed word.
This doesn’t mean that electronic media are bad. In any case,, we can’t avoid them. But it does mean that we need to develop what Bertrand Russell called an “immunity to eloquence” as we experience them. In other words, we should know how the media work, and especially how they work on us. The “eloquence” of the new electronic media is their entertainment effect: their stress on brevity, energy, variety, emotion, and visual imagery. We need to remember that the form of information is part of its content. As Neil Postman once observed, every new. information medium is “not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience.” The new media breed and feed an audience — including voters — with little patience for complexity or sustained debate.
This is exactly the opposite of early American civic literacy. In the postcolonial years, most ordinary people not only could read and did read but eagerly joined in political debate. When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers, they already knew that an educated citizenry wanted to read and debate them. A culture like this forms minds that can retain and weigh large amounts of conceptual information; minds able to follow arguments — even dense and abstract ones.
In an electronic culture, vast chunks of incoming in formation have no importance at all. They simply gum up our ability to distinguish and rank issues. Politics tends to dumb down into what Christopher Lasch called “ideological gestures.” A serious marketplace of ideas, a place where opposing views get fairly debated and the best course of action emerges as the winner, simply can’t survive in a climate ruled by the sound bite. “The problem,” Neil Postman wrote, “is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” Crime, war, public humiliation, sexual intimacy, pain, and political leadership — much of our experience of these things comes from watching them on network shows. We begin to judge their value by how prevalent they are on television and how well they hold our attention there.
The new media have two other key flaws. First, in their immersive effect, they obscure the large amounts of important information they don’t communicate. The need for brevity creates an artificial need for simplicity. Facts that don’t fit within the forms or appetites of the media often get ignored. But the real world, including human motives, is a huge and tangled place. Thus, despite a modern tidal wave of certain kinds of data, we actually live in what Bill McKibben famously described as an UnEnlightenment, an age of missing information.’
Second, in their persuasive effect, the new media instruct the public on how to think and what they need. Some of this subtle tutoring can be funny, especially in advertising. It led Neil Postman to see American television commercials as a form of “religious parables, organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, [television commercials] put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of Heaven.
They also suggest what are the roots of evil, and what are the obligations of the holy. George Orwell put it more bluntly when he equated consumer advertising with “the banging of a spoon in a swill bucket,” but the point is that selling a product, an idea, or a political candidate requires much the same skill set. Even major print-news organizations, while paying lip service to fairness, tend to frame complex stories in a streamlined and ideologically loaded way.
When Orwell wrote his 1946 essay on the political debasement of language, he spoke to a culture that was still largely typographic; that had been formed by the mental disciplines of print. The English language today has vastly more power because of the new technologies that carry it. Those same tools make it easier to mislead, confuse, and lie to citizens, and then coach them to smile while they’re being robbed.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ Lewis Carroll wrote those words more than a century ago in Through the Looking Glass, but Humpty Dumpty might do very well in public office today. Dissembling in political life is now a national habit. Mass media tools make it easy. If we love our country — and we have that duty as citizens – we must try to recover and insist on the real meaning of our public vocabulary. Truth, pluralism, consensus, choice, the common good, democracy, conscience, love, equal rights, tolerance — all of these words are now routinely misused in public debate to serve selfish or destructive ends.
Pluralism is a demographic fact. Nothing more. It is not a philosophy or ideology or secular cult. It does not imply that all ideas and religious beliefs are equally valid, because they’re not. We live in a diverse country. That requires us to treat each other with respect. This makes sense both morally and pragmatically. But “pluralism” does not require us to mute our convictions. Nor does it ever excuse us from speaking and acting to advance our beliefs about justice and the common good in public. Catholics who use “pluralism” as an alibi for their public inaction suffer from what the early church described as dypsychia. In other words, they’re ruled by two conflicting spirits. They may speak like disciples, but their unwillingness to act paralyzes their words.
Tolerance is a working principle that enables us to live in peace with other people and their ideas. Most of the time, it’s a very good thing. But it is not an end in itself, and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil. The roots of this word are revealing. Tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare, “to bear or sustain,” and tollere, which means “to lift up.” It implies bearing other persons and their beliefs the way we carry a burden or endure a headache. It’s actually a negative idea. And it is not a Christian virtue.
Catholics have the duty not to “tolerate” other people but to love them, which is a much more demanding task. Justice, charity, mercy, courage, wisdom — these are Christian virtues; but not tolerance. Prudence too is a vital Christian virtue, the “right rudder of reason,” but not when we use it as a cover for political cowardice. Real Christian virtues flow from an understanding of truth, unchanging and rooted in God, that exists and obligates us whether we like it or not. The pragmatic social truce we call “tolerance” has no such grounding.
In like manner, building a consensus around laws and policies is usually a worthy goal. But whether such a consensus is good or evil depends on the content of the specific laws and policies. A consensus — which simply means the “agreement of the people” — is never a source of truth. It says nothing at all about whether a policy is good or a law is evil. In fact, a consensus is often wrong. A great many unjust wars and bad leaders have been very popular.
And this leads us to another brutalized word, democracy, which couples the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power). Switzerland and North Korea both claim to be democracies. The latter’s official name is the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. In the United States, however, democracy means “majority rule by the citizens through representative, constitutional government.” American democracy does not ask its citizens to put aside their deeply held moral and religious beliefs for the sake of public policy. In fact, it requires exactly the opposite. People are fallible. The majority of voters can be uninformed or biased or simply wrong. Thus, to survive, American democracy depends on people of character fighting for their beliefs in the public square — legally, ethically, and nonviolently, but forcefully and without apology. Anything less is a form of theft from the nation’s health.
Other key words in our political conversation suffer from the same vocabulary drift. Choice is worthless — in fact, it’s a form of idolatry — if all the choices are meaningless or bad. Our basic rights don’t emerge or exist in a vacuum. They come to us as endowments from our Creator, and we have obligations that go along with them. Community is more than a collection of persons with the same appetites or complaints. A real community requires mutual respect, a shared past and future, and submission to each other’s needs based on common beliefs and principles. It is not an elegant name for an interest group.
Nor is the common good merely the sum of what most people want right now. The “common good” is that which constitutes the best source of justice and happiness for a community and its members in the light of truth. In the mind of the Second Vatican Council, it includes all those conditions of social life that enable individuals, families, and organizations to achieve their true fulfillment (GS 74). This “true fulfillment” presumes that external, fundamental truths about human nature and meaning preexist us. We don’t invent those truths.
Finally conscience, as Cardinal Newman once said, “has rights because it has duties.” In Newman’s words, “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.” As Catholics, we must act according to our conscience. But we should also remember that we all have great skill at self-deception when it suits us. Conscience is never merely a matter of personal preference or opinion. Nor is it a self-esteem coach. It is a gift of God; the strong, still, uncomfortably honest voice in- side us that speaks the truth if we let it. In fact, to continue with Newman,
the more a person tries to obey his conscience, the more he gets alarmed with himself for obeying it so imperfectly … But next, while he grows in self-knowledge, he also understands more and more clearly that the voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing of mercy in its tone. It is severe and even stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment. It suggests to him a future judgment; it does not tell him how he can avoid it.
Conscience has the task of telling us the hard truth about our actions. The church has the task of expressing God’s love and leading us to salvation. For Catholics, “conscience” demands a mind and heart well formed in the truth of Jesus Christ. And these come foremost through the teaching of the Catholic faith. Obviously, faith is not a mathematical equation. People often face difficult issues in daily life. Some Catholics may find themselves sincerely unable, in conscience, to accept a point of Catholic teaching. When that happens, the test of a believer’s honesty is his humility; that is, his willingness to put the matter to real prayer and the seriousness of his effort to accept the wisdom of the church and follow her guidance. If after this effort he still cannot reconcile himself with the teaching of the church, he must do what he believes to be right, because ultimately, every Catholic must follow his or her conscience.
At the same time, we should remember that honest private decisions — the kind that come from hard self-examination — are very different from the organized, premeditated, public rejection of Catholic belief by persons who use their Catholic identity to attack what the Catholic faith holds as true.
Organized dissent in the name of “conscience,” especially in a media age that celebrates almost anyone who challenges authority, very easily — and much too conveniently — lends itself to vanity and evasion. It tribalizes Catholic life by turning the church into a battleground for interest groups and personal ego. In fact, one of the saddest qualities of the current American Catholic scene is that, when it comes to the meaning of Catholic, quite a few of us are Lewis Carroll fans without knowing it.
“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.’”