Darrell Berkheimer: Discerning truth is each citizen’s obligation
A few days ago I received a copy of a commentary about all the corruption in our nation’s capital that we can expect to continue and grow worse under an ultra-liberal administration of President Joe Biden.
It came from a friend who had been a supporter of former President Donald J. Trump.
Yes, I do have some Republican friends who supported Trump. I think my friends did so mostly because they have been disgusted with the gridlock in Washington that has failed to control government overreach, and to put our tax monies where they believe it is needed most — in jobs and infrastructure improvements.
Also, my friend, along with millions of other Republicans, had believed and wanted Trump to fulfill his promise to drain the swamp.
But the commentary that my friend sent was filled with right-wing generalizations, exaggerations, opinions claimed to be facts, some conspiracy theories, and fear tactics.
In my reply to him, I reported that each day I delete many baseless email claims that I receive — mostly from liberal folks — but also a few from others who apparently noted my conservative bent on a few issues.
What bothers me deeply is how those email messages play on my fears that the worst things will happen unless I support a particular program or candidate.
Few of those contentions and fear tactics include outright lies — such as the ones claimed by Trump and repeated by some of his supporters in Congress. But many are half-truths and contentions that fail to offer any proof.
The failure to rely on evidence undermines attempts at unity and compromise, according to William Saletan, a writer for Slate.
American politics no longer is a conventional fight “between the left and the right,” he wrote. Instead, our nation’s politics have ”become a fight between those who are willing to respect evidence and those who are not.”
He wrote that we need “a common standard for judging truth,” a standard based on evidence. Without evidence and “without agreement on facts, … we lose our ability to agree on policy.”
But Saletan doesn’t go far enough in listing the real crux of the problem. He fails to emphasize that each citizen has an obligation to discern what is true or false before repeating claims by others simply because we agree with them.
That can happen so quickly and easily when we fail to question generalizations and comments originally designed to mislead us and create fear.
It’s not that difficult to verify the validity of many political statements, especially when we turn from generalities to specifics. Most of the answers are available right at our fingertips, on our personal computers.
Our current situation underscores the need for our schools to emphasize critical thinking and skepticism. Unfortunately, nationwide testing tends to require rote learning of facts and events, while instruction in critical thinking is not given proper emphasis until the university level.
Journalists — especially print journalists — are forced to become skeptics if they want to keep themselves from writing falsehoods and defamatory statements that could lead to serious legal problems.
That means journalists must quote proper authorities and check original sources. Even then, we must consider what the sources might have to gain or lose by their conclusions or opinions. And when possible, good journalists seek to confirm or verify statements with another source.
As a newspaper editor, I told staff reporters I did not like one-source stories, and I expected confirmation from another source unless the information came from the main authority involved — such as the fire chief, police chief or mayor. Even then a witness’ report adds to the story.
I tend to place more faith in print media than broadcast because print media provides a permanent written record.
Oral communication tends to be fleeting and subject to misunderstanding unless captured and repeated by an unaltered recording. Broadcasters too often claim they misspoke or were misunderstood. But it’s rather hard for print journalists to make such claims.
I hope the Jan. 6 attack on our national Capitol has prompted many more of our citizens to become more skeptical and to realize the importance of evidence before spreading information that might be false.
As for the commentary shared by my conservative friend about the pessimistic and dire results predicted for the Biden administration, I responded that I choose to be more optimistic.
My optimism at least partly stems from my faith in our courts and justice system that eventually, most often, unravel the truth through evidence or lack of it.
Also, I am a bit optimistic in the hope that the Capitol attack will prompt more citizens to participate in give-and-take discussions about which information is true and which is false because so often, the false information is designed to promote fears that don’t exist.
I ended my reply with this couplet: Accusations and truth require evidence and proof.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He has eight books available through Amazon. His sixth, “Essays from The Golden Throne,” includes 60 columns published by The Union, plus a dozen western travel and photo essays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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