A Reflection on Truth from Thomas Merton

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            Over the years I’ve attempted to caution family and friends against the manipulation methods imbedded in the media. Advertising, and the manipulation of news, undermine a person’s ability to distinguish truth from lies. The ability to exercise free will in decision making is paralyzed by emotions.

            Last week, during my morning prayers, I had the opportunity to reflect on the following passage from No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton. The fact that this book’s copyright is dated 1955 should drive home the importance of Merton’s insight.

6. How is it that our comfortable society has lost its sense of the value of truthfulness? Life has become so easy that we think we can get along without telling the truth. A liar no longer needs to feel that his lies may involve him in starvation. If living were a little more precarious, and if a person who could not be trusted found it more difficult to get along with other men, we would not deceive ourselves and one another so carelessly

            But the whole world has learned to deride veracity or to ignore it. Half the civilized world makes a living by telling lies. Advertising, propaganda, and all the other forms of publicity that have taken the place of truth have taught men to take it for granted that they can tell other people whatever they like provided that it sounds plausible and evokes some kind of shallow emotional response.            

            Americans have always felt that they were protected against the advertising business by their own sophistication. If we only knew how naïve our sophistication really is! It protects us against nothing. We love the things we pretend to laugh at. We would rather buy a bad tube of toothpaste that is well advertised than a good one that is not advertised at all. Most Americans wouldn’t be seen dead in a car their neighbors never heard of.

            Sincerity becomes impossible in a world that is ruled by a falsity that it thinks is clever enough to detect. Propaganda is constantly held up to contempt, but in contemning it we come to love it after all. In the end we will not be able to get along without it.  

           This duplicity is one of the great characteristics of a start of sin, in which a person is held captive by the love for what he knows he ought to hate.  

            Given the social media environment of today, it’s obvious that Merton’s insight should be reflected on deeply. The following reading list contains some of the research I have done during my lifetime. I offer it for those who are equally concerned about the future.

            Future Shock by Alvin Toffler

            The Greening of America by Charles Reich

            Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan

            Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Key

            The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

            Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes by Jacques Ellul

            Each of these works identifies specific elements of The Problem: We are emotionally manipulated to choose things which are contrary to what is good for us as human beings. By not accepting objective truth, we cannot know what is good. As Jacques Ellul points out in Propaganda,

            I shall devote much space to the fact that propaganda has become an inescapable necessity for everyone. In this connection I have come upon a source of much misunderstanding. Modern man worships “facts” – that is, he accepts “facts” as the ultimate reality. He is convinced that what is, is good. He believes that facts in themselves provide evidence and proof, and he willingly subordinates values to them; he believes what he believes to be necessity, which he somehow connects with the idea of progress.

            Objective truth transcends subjective “facts”. Values are defined by unchanging principles founded on objective truth. As human beings we rely on faith and reason to discover, and embrace, truth.

            As always, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”

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