“Quid Est Veritas?” (Pontius Pilate circa 1AD)

It is hard to imagine anyone would claim Pontius Pilate as their patron saint.  His famous question, “What is truth?,” just seems like an epic dodge of responsibility, uttered just before condemning Jesus to death.  But here’s the thing, anyone who has returned over and over again to an ongoing marital conflict, has probably uttered some formulation of that quote under his or her breath.  In my role as a marital therapist, stepping into a decades long log-jam with a couple to sort things out… let’s just say that the pathway to the “objective truth” of the situation can appear murky.  Perhaps that is why my graduate school program in counseling was grounded in the post-modern tradition.  

Post-modernism was born in the wake of two World Wars.  The post-modernist noticed the way that social narratives, (like eugenics, or anti-Semitism) could act as a kind of lens through which the otherwise objective scientist, philosopher, or physician would look at his data, worldview, or patient.  The post-modernist sought to introduce an introspective moment into the scientific method to locate bias that could confound the research.  

This philosophical movement came in handy as a way to deconstruct certitudes whose foundations were created more by social consensus than objective reality. Once-upon-a-time, post-modern thinking was the sole purview of graduate school conversations.  Like the way that clothing fashions begin in Milan, Italy, then years later, wind up on American streets, post-modernism migrated from graduate schools into the American mainstream.  Consequently, all of us have heard the language of, “alternative facts,” and “narratives.” These are artifacts of post-modern thought.

Post-modernity is an important corrective to over-confidence.  For example, in the medical community, diagnostic manuals can have the unintended consequence of reducing patients to disorders.  A post-modern perspective provides a kind of humility when stepping into a patient’s life to see what else is going on other than pathology.  Post-modernism holds the promise of humbling ideological emperors, (i.e. physicians, politicians, philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and bishops) assisting them in acknowledging their epistemological nudity… at least to some extent.

As I see it, the problem with post-modernity is its inability to provide a secure foundation for a comprehensive philosophical structure that can hold a society, or a belief system.  Lest I be accused of mixing up babies and bathwater, let me just say that holding onto a healthy dose of self-doubt is important for every system of thought including politics, religion, and medicine.  But what I have been noticing lately in our social-media driven echo chambers is the loss of something that is necessary for a resilient society: a baseline acceptance of objective reality. 

In my marital therapy research, one significant finding has stood up over the test of time.  If you want to develop an elite marriage, develop close friendships where your friend knows you better than you know yourself.  You will know that you have found such a friend when he or she regularly disagrees with you, especially when you are characterizing your side of a marital conflict.  By way of analogy, when evaluating your sources of information, ask yourself how frequently your preferred sources of information challenge your ideological world view.  When watching, listening, or reading your favorite sources of information, if you find yourself consistently in agreement with what they say, consider getting yourself a new source.

About this time last year, I interviewed Mark, a frontline physician who staffed a full COVID unit during the worst of the crisis.  By day he was treating seriously ill and dying patients.  He was often the only conduit between a dying patient and their family, assisting them in saying goodbye…through him.  By night he was quarantined in the basement away from his family, catching up on the notes he was too busy to write during his shift.  He was also surfing sources of medical information for anything that would help him treat this “novel” disease.  For Mark, like so many frontline medical professionals, he contended with relatives and acquaintances who questioned the lethality and legitimacy of this diagnosis.  A common misperception was that he and his colleagues were being financially enriched by inflating this crisis (Mark had to take a pay cut during this time).  When I asked him for some of his resilience strategies, he said, “When I could tell that someone was only interested in having their point of view agreed with, or verified, I would drop off of the call.”

And so dear reader, who are those friends in your life who love you enough to disagree with you and challenge you?  Where do you receive information that you don’t agree with?  When was the last time that your position changed on something on the basis of new information that you hadn’t considered?

What follows is an insightful article written by Frank Bruni, relative to what is going on in Putin’s Russia.  I found in it some important food for thought and action.  See what you think.  And thanks for reading!   

Russia, Where All the News Is Fake.

By Frank Bruni

The country has become a dystopian paragon of corrupted information.

We are only as good as the information we get. Only as grounded, as enlightened, as capable of forming rational opinions about our political leaders and making intelligent decisions about our lives. If we’re fed lies, we’re lost. If we subsist on fiction, we dwell in a fantasyland.

Russia right now is to some degree a fantasyland. It’s a place where the government-promoted narrative about what’s happening in Ukraine is ruthlessly edited, audaciously manipulated and almost diametrically opposed to the truth.

And while that hasn’t quelled many Russians’ opposition to the war, evident in courageous protests throughout the country, Vladimir Putin’s fictions are prominent and pervasive enough to have profoundly negative implications for any possibility of peace: Why would a decisive majority of his people pressure him to end his brutal land grab when they’re made to believe that it’s a limited operation blown wildly out of proportion by a Russia-hating West, a necessary act of self-defense and a noble, altruistic bid to liberate decent Ukrainians from brutal Nazis in their midst?

To win people’s hearts, a leader can do the hard work of improving their lot. Or a leader can take the cheaper and easier route that Putin has chosen and try to wash their brains. That’s what censorship of this magnitude amounts to: brainwashing. Putin is providing a definitive tutorial about the paramount importance of a free press and the fatal destructiveness of its antonym. We should heed it closely — because the warp of reality that Russians experience at the hands of a repressive government we in the West often inflict on ourselves.

The Russian government has moved to restrict social media, lest Russian propaganda be challenged by competing and less flattering versions of events. And on Friday, Putin signed a new law that “mandates up to 15 years in prison for any coverage the state deems ‘false information’ about the military campaign,” as Neil MacFarquhar explained in The Times on Tuesday.

What qualifies as “false”? Using the word “war” for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, for one example. Describing the influx of its troops as an “invasion,” for another. “Special military operation” is the phrasing Putin prefers, so that is the phrasing the Russian people get. And it’s a locution that casts the economic sanctions that are strangling Russia as the opportunistic overreaction of enemies who have long been intent on destroying the country. Who would buckle under such evil? What self-respecting Russian would surrender?

Neil evaluated several days of Russian news coverage and marveled at “the extent of the Kremlin’s efforts to sanitize its war.” He noted that at a recently televised gathering with female pilots and crew members from Aeroflot, Russia’s state airline, Putin was asked about the likely outcome of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and his answer completely disregarded “the reality of Ukraine — the violent destruction of cities and towns by the Russian military, the civilian deaths, the desperate exodus by millions of refugees.”

Instead, Putin “referred to the government in Kyiv as Nazis about 10 times,” Neil wrote. “The word is repeated endlessly on every broadcast. To reinforce the idea, news channels frequently show black-and-white footage of actual Nazis.”

The consequence? “As Ukrainians deal with the devastation of the Russian attacks in their homeland, many are also encountering a confounding and almost surreal backlash from family members in Russia, who refuse to believe that Russian soldiers could bomb innocent people, or even that a war is taking place at all,” Valerie Hopkins explained in The Times on Sunday.

Starved of accurate information, Russians gorge on disinformation, including a widely circulated claim that the United States is developing biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. “This is preposterous,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a Twitter thread last night, adding that it exemplifies “the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent.”

It’s astonishing how far people can travel from the truth. Then again, it’s not. We have watched it happen here in the United States, among many of our fellow Americans, in regard not to Russia and Ukraine but to other issues.

Instead of benefiting fully from a free flow of ideas and data and genuine insights, too many of us volitionally make do with an unrepresentative trickle. If the result isn’t an alternate reality nearly as comical and tragical as Russia’s right now, it’s a distortion nonetheless, and a dangerous one to boot. We are only as good as the information we seek.

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