“The existence of truth is self-evident. For whoever denies the existence of truth grants that truth does not exist and, if truth does not exist then the proposition: ‘truth does not exist’ is true, and if there is anything true, there must be truth.”– Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1Q2, A1
“What is truth?”
I watched the scene unfold on the screen this past Easter Sunday as it would if I were reading the scene from the Bible (John 18:38). Pontius Pilate’s character in The Passion of the Christ, with open palms and jaded tone asked Jesus Christ, “quid est veritas?” My stomach dropped. I have often asked this question and a few years ago did so in a very public manner when I wrote an article for The Courier-Tribune (Asheboro, NC) that was aptly titled “Your Truth Is Not My Truth – Or Is It?” and it remains one of my biggest failures as a writer to date. I’ll explain why it was a failure here in a second but not until after I tell you what happened after the article was published…
Not too long after, I had received a few different comments from readers. As a beginning freelancer, to receive any response at all was amazing! The first two responses I received from readers were very complimentary and certainly inflated my ego; but then, I read the response published by The Undercurrent challenging the logic and reasoning behind my article. Since then, my words have haunted me.
My Critic Is Correct
I remember reading Duke’s response and thinking to myself, “I agree with everything he’s saying.” I also remember re-reading my own article and still thinking to myself, “I stand by what I said…so, where did I go wrong? How can both of these be correct to me at the same time?” Years later, as I tried to write a response last year in 2020, I printed off both articles to try and get to the bottom of what was going on. Duke and I can’t both be right, right? Since I’m the only person who can explain my intentions, I believe my errors were three-fold:
- I was attempting to apply an anthropological point of view as an analogy to an exercise from a creative writing class I was in and also to a fiction book that had inspired that class that explores “truth.” There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, if we’re just looking at the article from a creative lens but it definitely alters my message. Although I was steeped in more relativistic views at that time of writing this article, I still believed, and always have, in an objective right and wrong. I should have made that clear and established the boundaries within which I was examining what Truth is.
- My goal for the article was for readers to walk away considering their impact on people. Although you wouldn’t believe it reading the article, I was attempting to explain how the impact we have on the world is not always what we think it is – my main intention was never actually, directly about Truth. Our intentions don’t always come through crystal-clear (I know, the irony is not lost on me in this situation). If someone is hurting and they’re telling you that they’re hurting, who are you to tell them they are not hurting? I wanted to stress the need for empathy but unfortunately, it was lost underneath a very poorly executed argument. Mea culpa, mea culpa.
- Let’s face it: the more you write and debate, the better you get at it. On topics concerning such heavy items as truth, relativism, and empathy, I need more work and experience! What you’re reading when you read that article is an essay by a college student who was undergoing intense self-reflection and discovery on what her world views and opinions were at the time. Many of them were very conflicting inwardly just as they were outwardly. Ultimately, I should have written on something else if we’re talking about expertise here – “write what you know,” you know?
The Truth Will Build You Up
We live in an age where everyone wants immediate responses. There’s a phenomenon occurring in discourse day-to-day where if you don’t talk or type fast enough or respond within an acceptable timeframe (and “acceptable” is very subjective here), you must be ignorant. It wasn’t that long ago that people would wait weeks and months to receive letters from loved ones but now we live an age where if you don’t send out the perfect thought in 140 characters or less, you’re considered dumb or that your argument is weak. Here I am, five years later finally stringing along sentences I should have said originally but again, we learn in our own time and often through error do we get better. Don’t let this self-imposed pressure to speak quickly keep you from speaking truthfully and prudently.
What I want to get across today that I did not in my original article: there will always be someone who experiences life differently from you. That does not negate the existence of Truth, it just makes the journey to finding it a little more complex. I can understand now how my words defended a relativistic view of “truth” (i.e. there is none). But Truth is real and it does exist – there is objective right and wrong, truth and falsity. My concern for the article was to get across the need for more empathy in our world, true empathy. Not just the smile-at-a-stranger-kind of passive empathy but true, listening, understanding, and researching kind of empathy. The kind that makes you want to get your hands dirty finding solutions to the world’s problems instead of just arguing with people all day to hear your own voice (sums up a lot of the politicians in today’s world, in my lowly opinion.)
Empathy and justice can co-exist. We’ve just done a horrible job at creating a world that nurtures that.
People have no sense of justice anymore. Only tit-for-tat politics based on faulty logic (much like my original article) and vengeance.
People have no empathy anymore. They only care about themselves and vindicate their selfishness because “everyone else is being rude to them too.”
These extremes are creating a never ending cycle of insanity.
Unfortunately, we are long past the age where educated discourse can take place. Everyone has to have the last word and if everyone is so focused on getting that perfect 140-character-comeback-Tweet then who is taking the time to think before they speak? We are so scared of making mistakes, coming off as stupid when people find out about our mistakes, or offending others when we are simply expressing and discussing ideas that we’ve created a never ending field of landmines out of words.
What I Would Tell Pontius Pilate
If I had the opportunity to talk to Pontius Pilate in that moment, I think I would hug him first. I know what it is like to feel jaded, to be overly concerned with earthly things and people. It wears on your soul and starts to chip away at your logic. I would tell him to not let the wiles of this world keep him from seeing that Truth is as real as water. It is inherent, logical and discoverable – anyone who claims to “believe in Science” should be climbing up this hill to defend the existence of Truth. Yet, it seems that the very people you would think would defend it are running in the other direction.
“I would tell him to not let the wiles of this world keep him from seeing that Truth is as real as water.
It is inherent, logical, and discoverable.”
On a more spiritual note, if I was with Pontius Pilate in that moment, I would take his hands and point to Jesus Christ. The man standing before him whipped, beaten, bleeding, hemorrhaging, broken, and yet, still standing. A man who was innocent and yet, was traded in for a murderer. A man who forgave and prayed for his critics until His last dying breath. The Truth was staring Pilate in the face and yet, he still couldn’t see it? He still had to ask what Truth was?
We are all Pontius Pilate.
When my stomach dropped hearing those words escape his mouth in front of Jesus at that moment, all I could hear were my own words. I felt the shame that I hope Pontius Pilate did later when realizing what he had done. He may have washed his hands clean (Matthew 27:24) but his words still made him culpable in the crucifixion of Our Lord. All I could see were the very same arguments and ideas that are being spewed and shared, which I unfortunately have contributed to, in today’s world.
We live in an age where Pontius Pilate is ruling. Let’s not let him walk away without understanding the Truth this time.
What Would Socrates and Hemingway Do?
My biggest inspirations as a writer, although there are many, are Ernest Hemingway and Socrates. Both of them have one thing in common and that is their ability to withstand critique and challenges. After all, the teaching method where professors answer their bright-eyed pupil’s questions with more questions is called the Socratic Method for a reason. Hemingway himself had a career-long rivalry with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both are legends that live on in literary history. Neither one canceled the other. They critiqued each other instead.
One can only hope that a single person’s critique will leverage you to the same level as renowned, dead philosophers and writers (if that’s the case, I owe Duke a drink) but more than likely that won’t happen. I’ll live. What WILL happen is progress – being challenged on my thought process, writing execution, and ideas did not kill me. It forced me to know myself better. Looking back over my article showed me all the ways I can get better. Does that mean that I completely kowtow to Duke’s opinion? No. I stand by portions of my ill-executed point that during the length of our lives we often form opinions and beliefs about the world that in turn affect the way we act and our actions affect those around us. Sometimes in ways we don’t even realize. However, I agree with him that my flawed execution of that argument tries to prove that Truth does not exist…and it fails, as it should because Truth does exist.
What I committed was a False Analogy fallacy: if I wanted to talk about empathy, I should have talked about empathy. So, the next time I write an article or vocalize an opinion, I’ll keep in mind the things I’ve learned from this experience: what’s the point I’m trying to get across? Am I doing that? How am I doing that? How would this sound to a stranger? All practical questions we could ask ourselves when writing Facebook posts or Tweets or whathaveyou.
Freedom of speech is for everyone. Even for the person you don’t like. Even for the idiot who keeps talking when everyone wants them to shut up. It exists for the person you agree with as well as for your critic. Had my critic never written his article, I would never have realized how badly executed my message originally was. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed after reading Duke’s review to find that he did not lavish me with glorious praise and idolization. However, once my ego came back down to earth I realized that Duke had done me a huge favor and one that I was already paying thousands of dollars to go to school for: challenging me. If your idea, more importantly your ability to represent an idea, cannot withstand the rigors of questions, debate, and argumentation – then there’s something wrong either with the idea, your knowledge on the subject, or both.
Most importantly, did you see what Duke did NOT do? He didn’t cancel me. He didn’t ask for my article to be withdrawn or for the editor to demand an apology. He didn’t start a hashtag with my name calling for my head on a platter or send me death threats. He wrote his own, thought-out response challenging me to either shut up or defend myself. Another piece of dialogue, moving the conversation forward and being challenged on our opinions is not the end of the world nor does it make the critic a bad person.
Sometimes, a critic is exactly who you need to help you see the Truth.