IS TRUTH DEAD?

John Shirley
4 min readJan 19, 2021

When we were kids, we played a game in the yard: “That part of the yard is lava! Stay out of it or you burn up and die!” So we had to walk across ornamental rocks to keep from falling into ‘lava’. This is a really widespread thing, and you probably did it too. today.

As adults we play ‘stay out of the lava’ with First Amendment arguments. We pretend something’s dangerous when it isn’t. It was recently pointed out that misinformation about the recent election — like the lie claiming Biden didn’t win — was reduced after 78% after Twitter and Facebook, compelled by the insurrection at the Capitol on 1/6/2021, started banning the spreaders of false stories about the election. Very carefully crafted limits to free speech — shutting down egregious defamation and lie-based speech, extreme and dangerous falsehoods — is not “the lava”. It will not burn us up.

But wait! Isn’t banning those FB and Twitter posters an undermining of our First Amendment rights to free speech? Not really. It is against the law to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. You can be taken to court for defamation or slander. Alex Jones lost when sued by the parents of murdered children for spreading cruel, monstrous lies about the Sandy Hook shootings. Flagrant, dangerous lies are not protected speech.

I’m a professional writer, very into keeping my First Amendment rights. But there can be intelligent limits to free speech if it’s overwhelmingly obvious that it’s a dangerous falsehood. “The Holocaust Never Happened!” Is that really an allowable claim? Really? There are limits to tolerance. There have to be because, otherwise — truth is dead.

How did we get into this fix?

Poison is a recipe. Combine one harmless chemical with two others, and you may find that harmless chemicals, mingled, can become poison.

With a more educated populace, social media would have been more helpful than harmful; the freedom to create a website and call it journalism would have been a beneficial, harmless aid to freedom of speech and thought; people’s natural need for attention should not have been harmful. People’s willingness to glean information from the internet should not have been harmful either. Cell phone and laptop and WiFi technology should not be harmful. But combine all this and add human depredation, human greed, and a foreign agenda, and we have poison. The poison that has killed truth.

It happened something like this: Non-journalists spread the lie that mainstream journalism was not reliable, was used for brainwashing — whereas mainstream journalism was designed to prevent brainwashing and to provide objectively vetted facts. This lie about mainstream journalism opened the way for fake journalism, for false-news websites; right-wing conspiracy-theory mongering: Alex Jones and other media parasites who feed on the gullibility of ignorant people; white nationalists; “sovereign citizen” con artists. Qanon.

The average person was becoming addicted to mindless media — to Instagram, to the worst of Facebook, to Twitter and other vapid social media, and it damaged their ability to read anything in depth. They were too hypnotized by the news feed; they could no longer take time for research; they had no time to compare sources. They just went with whatever source seemed exciting; whatever pleasurably reinforced their prejudices. The need for attention and stimulation led people into the dark corners of the internet; the dark corners became bright and busy with visitors, becoming more and more popular with a large segment of the population.

Big Lies are juicy; Big Lies are exciting. And it spread and it spread and it infected congressmen and then it helped Trump get elected and he spread it further. He’s now using every corner of the internet and cable news available to him to spread his own Big Lie: that he was re elected.

More than 60 courts have examined the claims that there was voter fraud favoring Biden — and they ALL threw it out due to the complete lack of evidence of fraud! None was found! Many of those judges and other arbiters in the process were conservative Republicans. Wisconsin held a recount, to please the President — with his followers watching closely — and made sure every last valid vote was counted…and Biden actually GAINED more than a hundred votes! Mitt Romney and other major Republicans have said the Biden win is valid. Even the Koch brothers said so! Yet significant numbers of far-right GOP insisted there must have been fraud; they stamped their feet and cross their arms and attempted sedition disguised as lawsuits. Yet…NO evidence was ever ound that the 2020 Presidential vote wasn’t valid, despite the fabricated stories (which were quickly shown to be utterly false.) But Trumpies, excited and hungry to be part of something and easily manipulated because of their weakened attention spans and their pervasive ignorance and their commitment to avoiding actual news sites…simply will not accept facts. Truth for these people…is dead.

Yes, what seems to have happened is that truth died. Truth is dead. It died when the poisonous social effluvia of misinformation reached unprecedented levels of suffusion within the body politic. We sickened in our own toxic zeitgeist.

When truth died, precedent died. Precedent was already mostly dead, at the hands of Trump and Mitch McConnell — and now the death of truth itself finished the job. The next to die could be democracy. If Trump’s coup had succeeded, Democracy would have, in effect, taken out and shot. Because when truth dies, the Big Lie is free to take its place.

But now, the Capitol has been invaded, electors and the Majority Leader of the House and the Vice President were threatened with violence; neo-Nazi brown-shirts calling themselves Proud Boys came swarming into D.C. There are no vital precedents, anymore. Trump followers are spreading a new precedent: one fostering threats and violence…

We have to be tougher about insisting on facts. We need to agree on what sources for fact are reputable. We have to enter a national conversation about truth. Or it will die on the vine.

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John Shirley

Author of numerous novels, including Demons, City Come A-Walkin’, Stormland and the A Song Called Youth Cyberpunk trilogy. Winner of the Bram Stoker Award.