In a classic segment defining his concept of truthiness, Stephen Colbert, fully in character on the Colbert Report, explains that book knowledge is outdated. “What do I need with Britannica? They tell me that the Panama Ca- nal was finished in 1914. If I want to say that it was finished in 1941, that is my right.”
The Oxford Dictionary just declared the truthy equivalent term, “post-truth,” as the world of the year for 2016. This word is an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opin- ion than emotional appeals. Due to the onslaught of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, Colbert’s satire is now our new ‘truthy” reality. It is becoming so difficult to locate the truth.
In Jewish life, we are taught not to accept the truth, but to wrestle with the facts in order to uncover reality. Ours is a tradition without a prescriptive catechism. That is, we derive our beliefs from the Jewish rites and rituals that we experience. When the Torah was present- ed to Israel, the people said Naaseh...v’nishmah. We will experience it first, and carry out its commandments, then we will understand. From this we learn that emet, or truth in Hebrew, must be tested against experience. Finding truth is only possible through a process of discernment.
“Denial,” the new film details the true story of Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Dr. Lipstadt is a scholar of Jewish History from Atlanta’s Emory University. She wrote a book called Denying the Holocaust which took those who challenged the veracity of the Shoah to task. In 1996, a sup- posed scholar who falsified history to argue that the Holocaust never happened took Dr. Lipstadt to court in the UK accusing her of libel. Here in the US, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, but in this UK libel suit, the burden of proof was on Dr. Lipstadt herself.
One of the most poignant scenes in the film showed survivors of the Holocaust, imploring Lipstadt to put them on the stand. Having lived through the tragedy of the Shoah, the survivors were outraged that an intellectual discussion full of false facts could supplant the truth of their lived experience. As Dr. Lipstadt says, it is important for people who change facts, to do so as long as you call their fact changing an opinion. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but opinion is not truth. In the context of this excellent movie, it is clear that falsely calling an opinion truth is a perver- sion of justice.
This is indeed a confusing time. As we read over the posts and articles that are pouring forth from our over active media, it is incumbent upon us to ask questions, and to be dili gent and discerning in our pursuit of truth.