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May Issue

Vol 32|No 5|May 2022


Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Mendacity vs. Veracity
Knowing what is true
and what is false

By Jamie McKenzie
(about author)
In 2022, mendacity is on the increase while veracity is under attack from both the left and the right. Truth (veracity) is a threatened species as millions embrace falsehoods, propaganda and conspiracy theories with gusto. There is evidently something thrilling about discarding logic and skepticism while championing dubious claims and causes. It is a bit like riding an intellectual roller coaster or mental sky diving without a chute.

The alienated and disaffected are especially prone to act out their rage in this way, as has been true for centuries. Demagogues are skilled at exploiting and validating their rage, whether it be Hitler mobilizing the angry German masses or Huey Long enlisting the aggrieved citizens of Luisiana.

Strong school civics programs are meant to equip students with both the skills and the attitudes to insulate them from such manipulation, but success is often elusive. Large numbers of folks enter their adult voting years susceptible and easily mobilized by those who are selling various flavors of Kool-Aid.

“Don’t confuse my mind with facts!”

When a president tries to reverse the outcome of an election, falsely claiming widespread fraud, millions swallow his lies without requiring any evidence to substantiate his allegations. After dozens of courts reject his claims, followers are quick to dismiss their verdict by insisting that the system and these courts are rigged.

When the Internet first came to schools back in the 1990s, some of us hoped that such access to rich information sources would be liberating, freeing the young from the chains of heavily filtered references. In an essay published in Kappan - “Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Free Range Students” - http://questioning.org/grazing.html I mentioned this possibility while warning that it might not come to exist at all.
The potential is amazing. An impressive information harvest is just within our grasp. Suddenly we might have all the cultural treasures and the best ideas of human civilization available within a simple mouse click (provided someone digitizes and shares them.)
It turns out that abundance does not automatically lead to understanding or wisdom. Back in 2006 I called for schools and teachers to show students how they might "Manage the Poverty of Abundance."

Resources to support critical thinking

1. True or False? http://questioning.org/summer2016/trueorfalse.html

2. Questioning Authority http://questioning.org/apr2014/authority.html

3. Questioning the Diagnosis http://questioning.org/apr2014/diagnosis.html

4. Questioning the Bill http://questioning.org/apr2014/bill.html

5. Questioning the Email http://questioning.org/apr2014/email.html

5. Challenging Assumptions and Conventional Thinking http://questioning.org/Jun2013/age.html

6. Questioning Video, Film, Advertising and Propaganda: Deconstructing Media http://questioning.org/jun09/video.html

7. Challenging Assumptions http://questioning.org/oct08/challenging.html

8. The Evidence Gap, Truthiness and the Wicked Witch http://questioning.org/oct08/evidence.html

Unfortunately, equipping students with thinking skills is not enough to guarantee they will make use of those skills later on as adults. Some will eventually willfully toss aside rational thought and logic while surrendering to emotions stemming from disaffection, alienation and cynicism.

Acknowledging Futility

After almost six decades of promoting schooling that emphasizes student thought and questioning, I have come to recognize the limitations of such learning as those students move on into adulthood and struggle with the disillusionment that sometimes greets them. As competition for spots in the comfortable American elite class can be grueling and disappointing, those who fall by the wayside may experience lives of curdling resentment, punching the clock for minimum wage while watching elites motor by in their fancy cars. These alienated citizens are easily recruited by demagogues who know how to fan their rage into outrage.

Embracing conspiracy theories uncritically becomes a form of protest against a system they see as rigged against them. Tossing logic and caution to the wind can prove exhilarating and oddly liberating. Unfortunately, schooling aimed at producing rational thought is likely to be one more casualty in this dance with the Devil.

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