“The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”
The above quote, attributed to St Augustine, has been doing the rounds as an inspirational meme for some time. Occasionally it will pop up on one of my social media streams, posted by somebody who I assume has faith that fact will prevail in the face of falsehood. And of course, I certainly hope that it will – but I disagree strongly with St Augustine’s sentiment. Based on my observations, I believe that the lion of this metaphor is vulnerable and that we do need to fight to defend it.
Ethical truths, which are highly subjective (and as such, it is highly debatable whether they are indeed truths at all), do not defend themselves – if they did, surely I would not be repulsed by honour killings, as those who commit them are behaving in a manner according to the ethical truth with which I find indefensible, that bringing dishonour to one’s family is a greater crime than murdering them. We would not have an anti-abortion/pro-choice debate, nor a euthanasia debate, nor disagreements regarding the death penalty. If ethical truths could defend themselves, should they not convince us all of their merit?
Likewise, logical truths are not agreed upon by all – be it through a lack of exploration or exposure to concepts, alternate well-argued conclusions or cognitive dissonance.
The clearest of all truths though, factual truths backed by solid evidence, are still vulnerable to falsehoods – some of which when taken as truth present real risks to our society.
The truth that vaccination is the safest and most effective means by which we can protect ourselves from vaccine preventable diseases (and that these diseases are a real threat to human health and life) is continually under attack from anti-vaccination advocates – and to some in our community, the anti-vaxxers can be persuasive, resulting in both danger to individuals’ health and lowered herd immunity in our communities. As such, I find it imperative that vaccination advocates defend the truth; and I am honoured to know many people who spend a lot of their time and energy doing just that.
Likewise, fluoridation of our water supply is a safe way to ensure that our population’s dental health is maintained, but anti-fluoridation activists believe differently. Not only are these activists able to convince individuals with their rhetoric, they can also influence policy to the extent that entire regions remove fluoride from their water supply as a result of their campaigning. In this case, to maintain evidence-based public health policy, we must defend the truth.
The truths that fringe conspiracy theorists deny – that the moon landing occurred, that chemtrails are merely contrails, that the reptilians or Illuminati are unlikely to be controlling the world behind the scenes – arguably cause far less harm to communities and relatively little to the individuals who believe them (this moon landing hoaxer aside), but they do serve as examples of situations in which the truth is not defending itself. I’m inclined to spend less time defending these truths, though I do tend to take issue with the conspiracy theorists’ undermining of rational evidence-based thinking.
It is probable that St Augustine was referring to the biblical truth in which he believed – that the truth of his god would prevail without his defense. Clearly at this point in human history it has not, given the wide array of beliefs and lack thereof held by the people of this planet. His biblical truth is not defending itself.
We humans are capable of manipulating our world, both with concepts and with actions. Both metaphorically and in reality, we have rendered the lion vulnerable; and it relies our protection if it is to prevail. The benefits of defending the lion and whether we have a moral imperative to do so are truths to be explored.
Ethically, logically and factually, St Augustine’s truth, that truth can defend itself, does not hold true for me.