Can you handle the truth?

When historical evidence doesn’t suit your worldview, what do you do? It seems that for many the answer is clear: deny and rewrite. Deny that uncomfortable things happened – indeed call them ‘false facts’ and make up your own reality. And denounce the significance of inconvenient truth on ideological grounds and demand that it be erased.

Behind this, note the growing phenomenon worldwide of ‘trigger warnings’. Occurring mostly in educational institutions, it is in some places required that a lecturer warn students in advance of texts or subjects to be discussed that might disturb or offend them. The rationale is that students need to be protected from such content; some advocates even go so far as to insist that the classroom must be a ‘safe space’.

Can you see the problem with this? Do you see a pattern?

Can you see how concern for ‘safety’ can lead to tailoring educational content to suit the perceived needs and tolerances of students? If every subject must be carefully checked for ‘dangerous’ content, if loads of warnings and qualifications must be issued before you start, isn’t it better (or less bother) to simply tailor everything to a nice, bland minimum that will offend no one?

And the pattern? The pattern is that people grow up intellectually and emotionally unstretched and unchallenged. They grow up expecting to see and hear what suits their worldview and incapable of seeing alternatives or living with harsh realities and brutal truths that real history and real life is party to.

Welcome to the world of false facts and historical denialism, to the world where dangerous ideologues of the Right and Left can get away with trying to erase history and rewrite it in their own image and likeness.

But it goes deeper, even into the depths of religions. It is at the heart of fundamentalisms that offer nice packages of ‘truth’ and deny and denounce ambiguity in the name of said (packaged) truth. Purveyors of fundamentalism appeal to such things as biblical literalism and the immutability of doctrine, despite evidence of long, complex histories of textual and historical development. They often appeal, too, to a similar moral fundamentalism, parroting moral doctrines and claims without recognising that all morality is complicated by the contexts in which we make decisions.

Indeed, in the quest for a perfect world that fits into our fantasies, we merely display our own desperate need for certainty and security. Even if this actually amounts to an embrace of illusion and a false sense of security.

Shouldn’t our example be Jesus, who denounced and rejected simplistic obsessive solutions in his day and called us to freedom rooted in a truth that sets one free? He rejected the claim that salvation lay in blind rule-following or ultra-nationalism. Rather it lay in living as if God’s reign had already come in part, even as one struggled with life’s ambiguities and difficulties.

Are we ready to handle the truth?

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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