In a preliminary injunction issued against the White House and federal agencies on Tuesday in Missouri v. Biden, Judge Terry Doughty eviscerated government actors for colluding with social media companies to censor users’ protected speech in the name of eliminating “misinformation.”
Doughty, as others have done, compares the government censorship to Orwell’s hypothetical “Ministry of Truth.” But Orwell’s satirical title gives the speech police too much credit: It assumes “truth” is still a functional part of their vocabulary. No, our censors speak in terms of “misinformation.”
The perversion of truth is falsehood; misinformation is just the perversion of information. Truth has a moral component; information doesn’t. Years of moral relativism have eroded our cultural understanding of “truth” as a knowable, agreed-upon concept — and in our modern world, all we’re left with is an infinite supply of information.
Truth, Discerned in Nature by Reason
For most of Western history, philosophers and laymen alike have agreed upon the existence of “truth,” as a factual concept but also as a moral one.
Plato said the “true philosophers” were those “who are lovers of the vision of truth,” which he described in terms of an ideal reality that transcended the imperfect reflections of truth, goodness, and beauty in the natural world. Similarly, Cicero believed in the existence of a natural law that could be understood via man’s reason.
Christianity describes the law being written on the hearts of men in similar terms, and presents the good, true, and beautiful as originating from and perfectly fulfilled in the triune God. The Bible refers to Christ as the Logos, the Word of God — a term closely associated with wisdom, reason, and truth. Elsewhere, Christ describes himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life.”
As Christianity and Greek thought spread throughout the West, an emphasis on the comprehension of truth via reason took root. Presuppositions about rational thought and laws of nature spawned mathematic, scientific, and artistic advancements, most famously during the Renaissance.
A few centuries later, Enlightenment thinkers began to break away from the theistic grounding of the Western pursuit of truth, elevating reason alone as a sufficient basis for a functioning society. Modernism rejected the Enlightenment obsession with reason, as the booming industrial world sought to overcome nature and its laws and limits. As religious foundations continued to crumble, relativism emerged and completely unmoored itself from traditional assumptions about objective and knowable truth.
Today, we see factual relativism as well as moral. Not only does our prevailing social ethic tolerate individuals’ self-determination of “what’s right for me,” we’ve gone so far as to nod along when a man says he is actually a woman, lacking the philosophical footing to explain why that simply can’t be true.
To “speak your truth,” as distinct from the truth, is a moral victory to be praised according to our prevalent irrational dogma. Our cultural rejection of reason is evident in every field: Look at the deconstructionist sculptures and poetry that pass for art, or the assault on the fixed, rational rules of mathematics.
In this cultural condition, people are no longer equipped to speak in terms of truth, grounded in the divinely appointed laws of nature, discernible by human reason. Those concepts aren’t in our contemporary vocabulary.
Truth Isn’t Fragile, But Regime-Approved Narratives Are
In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Doughty explains: “It is the purpose of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of the market, whether it be by government itself or private licensee.”
The essential context and goal of meaningful free speech — a world in which ideas are debated openly so that truth may triumph — is no longer feasible when ideas cease to be judged on their merits and are instead judged by the intensity with which a person feels them to be true.
When there is no longer an agreed-upon concept of “truth,” ideas are reduced to those with which you agree and those you don’t. When you can’t rely on your ideas to endure simply because they’re true, contradictory perspectives and ideas become more of a threat.
Enter the pervasive concept of “misinformation.” It’s not a new term — Noah Webster defined it in 1828 as “false account or intelligence received.” The very idea of “misinformation” as it was understood in Webster’s time was basically a photonegative of truth: One could be misinformed, but the “false account” could be understood to be false precisely because it contradicted something true.
But in a post-rational world, “misinformation” means something else. One of the government bureaucrats accused in Missouri v. Biden of working to censor Americans admitted as much, in a very un-self-aware statement: “CISA Director Easterly stated: ‘We live in a world where people talk about alternative facts, post-truth, which I think is really, really dangerous if people get to pick their own facts,'” according to Doughty.
Of course, if everyone is picking his own facts, the government doing so is no different. As Doughty concluded, “The Free Speech Clause was enacted to prohibit just what Director Easterly is wanting to do: allow the government to pick what is true and what is false.” If there is no ultimate truth, then all that’s left is the prevailing narrative and information that challenges that narrative: misinformation. Government censors can make an appeal to reported facts or scientific studies, but man is ultimately fallible and those conclusions have no grounding if they are rooted in no higher law than the men who derive them.
That’s because truth is inseparable from goodness. It’s more than sterile informational accuracy — to be true is to reflect the created order that is ultimately good because its Creator is goodness Himself.
Man possesses the knowledge of good and evil, and it cost him dearly. Until we admit the language of goodness — and its opposite — back into our cultural vocabulary, we’ll be vainly squabbling over “misinformation,” and the most powerful actors will get to define it.