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A Professor In Post-Truth America

What happens when we believe we can create our own realities?

Further to my point about the challenging, irksome fact that we live in what the OED calls a “post-truth” culture, I received this today in an email from a college professor. At his request, I’m withholding his name and the name of his institution:

People tend to make up lies when it suits their emotional needs all the time, and so I don’t want to make too great a claim about generational differences; nonetheless, millennials seem to lie, at least at their colleges, as if the fabric of the universe were simply malleable to pleasing their own wishes. I have seen even those students who seem most bright and most wholesome make bald faced lies to their classmates and to me; they just do it as if it came naturally and they don’t seem to have any conscience about it.

Not long ago, one student spoke to me in casual conversation of telling her club on campus an absolutely outrageous lie (I forget what it was precisely, but it was on the scale of “I survived cancer” or “I was raised in Germany). She mentioned it because she could see at some point she was going to have to pay the piper, but her disbelief went beyond that. She herself was stunned that she could just make things up out of thin air and pass them off as truth to people with whom she was going to spend hours a week for several years in a block. It wasn’t so much shame, so far as I could tell, as an incomprehension at this odd and troubling power that just happened to be right there inside her.

Here’s a more irksome one: several years ago, a student lied to me about something and then, out of necessity, confessed he had lied to me. He had requested an official document from me and had lied about why he wanted it for no apparent reason as it was the kind of document I would routinely provide to him as part of my duties as a professor. I had initially just given him some information and not said document, because the lie he told did not indicate he would really need it. When he confessed his lying and asked again, I was insulted by his dishonesty and ignored his request. Out of desperation, he wrote again, saying something like “I’m sorry [as in, it sounds as if he is apologizing for lying] but I didn’t think I would be in this bad position [as in, caught lying and with no alternative but to confess].” He actually said he was truly sorry not because he had been dishonest (again, for no apparent reason), but because he had been put in the horrible position of having to confess to a lie. “Sorry for being caught” doesn’t quite capture the absurdity of his statement.

Has this happened in your workplace? Asking seriously. I have a Millennial friend who changed the focus of her studies at one of the nation’s top medical schools after she observed rampant, conscious fraud among her student colleagues in the research lab. I asked her if she was talking about things as egregious as falsifying data. Absolutely, she said. The reason was competition for status and research grants. They just did not care. She did not want to be co-opted by that system.

She was not talking about lawyers, or liberal arts professors, or anybody like that. She was talking about research scientists.

It’s not quite the same thing as this, but closely related: Dante believed that the loss of belief in the sacred and binding qualities of vows was behind the social and civic collapse of Italy in the High Middle Ages. He discerned that if people believed that their word was only valid when they believed it advanced their interests, things would inevitably fall apart. This is why Traitors were in the lowest pit of Hell: because when you cannot trust the word of anybody, not even your neighbor, a stable society becomes impossible.



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