We’re living in a heavily politicized era of outrageous yet unsubstantiated claims, alternative facts, and fake news. Does it matter if a half-truth is slipped in with a series of full-truths? Does it matter if the evidence sourced for such claims is not given at all? Or if it turns out to be fake? Or if it is clearly and severely misinterpreted?
If those who want their point of view heard also want to be trusted, they need to be vigorously confronted with their falsehoods. Half-truths quickly add up to full-on disinformation, and the tale-tellers earn the label of “untrustworthy” about the whole of what they say, since they do not give truth in some of the parts. A spoon full of sugar does not negate the drops of poison hiding inside.
There’s a fascinating section of the movie Denial that sheds light on the issues of falsehoods and trustworthiness. This movie dramatizes the real-life defamation trial brought by David Irving, a self-trained British historian of World War II, against Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor known for her work on Holocaust history. In her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, she has labeled Mr. Irving a Holocaust denier and a liar who has falsified historical evidence.
Mr. Irving brings the lawsuit in the UK, where defamation laws are the opposite of those in the US. In the US, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant knowingly lied, with malice; in the UK, the defendant must demonstrate that what they said is true. So, Professor Lipstadt is required to prove that Mr. Irving indeed has lied about the Holocaust in his writings and falsified evidence. The team for her defense includes expert witnesses who must prove from historical documents and artifacts that the Holocaust happened. If she loses the case, it opens the door for Holocaust denial to be taken seriously as a credible alternative theory of history.
The trial took four years of preparation, lasted eight weeks, and took the sole judge who heard the case four weeks to issue his opinion. Here is the closing speech by Richard Rampton, the barrister for Professor Lipstadt, addressed to the judge, Sir Charles Gray.
RAMPTON. My Lord, during this trial, we have heard from Professor Evans and others of at least 25 major falsifications of history. “Well,” says Mr. Irving, “all historians make mistakes.”
But there is a difference between negligence, which is random in its effect, and a deliberateness, which is far more one-sided. All Mr. Irving’s little fictions, all his tweaks of the evidence, all tend in the same direction – the exculpation of Adolf Hitler.
He is, to use an analogy, like the waiter who always gives the wrong change. If he is honest, we may expect sometimes his mistakes to favor the customers, sometimes himself. But, Mr. Irving is the dishonest waiter. All his mistakes work in his favor.
How far, if at all, Mr. Irving’s anti-Semitism is the cause of his Hitler apology, or vice versa, is unimportant. Whether they are taken together or individually, it is clear that they have led him to prostitute his reputation as a serious historian in favor of a bogus rehabilitation of Adolf Hitler and the dissemination of virulent, anti-Semitic propaganda.
[Denial, section starts at approximately 1:28:30 and goes to about 1:29:50.]
Do accuracy, truth, and trust in politics and media matter? Yes. As they do in all realms of life.
And those who want what they say and do to be taken seriously need to avoid dishonest sourcing and bogus pronouncements that mislead the public in their favor.