MAXWELL:  Our flight from the truth

1/15/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The recent firing of Dr. Joycelyn Elders as surgeon general underscores America’s Puritan inclination to choose ignorance over the truth. President Clinton’s political capital notwithstanding, Elders, a physician and a teacher, committed the sin of trying to bring science and truth to the nation’s public health debate, a debate that is hopelessly mired in ideology.

Elders was fired because she stripped away some of the superstition and hypocrisy surrounding issues such as homosexuality, abortion, birth control and, of course, masturbation. A few days ago, after conservative members of the Arkansas General Assembly tried to block her return as a tenured professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas medical school, Elders said: “We have politicized public health rather than try to deal with the issues that will improve the health of the public.”

Although her comment specifically refers to public health, its implications can be seen as an indictment of the nation’s general reluctance to face the truth.

Why do we refuse to face the truth? “The fact is that we do not use our minds to seek out the truth or to establish particular facts with absolute certainty,” writes Jean-Francois Revel in his book The Flight From Truth. “Above all and in the great majority _ if not the totality _ of cases, we use our intellectual faculties to protect convictions, interests, and interpretations that are especially dear to us.”

Revel’s assessment is salient in today’s politically partisan climate in which dogma has replaced reason.

The topic of homosexual rights, for example, is one in which the truth has become a casualty. Opponents of gay-rights ordinances argue that such measures open the door to rampant pedophilia, public love-making and other horrible acts. They argue also that these ordinances will, among other things, frighten away new businesses and bring hordes of gay teachers into the public schools. The truth is that in communities where gay-rights ordinances have been adopted, none of these trends has occurred. Not a single study shows that the passage of gay-rights laws brings out the worst in gay people or corrupts the populace. Gay people simply go about their lives _ with the added comfort that they are legally protected from discrimination. Nothing more.

Opponents of gay rights, mostly radical Christians, also run from the truth by ignoring the growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that gay men are physiologically different from straight men. Why do these people refuse to consider the data? Because they want to protect their belief that homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle that a person chooses. At all cost, they want to maintain their faith in the Scriptures. Otherwise, their lives, which are propped up by faith in the unknown, would become meaningless.

African-Americans, especially those who stand to gain from the civil rights industry, spend a lot of time running from the truth. All important studies on student success, for instance, indicate that kids whose parents value education and are involved in the schools tend to perform well socially and academically. Yet, many blacks continue to demonize “the system,” blaming it for their own lack of commitment to their children. Such a flight from the truth might be politically satisfying, but it will not teach children to love learning. These people deny the truth in order to validate the civil rights cause per se, a self-serving abstraction that often militates against reason.

The issue of legalizing drugs has produced another wholesale flight from the truth. In their attempt to steer children away from drugs, adults have perpetrated the lie that even the most casual use of narcotics will lead to addiction, a life of ruin or prison. But hundreds of thousands of kids see successful adults snorting cocaine and smoking pot. I am not endorsing drug use, but I am saying that kids are not fools. They know that “just say no” slogans are just that, slogans. Kids are often more capable of accepting the truth than adults.

What do we, adults, say to kids who know that Bill Clinton, a former pot-smoker, rose to become president of the United States of America? How do we explain that this same man was a successful governor, Rhodes scholar, an excellent professor? He is certainly a loving father. What do we say about that? And then we have House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He also smoked marijuana. Explain that fact to your kids.

The truth is that tens of millions of Americans use drugs and lead otherwise happy, taxpaying, church-going, family-oriented lives. Here, few adults are willing to tell children the truth.

Perhaps the lies are justified. Perhaps the flight from the truth is acceptable in such cases. But avoiding the truth is never good in areas such as politics, ideology, religion.

Most certainly, running from the truth about scientific matters, like those that got Elders fired, is always wrong. And today, with old hatreds and grudges resurfacing nationwide, we need truth more than ever.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.