A great confusion has arisen, and as is generally the case with confusion, those confused are unaware of their befuddlement. The issue of this perplexity is truth and its structural place within society. What has caused this confusion most markedly in recent times is the struggle between seemingly opposed political forces. Of course, the reason truth is an object in this struggle is the obvious fact that what people believe determines which of these political forces they will support. Gaining this support, naturally, is the object of the struggle itself. Therefore, manipulation of views is the meat and potatoes of this sort of political tug-of-war.
There is a joke: I looked up liar in the dictionary and it said, see politician. In fact, in modern society all politicians are viewed as professional liars. As is well-known the direct competitor with politicians for the lowest rung of the social ladder is the lawyer:
Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and a liar?
A: The pronunciation.
What would place the two so prominently in the minds of people that jokes would be generated about them? Over the course of history lawyers have accounted for the majority of all politicians in all Western countries. Lawyers have always figured prominently in government, which of course is the power structure which directly influences people's lives. In recent times the number of lawyers in government has declined slightly. However, the established practices, and procedures of governance over the centuries were in large part created by lawyers, and in particular procedures and methods of electioneering are stamped with their mark. The bitter irony of this is, lawyers are associated with justice systems, especially. Justice is said to be based on truth. Why, then, are lawyers associated with lying? Why, then, when lawyers become politicians do they further consummate the marriage of politics and deception? Leave it to philosophy graduate students in need of a thesis to work-out this conundrum. For now, it's only important to remember politics, lawyers and lying are closely akin in the minds of the public.
Returning to this struggle; this competition: Two political views, or parties, are struggling for the majority of votes in an election. To gain votes one influences voters. The obvious rationale is my view is superior to my opponent's view. Having thus influenced a voter, the politician gets that vote. It's a game. It's simple. Oddly enough (or, maybe not,) scant few rules governing electioneering in Western countries have anything to do with lying to prospective voters. Most rules govern election financing. The implied rule is: Lie if you want, but if you're caught you'll look like the liar you are and people won't vote for you. It is the subject of debate whether this is sufficient or adequate, and if being so loose with the truth vis-a-vis free speech considerations results in beneficial governance. Suffice to say this being loose with the truth, for now and the foreseeable future, is a component and often a tool politicians use to play this game of electioneering.
Now, consider the place of truth in relation to another feature of civilization. Knowing what is known, knowing what is not known, and knowing the difference between these and what are matters of belief are crucial in formulating, building and maintaining an advanced civilization. Attempting to exist using rationale based on falsehood or misbegotten opinion, thousands and thousands of years of experience have demonstrated, creates an existence fraught with difficulty and danger. Misapprehension of fact is responsible for millions of needless and tragic deaths. It is taken for granted the first most basic truth for civilization is: The practices of this civilization do not cause the deaths of its members. (Unfortunately, that probably needed to be said.) In advanced societies truth itself becomes a subject for debate. However, for now, consider a simple truth such as: Those kinds of snakes are poisonous. If you pick up that snake, and it bites you, you will quite likely die a painful death. This sort of truth isn't up to debate. Another such truth would be: That plant is poisonous. If you eat that plant you will surely die a painful death. These may seem childishly simple today. However, it is the gathering and dissemination of facts such as these that has allowed humanity to survive long enough to create this current, supposedly sophisticated, modern society - a social structure not shared by the majority of the planet's inhabitants by the way.
Truth is crucial to species survival. Is the current generation responsible for leaving an accurate record for its progeny? The two prime drives for any species are; self-preservation and species preservation. If accrued factual information is crucial to the survival of members of this species, leaving a factual account as a duty to one's species would seem to meet the second prime duty. Not doing so would seem to be, therefore, perverse and unnatural. It would seem to be an intentional attempt to circumvent the survival of one's own species. Since advanced civilizations now concern themselves with such things as rights, does a generation have the right to leave behind an inaccurate record? Since no one is there to exact retribution for any failure to do so, and it won't necessarily affect one's own self-preservation, how is not owning up to this as a responsibility enforceable? A line generated by this now modern civilization is: Why should I do anything for posterity? What have they ever done for me? Such a thought has been previously unheard of (in polite society), and would be seen as a rather caustic attempt at humor. However, today, such a sentiment is not entirely out of place. As the only species attempting to exist based entirely on the concept of free will, exercising that free will to circumvent what was once a natural imperative is quite easily done. This then begs the question: Are we all in agreement about the significance of truth?
A singular condition was mentioned earlier: Truth is now open to debate. Truth is no longer accepted as unimpeachable fact. Now, there's your truth, and my truth, which is to say there is no truth, but only opinion. Therefore, it's a matter of whose opinion shall prevail in any conflict of ideas. With this concept no idea is valid on the basis of factual veracity. Factual veracity is indeterminable, and therefore beyond consideration (the actual meaning of moot, by the way.) The first person to flag this as nonsense would be an engineer. Engineers deal in factual accuracy. If the data are correct, the bridge remains standing. Get them wrong, and it may collapse. In fact, anyone dealing with manipulating the elements of reality to achieve a goal, perhaps a chemist or even a chef, will insist there are facts which are indisputable. There is an oven preheated to 350 degrees, and if there isn't the recipe will fail. Mixing sodium and water will result in a release of energy. So, it seems politicians cannot alter the nature of existence, and facts hold themselves true regardless of humans and their opinions.
During the so-called Cold War between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics a tremendous amount of the factual information regarding the most significant historical events occurring on earth for almost a century were what is termed classified. This meant they were state secrets. An untold amount of factual information in the form of documentation was burned using the infamous burn bag. This was an open-ended practice with no regard to historical exigencies. Those involved were concerned with the other side not finding out, and even their own populations not finding out, with no regard to the final accuracy of the historical record. It can be accurately stated that there are giant holes in that history, and any future retelling of it can but be significantly incomplete. This renders the historical record useless for ascertaining any facts which directly affect this species' ability to glean from it any lessons impinging upon the prime imperative of species preservation. It is probably safe to assume the self-preservation aspect for those living in those times was: We didn't die in a nuclear exchange. What is shocking is, Western Civilization seemed perfectly satisfied knowing for the sake of their own side's success in this Cold War significant loss of the historical record occurred calling into question the value of truth to future generations. Now, the future generations are among us and the existence of truth itself has become debatable.
It is significant that during this era the U.S.A. experienced what was called the Brain Drain. Physics graduate students realized studying physics in the U.S.A. meant studying physics for a weapons-related application, and if they wanted to study pure physics, they had to move to another country. France, at that time, was the country of choice. This meant the U.S.A. university system had essentially been taken over by the direct participants of the Cold War without regard to the pursuit of objective truth. More recently, since the oil industry (by virtue of studies they themselves conducted) understands that if the population realizes their product has had a negative impact on the global climate and will continue to impact the climate at an increasing rate resulting in a drastic alteration of the living conditions of the planet, that public will in turn form a negative opinion of them. Therefore, they feel compelled to maintain a massive propaganda campaign denying the truth they themselves discovered. Rather than having climate data speak for itself, they threw deception into the political arena. They attempted to duck the financial impact which would impinge on profit-taking and converted natural fact into arguable political opinion. This has even resulted in they themselves calling their own data a hoax propagated to advance the political ambitions of those who insist upon its factual veracity. The only question of this veracity can be if the data was improperly taken, or altered to create a desired outcome. If this was not done the data is factual and not open to debate.
Both of these events, Cold War weapons research and the petroleum industry mischaracterizing the results of its own research, have significantly impacted the development, and safety of current society. Yet, they both also call into question the possible success of future generations. One event distorted the trajectory and basic tenets of objective education in the highest institutions of learning, threatening the intellectual integrity of individual students. The other carries with it the possible catastrophic alteration of environmental conditions, thus threatening the future existence of the species itself. Both are violations of the two prime imperatives; self-preservation and species preservation. Both violations were carried out by exercise of the free will. Do humans have this as a right? If not, where is the mechanism of enforcement?
Such things are elements of a society only when the members of that society agree that they are. For instance, it is definitely illegal to shout Fire! in a crowded theater. Panic can cause a stampede of people. People can be trampled by the crowd rush and killed. This is the first, albeit an elementary, curb on free speech. You cannot shout an untruth which will cause people to be injured or killed as a response. This is already an accepted exception to the free will concept. However, untruths uttered by politicians in the process of electioneering: If believing these untruths leads the population to misapprehend reality itself and thus causes decisions to be made which in the end destroys the species - there are no laws protecting us from them. Should there be? Or, should the people know the difference, and not be so easily guiled by ambitious opportunists? Is it a matter for the state to enforce truth, or the responsibility of the citizen to be enlightened beyond deception?
"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." -Thomas Jefferson-
In other words, deriding and punishing those who would tell untruths is not the remedy to being lied to. Being educated enough to see past the lies is. Having a functional education system which ensures all citizens have that quality of education is how to ensure your society isn't deceived. (Agreeing on what truth is would also be quite helpful.)
Society can stop tolerating liars. Society can make lying and deception unprofitable and a sure way to ostracization and rejection. Liars can in the end be pushed into a corner where the only people they have to lie to are one another. For, there will probably always be someone who sees lying as a possible means to achieve a goal. Just as when you have light you automatically have with it the absence of light, when you have truth you automatically have with that the absence of truth.
Truth; By Any Other Name