Home Opinions Ideas What can Purim teach us about fake news?

What can Purim teach us about fake news?

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Joshua Zader FLICKR

Purim is a minor yet lavish holiday laden with parties, costumes, masks and tantalizing food. But at its core, there is hiddenness, an enigmatic drama with concealed particulars. Are these lies?

Mordecai warns Esther to keep her identity a secret. Her Hebrew name, Hadassah, is not to be revealed. Neither is their relationship. And even though the fact that they are cousins is clear in the text, the commentators insert stories of a marriage that does not fit any of the details. Obviously, the sages revelled in the ambiguities and hidden facets of this story.

Perhaps the most commented upon subject is the non-appearance of God. For the traditionalists, the lesson is quite easily explained: God’s presence runs through the tale like an underground river, unseen but essential. But for many, the absence of God’s name, of anyone actually calling to God or requesting help, is problematic. Yet the whole tale resounds with invisibility, so that even the heroine’s name, Esther, suggests hiddenness.

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But are these fake facts, alternative perspectives or false news? What phrases have we recently been bombarded with to indicate new ways of presenting or altering truth? And how do we justify our own acceptance of revising facts or concealing them in order to win.

Is there a difference?

Hiding facts in order to protect someone is usually morally correct. Telling a “white lie” (“Of course you look marvellous, grandma”) so that someone’s feelings won’t be hurt is what we do. It’s more than acceptable; it’s appropriate.

But wilful ignorance of realities, public or not, is lying, plain and simple. Saying that you have a different perspective or analysis is common practice in evaluating human existence. Claiming your experience of an event differs is also part of our understanding of individual appreciation and involvement. But it’s quite different to insist that your perspective is the absolute truth and other views are “fake news.”

When, for example, there are actual, documented numbers of crowds at an event, how can one make the claim that since they felt the crowd was the largest ever, that is “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? One cannot. In order for your experience to be counted as truth, there must be data that others can verify. History cannot be written as what we wish for, but that which actually happened.

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Inventing one’s own reality is a wonderful feat of fiction. It requires great imagination and the talent to communicate those thoughts in a meaningful and even helpful manner. But politicians should not indulge in fabrication and misrepresentation. Their task is to lead the public in accepting and managing reality, not fictive narratives. It’s obvious that there are times when leaders must keep things secret. Plausibly, the Purim story presents us with such occurrences. But citizens have a fitting expectation of truthfulness, not falsehood or inventiveness.

There’s a sentence in the morning prayers that says one should acknowledge truth and “speak” (think) truth in one’s heart. I have long wondered if that’s possible. Not only are we commanded to tell the truth, but in order to acknowledge it fully, we must acknowledge it internally.

Surely, that is the hardest thing to do – to never lie to one’s own self. No coverups, no justifications, just the truth. Know it, face it and hold it dear in all circumstances. Psychologically, we have an incredible capacity for self-delusion. So this small sentence, recited every morning as we embark on a day full of complex activities and speech acts, tries to remind us to be honest to ourselves. That’s the challenge I don’t see reflected in our current leadership. It’s missing from public life, and I worry that it will soon be missing from our lexicon.

How can we teach honesty to our children with all these words that mask the simple facts of lies?