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Class of 2019: Bring Truth to Light

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The following is an adaptation of an address to Washington University in St. Louis’s class of 2019.

Americans are losing the ability to conduct civil and productive dialogue with those who hold different political views. This has profound implications for our ability to function as a society.

After all, when we can’t talk with one another, we can’t understand one another. When we can’t understand one another, we can’t work together. And when we can’t work together, we can’t do anything — at least not anything big and important.

We face a lot of challenges in America today, from climate change to gun violence to failing schools to the opioid epidemic. And on campuses, there’s a frightening trend toward racism, sexism, hatred, anti-Semitism and intolerance of unpopular views and opinions.

To have any hope of overcoming these challenges, we have to reclaim our civic dialogue from those who are debasing and degrading it, and preventing us from getting things done.

All of you can help do that — no matter what your politics are and no matter what line of work you decide to pursue. There is not a single issue that isn’t affected by political debates. And there is not a single issue that isn’t threatened by the breakdown in our civic discourse.

So even if you hate politics, and there are a lot of reasons to hate politics these days, you will have to engage in political dialogue. And you will have to judge the arguments made by candidates. The question I hope you will ask yourself is: On what basis will you make those judgments?

It would be natural to think that a degree from one of America’s top colleges has prepared you to be a skilled judge of political debates. But a recent study found that the smartest and most knowledgeable voters can actually be the worst judges. That’s because they are most likely to make judgments based on which party is making the argument rather than on the argument itself.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You would never do that. But it happens unconsciously all the time. People have a tendency to assume the worst about those on the other side of the aisle. And when it comes to those on their own side, they tend to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. That’s why educated and knowledgeable people excuse actions that are ethically wrong and defend statements that are blatant lies.

Of course, some people say: Defending the indefensible is just politics as usual. But I don’t accept that, and I hope you won’t either. When extreme partisanship replaces reason, logic, facts and data, the country suffers and special interests win. I’ve seen it time and again, on issue after issue: gun violence, education, public health and even one that threatens life as we know it: climate change.

The problems driven by climate change are getting worse — and that’s something you’ve seen during your time here. The recent Mississippi River floods have affected life in St. Louis and they have devastated farmers across the Midwest. Those types of natural disasters will continue to get more severe with climate change, according to the best scientific data.

The trouble is: Too many politicians aren’t interested in hard science. They’re only interested in political science and winning their next election. So they ignore the data. They try to cut funding for climate research because they know it will undermine their political argument. Sometimes they even try to block public employees from uttering the words “climate change.”

You have to wonder what they’re trying to hide. The only conclusion I can draw is that they’re either hiding their own ignorance or their own bad faith. Either way, when government officials try to gag scientists and censor their conclusions, watch out and speak up.

America’s progress depends on a dialogue that treats these issues not as pawns in a political battle but as problems to be solved. Ignoring data and facts and defending indefensible positions happens in both parties. But during these last few years, it has enabled new levels of dishonesty and wrongdoing and it has reached a point that, I believe, no democracy can long sustain.

Our democracy, as the founding fathers understood, rests on more than just votes. George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” If the spring runs dry, democracy withers away — and the rights we hold dear disappear. Graduates, that spring of virtue is now yours to protect.

And make no mistake: It is more polluted with toxic dialogue than it has been in modern history.

The good news is, the way to clean up the pollution can be found in the three words on the cover of your diploma. It’s the motto of this great university: Strength Through Truth. And it’s a motto that perfectly fits a university named for George Washington.

In 1794, during President Washington’s second term, there was a faction ginning up support for secession. Washington recognized the threat it posed, but he was confident it would not succeed. He wrote in a letter: “It is not difficult by concealment of some facts, and exaggeration of others … to bias a well-meaning mind, at least for a time.”

But, he continued: “Truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to light.”

Now, I know the phrase “pains is taken” probably just horrified every English major here. As kids we were taught that Washington never told a lie. But they never told us he had trouble with subject-verb agreements.

But really: Washington’s point, and this university’s motto, are principles I hope all of you will take to heart: Truth will prevail where pains are taken to bring it to light. And with truth comes strength.

The pains taken by Americans to bring  truth to light are why secession failed in 1794 and 1861. The pains taken by abolitionists and suffragettes and civil rights marchers and marriage equality advocates brought America’s core truth to light. All people are created equal.

Today, the necessity of taking pains to bring truth to light is greater than ever because the tools for spreading lies are more powerful than ever.

Since the dawn of democracy, there have always been those who — to paraphrase Socrates — try to make the weaker argument appear the stronger and who care more about winning debates than being truthful. In ancient Greece, they were called Sophists — and they would have loved Twitter and Facebook.

Social media has given rise to a new golden age of sophistry, aided and abetted by blind partisanship. The only way to overcome it, the only way to lift our national discourse out of the gutter — is to heed Washington’s words and take pains to bring truth to light. Those pains are the burden of citizenship in a democracy. And a great education does not relieve them. It intensifies them. So let me offer some advice for dealing with modern-day sophists who try to obscure — or deny — truth.

When those in the political arena engage in name-calling and other schoolyard taunts, they are trying to distract your attention from the real issues and from their inability to address them or their unwillingness to put forward practical solutions. Don’t be distracted.

When they tolerate attacks on minority groups, especially those who profess a faith that some find threatening, they are empowering those who traffic in hatred. Don’t tolerate it.

When they denounce journalists as “enemies of the state,” and declare any critical coverage to be “fake news,” and dress up lies as “alternative facts,” they are trying to fool you into trusting only the news that comes from their mouths. Don’t be fooled.

When they exaggerate the risks we face from immigrants without talking about all the benefits they have brought to our country, they are preying on people’s fears. Don’t let them get away with it.

When they try to tell you who you can love, or even who you can be, they are either pandering for votes or playing God. Don’t put up with it.

When they promise a free lunch or free college, free medical care or free income, remember that a bill always comes due. Don’t let them pass the buck.

When they prevent speakers from being heard, by shouting them down or creating spaces where dissent is not tolerated, they are trying to win arguments by bullying and censorship instead of through facts and reason. Don’t let them suppress free speech. (Even when you find that speech to be deplorable. Protecting their right to speak is the only way to protect your right to speak.)

When people romanticize the past, remember something my mother, who lived to 102, told me: The good old days were never that good.

Finally, when leaders wrap themselves in the flag, or the national anthem, and try to make you think that critics of our government don’t love and respect our country, remember: Real patriotism isn’t about honoring symbols. It is about bringing truth to light and, when action is required, standing up and taking action.

In other words: Real patriotism is about taking pains.

So take pains to understand the other side and to expose lies. Take pains to reject scapegoating and xenophobia and not to fall for easy answers. And take pains to hold our leaders accountable for their words and deeds. If you do that, I have no doubt that truth — and America — will prevail.

And my generation will be able to say, as we pass the leadership torch to yours, the same words that George Washington spoke with his last breath: ’Tis well.

Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. He is the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for climate action.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.