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Truth and the Growing Onion

Parenting toddlers in the era I did meant watching a lot of animated films…over and over. With few exceptions, I found these films entertaining, often touching, and occasionally insightful. One such insight came from Shrek when he compared ogres to onions, and stated, “There's a lot more to ogres than people think.”

I’ve held on to that onion imagery and have recently begun to recall it when confronted with particularly vexing concerns. I pride myself on being a person of integrity. Thus, my nature in such situations has been to quickly survey my surroundings, recall similar past experiences, and act in a fashion consistent with past performance. This approach has enabled me to stay true to a fixed course. Thus, most people consider me reliable. My path is fairly straight and well lit, so it doesn’t take folks too long to find me. Still, something feels a bit different today that renders this process incomplete. 

There has been a shift in forces that, in the name of transparency and truth, have instead exploited complexity to cast shadows and doubt, and then capitalized on people's insecurities by offering simple solutions. Build a wall. Tax the rich. Take this pill. Where in all of this is the truth and how do we know when we find it? 

Now add ChatGPT and similar natural language processing tools to the landscape of the public square. These tools aggregate the myriad of conflicting information regarding complex topics available on the web and confidently boil the topics down to generally-well-constructed prose a person can consume on a single visit to their favorite sitting area. Why do the heavy lifting of research when the chatbot can do it for you? This is my onion issue. If we liken truth to be the center of an onion, the only way to access it is by peeling back layers. That’s the task we are unconsciously forgoing, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. 

First, let me state that I’m NOT against this type of artificial intelligence. One can imagine any number of valuable scenarios where having instant access to a “walled garden” of the most relevant current and historical information on a given topic could be of great service (think medicine, law, climatology, and, yes, even education). However, within the context of an open forum, the potential for misuse is substantial. We need look no further than the weaponization of social media in politics - where half-truths and outright falsehoods abound - as an example. Now imagine the writing efficiency and speed of ChatGPT cranking out hundreds of propaganda pieces a day based on the input values of agenda-driven actors. Soon, this new content becomes a part of the digital tapestry further feeding the AI itself. Thus, as discerning individuals attempt to peel back layers, the onion itself keeps getting bigger.

Let’s explore the onion a little more. When at the market, we primarily use visual cues to determine the purchase worthiness of a particular onion. This makes sense. The outer layer is what we can see with our own eyes and that we can touch with our own hands. The entirety of the onion, then, comes to be represented by its exterior surface which we believe to be absolute. Processing visual information in this manner allows us to negotiate life fairly efficiently.

Whether through interest, opportunity, or adversity, there are times when we feel compelled to explore an issue more deeply. This often stems from a personal experience that threads disparate thoughts together. We begin peeling back layers. Often what we’re searching for is simple validation of a subjective train of thought. If we’re fortunate, we find compelling conflicting viewpoints that require more layers to be removed. And, like an onion, as we continue removing layers, the issue takes on new textures. More importantly, we are aware of the changing textures. We become introspective. 

One might ask, “Can’t you just cut the onion in half to get to the kernel of truth?” Not really because the layers are interconnected. So even if the essence of truth was revealed, it would be beyond our comprehension to recognize. No, there is really only one way, and that is to commit to a long and sustained exercise of peeling back layers. 

It is in this spirit that AVLI is working with the Jesuit Schools Network on The Listening Project, a curriculum initiative to assist young people develop meaningful dialogue and discernment skills. The Rule of St. Benedict refers to “listening with the ears of our hearts,” and I think that is the skill we hope to activate in our students. Revisiting my onion metaphor, listening is the process of peeling back layers. Seeing the external is the easy part of understanding. Listening is work. Seeing often attracts our attention while the discipline of listening holds it. 

Finally, just like with an onion, sometimes peeling back the layers of truth can make us cry. Discernment is hard. The complexities and nuances that are revealed through our deepened understanding can produce tears of joy as well as heartbreak. Cherish these moments, particularly the heartbreak, for it is in these moments that we need to pay particular attention. By holding these moments close and contemplating the essence of our joys and our sorrows, we find purpose and peace. This, in turn, encourages us to peel back one more layer… 

* The above onion image was created using the natural language processing tool Dall-E 2 from the written prompts I provided.


CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President

vol 5 issue 7


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