There is a lot of false witness going around. False witness is not just a fancy way to refer to a lie. The term comes from a judicial context, in which a person’s future is on the line. Bearing false witness can condemn an innocent person to punishment. More broadly, bearing false witness also applies to how we speak about each other in the public square. False witness can be given about groups as well as individuals.
Applying collective blame to a whole group for the actions of a few is a form of false witness. We know from research that false information, which often gets strong emotional reactions from both those who believe it and those that don’t, spreads seven times faster than factual information. It is easier to create hate and fear than it is to create trust and respect. The result of false witness, collective blame and the fear, hate and indifference they create is an increase of violence. We have seen a terrible rise in violence toward Asian Americans as former political leaders dubbed COVID-19 as the “China Virus.”
All major wisdom traditions teach us not to bear false witness. Buddhism invites those who follow that path to take this vow:
I undertake the precept to refrain from faulty speech.
How do we act when there is so much false witness around?
The way to counter false witness is to bear truthful, positive witness. In other words, tell positive stories about the contributions of other communities of wisdom and of minority groups. These positive stories begin to counter the single story of false witness and collective blame. These positive stories become a gift that people carry away with them. These stories help them see that people from all traditions and cultures and backgrounds share common values and are working for our common good.
When you come across someone captivated by fear created by false witness, don’t argue with them. Listen for a bit, and then share a positive story about the group they are fearful of.
Bear truthful, positive witness.
Then be patient.
Don’t try to change their mind, but just keep telling positive stories. Most of us do not want to walk around in fear. When given the chance to see how much we have in common, to see the strength of different points of view working on our common problems many people will gladly remove fear from their hearts.