Sparring with Truth?

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Truth-telling is an activity highly regarded in human interchange. It bonds people together when they can trust that everyone in possession of the truth is conscientious in conveying it to others. Parents try to inculcate a respect for it in their children. It is not always easy to tell the truth even though the truth is a highly-regarded value, for sometimes such value, while working to the advantage of some, also causes some disadvantage to others. So hiding or covering the truth is a temptation for one who may fear him or herself being harmed by the truth.

So attempts have always been made to shade or diminish the truth, but in a way that, should they be discovered, they don’t necessarily fall into the category of a bald or outright lie. These are defense mechanisms against the severely damaging charge that one is a liar. There are few accusations that are more damaging to our reputation than the charge that one is a liar. It besmirches nearly every transaction in which one engages.   But truthfulness is a universal value that plays out in every activity in which one commits oneself. Haven’t we heard that “…the truth will set you free?” (Jer. 8.32) And to be less than free in living one’s life makes life miserable because one must take precautions to remember one’s deviations from the truth.

th-7The issue of such approximations to the truth may describe many of our transactions in which “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is expected from us by those dealing with us.   In courts of law, where the truth of the matter is central to the case, the truthfulness of remarks is of such significance that an extra step is taken to guarantee that the truth is being told. So litigants are asked to take an oath by placing their hand on the bible and stating they are telling the truth, “so help me God.” This increases the seriousness of an obligation to tell the truth.

Amid this concern lies the temptation, if not to lie, but to reshape the truth for our own benefit. It can be traced to our fear of suffering injury if the full disclosure of truth is required in my testimony. Or it may owe to our disagreement with the wording used in the legal formulas placed before me, which I regard as wrong and misinformed. Or it may elicit an answer from me that is cleverly concocted. So, to protect my interests I may shade or modify the full intent of the statement placed before me.

Sometimes an exaggeration on my part may be used to shave the full impact of the statement to which I am being asked to accept as true and accurate. An exaggeration is often not a complete reversal of the truth of something, but it may be a modification of the truth to the point where others may be led to wonder whether it’s the full truth. Or it is possible at times to shade the truth without completely denying it, as in admitting you threw peanuts in the river, without clarifying that Peanuts is the name of someone (whom, one knows, can’t swim), or in the case of a hearing- impaired parent questioning a young person told to return home by 10:00 pm, what time of the night it is, upon hearing his or her return, who responds that it is plenty after 10:00, hoping it would be understood as twenty after 10:00. Or the case of the NBC newscaster, Brian Williams, who guilded his account of participating in a military operation in Iraq without clarifying that this was not an immediate involvement, but somewhat remote. All of these examples, while true, to an extent, need various degrees of clarification to satisfy the requirement of telling the truth. There was an element of exaggeration in each of them likely leading listeners to think they were hearing the truth while, as a matter of fact, they were hearing distorted versions of the truth.

So the question becomes: were each of these a substantial violation of the truth? If truth-telling is an important way of bonding with and trusting others, do these examples undercut and injure ways of relating to others? Is it a violation of the truth to boast about one’s background or education or experiences or connections? If others know I tend to magnify my accomplishments, and make provision for that in dealing with me, so that deception is usually not the outcome of an arrangement we make with one another, is that nonetheless the equivalent of a lie? If I am placed under oath to tell the truth in a court of law, and am cleverly maneuvered by manipulating officials, am I lying to evade their misleading techniques by telling part of the truth but not all of the truth?

Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth: is this a hard and fast rule of life and conduct in all life’s situations, or is it appropriate to shape responses to situations that are appropriate to that situation, leaving to the experience and skill of others the task of appropriating the truth they seek from the remarks I provide? During His trial and interrogation before Pilate, Jesus is asked: “Are you the king of the Jews?” To this Jesus responded: “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” (Jn. 18.33-34) And a bit later Pilate repeats: “Then you are a king?”, to which Jesus responded: “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (Jn 37-38). Is Jesus here sparring with Pilate about the truth? Are there occasions for us to do so?

Caveat Auditor (Hearer Beware)

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

To Abraham Lincoln is attributed the observation that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. This is the astute observation of a seasoned politician, who has learned this hard truth in his professional career.

This is what lifts the message of Jesus, and of the bible in general, out of the genre of folklore and even the reliability of verifiable experience onto another level of communication. Lincoln’s remark is a commentary on the vagaries of language. It is not always trustworthy, and the listener or reader must be careful (caveat auditor). On the other hand, it is a backhanded tribute to our way of communicating with one another. Eventually our linguistic communication will work out, likely after several setbacks. Our poor language can take a beating but somehow it survives so as to serve us adequately. It gets the job done.

So even though we can and do fool others, misleading people and feeding them false information, the “truth will out”, one way or the other, sooner or later. Some of us are misled all the time by those we uncritically trust, and we pay the penalty for this foolishness. We may have our favorites among the news media moguls, taking everything we hear from them without any misgivings. This loyalty may be more like bull-headedness than confidence about the truth. Most of us will be duped periodically, but thankfully only for a time, until we catch on, correct ourselves and move closer to the truth of things. At this point we resent our prior unconditional trust of the word of another, if it proves to be misplaced.

Eventually we come to learn that a less certain communicator, or one who carefully qualifies much of what he or she says, is, in the long run, the person we learn to trust, for imparting the most truth over the long haul. Above all, that person wins our esteem who admits that he or she misinformed us, and now attempts to set the record straight.

In this regard, the telling of jokes is a tricky use of language. A version of this is the use of fantastic language in a dramatic way, capable of convincing others, as in the 1938 CBS radio episode in which Orson Welles, acting the part of a legitimate newscaster, abruptly interrupted a broadcast to announce to a petrified public that earth was being invaded by Martians from outer space. This illustrated how to fool some of the people some of the time. For severe trauma was inflicted on some listeners from that unexpected interjection of a terrifying piece of news into a broadcast.

Especially with young children, care must be taken in the use of language, especially jokes. Children tend to trust adults, especially strangers whom they don’t know, and they can be seriously traumatized by misplacing their trust in a thoughtless communication to them. A person who is always joking or “pulling pranks” has difficulty gaining credibility when it is needed, an example of which is the often cited warning about exclaiming FIRE, FIRE too frequently in crowded places like a theater, so that, when the remark is to the point, it is tragically not taken seriously. This is one of those times when all of the people (in the theater) must not be fooled.

Distorted remarks in widely circulating publications like ROLLING STONES, with its recent account of rape on a university campus, based on a purported instance provided by one person, while eventually discredited, at least in part, nonetheless caused unwarranted injury to those concerned, as well as to the publication itself: an instance of some of the people being fooled some of the time.

In this season of the year it is consoling to recall the teaching of faith, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Human language was assumed by the Word of God and rose to the level of God-language. Thereby it has been enriched as a mother-lode of impeccable worth. In these matters of faith, we are assured not only that not all believers are not fooled all of the time, but, even more, that all believers are never fooled any of the time. A believer can hear and speak the language of faith in a trusting manner, and need not rest content with knowing that it is impossible to fool all the people all of the time. Consoling as that may be, it is not as comforting as to know that a believer can never be fooled any of the time, when it is a matter of a truth of faith.