Telling the truth

In this era of the “Big Lie” and the rampant political and ethical righteousness pertaining thereto, there has curiously survived a debate surrounding the propriety of telling the truth. This apparently for a myriad of reasons. Initially however this resounds a peculiar observation as one would normally react almost instinctively by asserting that telling the truth is foremost imperative without equivocation.

The big lie (German: große Lüge) is a gross distortion or misrepresentation of the truth, used especially as a propaganda technique. The German expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his book Mein Kampf (1925), to describe the use of a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Hitler claimed that the technique had been used by Jews to blame Germany’s loss in World War I on German general Erich Ludendorff, who was a prominent nationalist political leader in the Weimar Republic.

According to historian Jeffrey Herf, the Nazis used the idea of the original big lie to turn sentiment against Jews and justify the Holocaust. Herf maintains that Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi Party actually used the big lie technique that they described – and that they used it to turn long-standing antisemitism in Europe into mass murder. Herf further argues that the Nazis’ big lie was their depiction of Germany as an innocent, besieged land striking back at “international Jewry”, which the Nazis blamed for starting World War I. Nazi propaganda repeatedly claimed that Jews held power behind the scenes in Britain, Russia, and the United States. It further spread claims that the Jews had begun a war of extermination against Germany, and used these to assert that Germany had a right to annihilate the Jews in self-defense.

A friend of my parents named Don McAuley told me when I was 10 years old while standing in the kitchen during a cocktail party at our home at 4412 Edmunds St NW in Washington DC, “Honesty is the best policy as long as you’re not in trouble.” Even as a stripling I caught the sarcasm. The quip has stuck with me over the past ¾ century. Indeed Don was notoriously funny and, though he and his wife Lee had no children, they always took time to excuse themselves from the adult crowd to afford me and my sister Linda a moment of diversion.  Lee was more reserved but equally candid and comically abrupt. They both instilled in me a model for the perfect childless adult; that is, composed but compassionate.

Of course the truth is not always a laughing matter. As a retired lawyer I am very familiar with the importance of the truth almost to the extent of mathematical exactitude. At times the mandate extends beyond oneself and one’s clients to the legislative assembly and the bench.  In short no one is spared the overwhelming obligation of telling the truth. Inevitably too the mandate is as gripping to others at any level as it is to oneself at the more proximate personal level. And the consequences can be similarly profound.

In an age of alternative fact the first element of any argument to address is the fact or truth itself. As dismissive as one may be about the putative absurdity of alternate fact, the truth (pardon the pun) is that because a fact is so often the precipitation of numerous details (which likewise stem from their own multiple resources) the adjudication of the truth becomes not a matter of fact but rather one of interpretation nay even at times a process involving psychiatric and charitable dimensions. Soon therefore an examination of the truth descends to a complicated discussion of evolution and collateral influences.

This however does not eliminate those instances in which a simple question of fact and circumstances arises. In such a case the decision to disclose or not the particular truth is less burdensome. Nonetheless there remains the further obstacle to telling the truth; namely, do we bother to do so at all? Again, to be blunt, many of our institutions and personal characteristics are built upon lies whether intentionally deceitful or merely sustaining and little and white.  Oddly the possible infraction of credibility affects the whole; that is, the disclosure of the most minute duplicity can contaminate the entirety. Some would argue for example that the monarchy or religion are mere myths to satisfy the needs of hoi polloi. Like it or not the common people unquestionably derive both mirth and enchantment from what are arguably otherwise meaningless distractions and anodynes. In such circumstances the clarification is about as attractive as telling a child there is no Santa Claus.

Living with a lie is seldom either improving or enduring.  As is so commonly quipped, “The truth will out!” Before becoming avaricious for the spoils of truth, I remind myself that the capital of truth, like any other resource, comes only at a cost. And like any other ground of purity, before treading upon the truth one should recall the stinging coals upon which one treads. The truth at either extreme  – exposure or darkness – is not for the pusillanimous. It is a contemplation calling for the utmost application. A critical acknowledgment to be made at the outset is the measure of profit to be gained from the truth.  Already it is apparent the world survives upon deceit and lies. To imagine that one improves the world by exposing the the truth is frankly at times doubtful at best.

I am not proposing that the truth is a hodgepodge of alternative truths or “little white lies” or favourable myths. Truth may however be an impediment to a greater objective. Perhaps we’re mistakenly asking the wrong question. If the ultimate or higher objective of our enquiry is the pursuit of an agreeable relationship between people, maybe we should be delving into the details of what prompts the differences of opinion regarding the plain truth of a matter? This is after all what we characteristically do when deciding upon whether to challenge the truth of something between friends or those we love. Being right isn’t always the answer.