A culture of lies: commitment to truth

30 Apr

This post is about truth, in the context of a culture of lies.

This last week has seen the most stunning revelation —if that is the right word—of deception in our public life.
It goes on and on. In Australia, there is a deep and wide conviction that our government has not told us the truth. People hesitate to say they have lied to us. I can’t comprehend why there is this hesitation. The whole Iraq situation is just one part of the fabric of deception.

The ‘children overboard’ incident also is just one. They lie to us
about asylum seekers, calling them ‘illegals’ when in law it is
perfectly legal for people to seek asylum. They lied to us about the
reasons for going to war. They lied to us about the children in a
sinking boat. This last month, government ministers have been called to
give evidence at an enquiry which they set up, and which is
intentionally structured so that it will not question their competence
or responsibility, all the while saying they did not know, they cannot
remember, yet more than $300 million dollars were paid by a government
owned company to Saddam Hussein, as kickbacks, at the very time we were
preparing to send our troops to fight him. And for that matter, at that
time John Howard clearly was not telling us the truth when he pretended
he had not yet decided to send the troops, when they were already on
their way.
Now, a young soldier has died there, and the press is full of
conflicting stories about how he died, but the military and the
government keep feeding us the same line: you should stop commenting,
we don’t know yet, trust us, we are looking into it. A grieving family has said it all: From the beginning, they have lied to us. Why won’t they tell us the truth? Don’t they think we can take it? It’s not as if it is going to change anything now (that is, our son is still dead).

How can we take it any longer?  This is a culture of lies.
Clearly the government has established a system in which government ministers insist on not being told unwelcome truth, so that they can keep on feeding the public untruths, but always claim that they did not know the reality at the time.
Most people seem to know this: the stunning thing is the degree to which  it is just accepted. Oh well, yes, they are politicians. Hugh McKay, social psychologist, says that this is one of the current government’s big ‘achievements’: they have succeeded in convincing the nation that it is necessary for ministers to lie, sometimes, to do their jobs.
Our culture has come to accept lies and lying as somehow good for us!

It is not just the old adage that truth is the first casualty of war. Now truth is a casualty of government, of public life.

I find myself driven to these reflections.
First, the current intellectual environment has contributed much to this. Critical theory, for more than 150 years now, has undermined all ‘authority’ claims to such a degree that people (in what is in fact a step of intellectual laziness) infer that you can’t trust or believe anyone. There is no truth, is the inference drawn.
The fact that we should be skeptical of all authority claims, all claims to feed us the truth, does not mean logically that there is no truth. It means we need to work harder, to decide for ourselves what we believe at the time.
But it also encourages a culture of general skepticism. In many ways this is an achievement. It has broken down, for example, the class system which invested assumed power and authority in inherited wealth.
And it has also created a climate in which those who control the media now can do what they like, because no else is believed any more than they are. Government no longer needs to be  by people of integrity; they just have to  ‘manage the economy’, or at least make us think they are doing that, as measured by the latest round of tax cuts. This is ultimate cynicism, all round.

For myself, I am driven back to a fundamental biblical idea. It’s in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. ‘You shall not bear false witness’. Don’t lie. That’s what it means.
Always, so far as you know and are conscientiously able, speak the truth.
The Ten Commandments appear as ten prohibitions. People experience them as negative statements, but in fact this is a document of promise. It begins with a declaration that God is a God of freedom, the champion of the people’s freedom: I brought you out of slavery. The commands are in fact indications of promise: if you follow this way, your freedom, and the life you have been given, will be preserved.
‘Don’t lie’ is about how to preserve a free and open society: and this means we have to struggle always for truthfulness, in public and local relationships.
A culture of lies must be resisted and overcome by people who are willing to speak and be the truth.
Jan Hus, one of the leaders of the Reformation in Czechoslovakia, once said: ‘Faithful Christians seek the truth, listen to the truth, speak the truth, cleave to the truth, defend the truth to the death’.  There is a valuable progression in that statement. Hus saw it as the way of following Christ, and it cost him his life. Seeking and listening to the truth must come before speaking the truth. All too easily we are happy to hear and pass on what is not true, or not the whole truth.
Seeking the truth requires effort and may require us to hold back before we speak. Living for the truth and defending it may be costly, but in the teaching of Jesus the truth will make us free. In a sustained speech about truth, in John 8. 31 – 47, Jesus contrasts the life-giving way of the truth with the destructive way of lies.
Right now, the people of our nation (and so too people in other nations, whose governments are consistently deceiving them too) must decide whether we really want to continue with this culture of lies, and will once again be bought off with  material comforts and a few more dollars. Or will we become people of the truth, in a community of truthfulness, freedom – and maybe even a little justice.

2 thoughts on “A culture of lies: commitment to truth

  1. Frank – I wonder if you can tell me what it means for us to become ‘people of the truth’? I share your concerns about this stuff, and am interested in what you think we could – or should – do about it.

  2. Simon, thanks for this question. I think you are right: so many of us feel a paralysis about this situation. What can we do?
    To be people of the truth, I think first of all we actually have to speak and act as if there is such a thing as truth. This is where the postmodern environment can undermine us. We can so easily succumb to a general skepticism, which invades every part of our lives. There are many grey areas, but there are also times when we have to take a stand and say: this much is true. And that includes often resisting the lies.
    Second, to be people of the truth we have to expect integrity of ourselves and of each other, at least of those with whom we have working and personal relationships, and we have to demand it of those in positions of trust. ‘Whatever it takes’ is not good enough, for administrators, politicians, and so forth.We therefore should always work for transparency. Paradoxically, perhaps, I think we need to trust those in positions of leadership, but we also need to demand that they deserve our trust, not just assume it.
    Third, I think that to be people of the truth we need more and more to be able to admit mistakes or wrong judgments. People of the truth know that they are fallible. I think in general people trust a person who is able to admit that sometimes they get it wrong.
    Fourth, I think that to be people of the truth means perpetual intellectual effort: to overcome the easy answers and the lazy prejudices. There are two aspects of this I find challenging. One is: we all need to acknowledge that alone, as individuals, we can’t know it all; but together, as a communal effort, we can get much closer to it, we can get a fuller picture. So this commitment to truth has to be communal. But, this can be seductive and indeed oppressive, if the communal effort means a dominant group holds all the sway. For that reason, to be people of the truth we need also to include the dissident voices, the minority opinions. John Stuart Mill said that the government ought always to protect the rights of freedom of speech of the one percent opinion, in order to protect the ninety-nine percent opinion from becoming mere prejudice. People of the truth need the contrary voices, the heretics, the others, to help us become more truthful.
    Finally, I think being people of the truth is a stance, an attitude, of humility, rather than possession. This is about truthfulness, rather than possession of knowledge as power.
    What do you reckon? I’m sure this is not all there is to it!

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