Doing the truth

3 May

Simon Moyle has pressed me to say more about what it means to be people of the truth, in the face of a culture of lies.
I guess more than anything I am thinking of a prophetic life-style, as the most powerful political action in response to a culture of lies.
John’s Gospel and the Epistles are grounded on the idea of truth as something we do and are, rather than something we apprehend intellectually.

So here are some practical suggestions. I’d value others you might have to toss in as well.

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. This means in conversations we need to challenge the idea that there is no truth, – gently of course;and always allowing that we are not the ‘possessors’ of the truth. It also means being willing to challenge the idea in the media that anything goes. I’m not talking about belligerent intolerance. Tolerance does not mean indifference. Somehow we need to express a commitment to truth-telling, and a concern that the truth is told.

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.

Leadership, in all sorts of groups and institutions, has a role here: in expressing this commitment to the truth, in inviting and evoking truth-telling, and in nurturing the ways we can learn from the different, the ‘other’, who has some of the truth we seek.

One thought on “Doing the truth

  1. Thanks, Frank. I wonder too whether there’s a place for keeping others accountable for speaking the truth – I’m particularly thinking politicians, with most of the public opting to settle for the convenient fiction instead of the painful or difficult truth. The fact that there was no outcry recently over John Howard and others referring to asylum seekers as “illegals” (a blatant lie – it is perfectly legal to seek asylum by any means necessary) was extremely disturbing to me. But substitute in there any one of hundreds of lies consistently perpetuated by this government and others, and it’s equally disturbing. I think we have not just a right, but an obligation, to keep these people accountable.

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