TRUTH MATTERS

Truth, Oscar Wilde says, is rarely pure and never simple. In fact, he says, a number of interesting things about Truth, indicating even more of its complexity. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. But give him a mask and he will tell you the truth”. And, “a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it’’. The tone is descriptive and sceptical with what could be seen as lacking a moral message. Truth, on these few comments, has no value in itself. Truth telling is a mere artifice.
          And for William James, brother of Henry, Truth is “what works”. For Charles Sanders Peirce, another pragmatist, Truth is attained when the application of scientific method has eliminated beliefs of no practical worth and settled on those that prove their utility. And there are numerous other stances which we will touch on.
          The search for Truth has been a long-standing and widely shared pursuit for mankind, but now according to Fillipe Fernandez Armesto, many of us seem to have abandoned this search. Such indifference, he believes, seems like dangerous novelty. Common sense, he says, is caught in the crossfire of a culture war between religious extremists who think they know the Truth and secular nihilists who think it can never be known.
          Armesto tells us that we live in a world in which images flicker with the speed of animation and confusion is treated as good. And something which we all know from social media usage, “when people stop believing in something, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” The Buddhists say that society breaks down if we do not have faith that what is being communicated is true. Armesto echoes this: “There is no social order without trust, and no trust without Truth, or at least without truth-finding procedures.”
          Veritas Splendor, the much lauded encyclical of John Paul II, stresses humanity’s desire for Truth. “In the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it.’’
          And for Keats of course, “Beauty is Truth/Truth Beauty/That is all you know/And that is all you need to know.” He certainly places a high value on Truth. And a genuine philosopher, we perhaps agree, should seek the Truth without compromise, for its own sake. As Keats puts it: “Do not all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy.”
          So how does Truth fare today, for example in the political and commercial world. Are we aware of the obfuscation, concealment, evasions and chicanery that go into much of today’s information giving? Perhaps more relevant do we know the extent to which we deceive ourselves. Kate Dineen who teaches philosophy in UCC, says “we often lie, to others and ourselves, painting our self-serving actions as motivated by duty and virtue. For example, she says, we use the word “flexible” to refer to workers in the gig economy who are on short-term unstable contracts with few rights.
          You may remember this apt quote from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:” Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And, having no respect, he ceases to love.”
          The idea of love when supported, or challenged, by Truth is perhaps open to further, sensitive discussion. But in the meantime, we can glance at how politicians and other authorities have manipulated information giving and, for example, have condemned as “unpatriotic” journalists who sought to do their job.
          A look at some foreign experience is instructive. During the Falklands war a seminal moment was the vilification suffered by Peter Snow, a British TV journalist.
          Snow, in presenting the latest on the 1982 conflict, said that “until the British are demonstrated to be either deceiving us or concealing losses, we can only tend to give credence to the British version of events”. He was accused of utterances verging on treason.
          After the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, President Kennedy, said: “Every newspaper now asks itself with respect to every story ‘Is it news’? All I suggest is you ask the question ‘Is it in the interest of national security’”.
          Kennedy manipulated the Press by letting senior journalists advise on his speeches, leaking news, planting rumours and playing off one reporter against another, according to David Greenberg, in The Republic of Spin.
          Joe McCarthy the Communist witchhunter, knew that President Truman gave his press conferences in the morning, that the Press would then be seeking reaction and even if McCarthy said the most atrocious things, they would be reported on the wires with no chance of checking or a rebuttal later in the day.
          In extremis, in war, the first casualty, as Philip Knightly says, is Truth. History bears this out. What has been called the “first draft of history”, journalism, has been bamboozled, censored, and obstructed in its efforts to truthfully report international conflicts and massacres, way beyond a nation’s security needs. Major US newspapers downplayed news of the Holocaust; the London Times would not publish a dispatch from William Howard Russell, an Irishman, from the Crimean War, and the obstacles to truth-telling in the Vietnam and Falklands wars have been well documented.
          Truth can be ill-served too by under resourced and culture-blind media, as depicted in Edward Behr’s famous book “Anyone here been Raped and speaks English”. He sets the scene as the Congo is assuming independence. Belgian civilians are waiting for aircraft to flee back to Europe. In marches a language deficient British journalist, seeking a story but one in which his assumptions are already framed. Media, as we know too, can have its dark side.
          Equally insidious, and not just during war, has been the use of Unspeak, or speech that seeks to persuade by stealth, so much so that we might not notice it. Words and phrases can smuggle in a political or social opinion, what Steven Poole calls precision engineered packages of language. They are not neutral words, yet sometimes we use them, unthinkingly. They are words, too, that can seek to erase any other opinion.
          He mentions a number. Climate Change rather than Global Warming (at the behest of the US); Pro-Life (with the implication that non-adherents are anti-life; Friends of the Earth (if you disagree with any of its policies you are anti-earth); Natural Resources (the environment is there to be used) and US tax relief (instead of tax reduction to aid the rich). And then, of course, we have all the politically loaded titles, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Coalition of the Willing which gave the idea that the coalition (mainly the US and UK) was a far-reaching alliance with only a few sulky nations, such as France and Germany, opposed.
          All of this recalls, as Poole says, the vocabulary of Orwell’s 1984 where Newspeak erased words and made others, for example, joy camp instead of enforced labour camp. Orwell, 74 years ago, perhaps says it all:
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” An example of such “pure wind” or couched phrasing, is evident, I believe, in a comment by Priti Patel, the UK Home Secretary. She said she was sorry “if” people “felt” that there was insufficient personal protection equipment to deal with Covid19. A case perhaps of truth comes dropping slow, or inept public relations advice.
          Indeed, it is worthwhile to constantly assess the activities of the PR industry. In Britain, and possibly here, it is estimated that up to 80 per cent of all media output has been fuelled directly or indirectly by public relations. So, we should query perhaps whether the percentage is similar here, whether this is harmful and what effect this would have on the dissemination of truthful information rather than on the promotion of particular corporate or governmental interests.
          If a “grassroots” group is set up to demand access to a particular health product, is it genuine? Do PR practitioners trade media stories, say in politics, to keep out material unfavourable to their clients. To what extent can the “best science PR can buy” extol the virtues of a drug?. A flick through Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy (Eds William Dinan and David Miller) will convince anyone of the need to be wary of PR excess.
          Eli Parser, in The Filter Bubble, asks us to explore “what the Internet is hiding from you”. Imagine a world, he says, in which all the news you see is defined by your salary, where you live, and who your friends are. “Google and Facebook are already feeding you what they think you want to see. Advertisers are following your every click. Your computer monitor is becoming a one-way mirror, reflecting your interests and your prejudices.”
          So, if we should be anxious about Truth in the trading/political world, Unitarians should perhaps go beyond that in regard to the nature of our being, God or no - God, and how our perhaps limited knowledge of Truth and the world we live in is shaped through reason, our senses, revelation, and of course culture.
          The great thinkers have of course tangled with these concepts. For a Buddhist the ultimate Truth is that there is no ultimate Truth. For others Truth, or religious belief, is something more than intellectual assent to a proposition, but it cannot be separated from intellectual Truth.
          There is a plurality of forms of Truth and sometimes theologians evade the question of Truth doctrines and commend them because they unify the believing community and not because they are claimed to be true.
          However, in the search to deal with many issues, Truth among them, Ralph Helverson to me has the perfect stance. In his Living in the Questions, he says there is no more brutalised word than the word Truth. History, he writes, is filled with truths that once claimed people’s allegiances but are now held to be absurdities.
          Truth, he says, is very hard to achieve and we should be cautious about saying we have it. The scholars may agree that something is true, but it is not therefore above criticism.
          Conviction may lead one away from Truth rather than towards it. When a kind of ‘true believer’ attitude takes over the less likely are we to arrive at what we may call Truth.
          “The abiding thing we know is that what we hold as Truth will change with time.”
          So, what should Unitarians do? We should perhaps interrogate what purports to be the Truth; we should cast a cold eye on all Truth claims that go to the heart of our spiritual, health, social personal and financial interests.
          And we should remember that Truth, or at least the journey towards Truth, should be at the core of any decent society.
          Even if, as Halverson says, Truth changes over time, let us pray that however distressing this period is, or becomes, we will be steadfast in our determination to be guardians of Truth as far as we understand it, and be firm in our expectation that the authorities will tell us the Truth in so far as they know it.


Paul Murray
Dublin Unitarian Church




cover