Telling the Truth in Public

Was telling the truth always a unique experience for us, or has it gotten even more unique in 2008?

Let’s not make this too complicated. The truth can be seen as really tricky sometimes, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about telling what really happened, or what you really think about something, which may not be the most popular point to bring to light. To do this, means you have to use your own head (also a rare occurrence it seems) and that you’ve done some thinking and back-end checking for yourself (another sad but true rare occurrence) and you’ve got to be willing to be ridiculed. This part is what probably makes the whole thing the most difficult for us.

Telling the truth creates difficulty, it seems for everyone in our society. It may not get quick results. And the fact that we are afraid to find out what we don’t know might be killing us.

In my own experience, telling the truth in almost any situation I’ve been in, means I become marginalized. It is rarely welcomed, though often many people around me will give me a sign of silent agreement after I’ve done “it”. Sometimes one or two of those same people will come up to me after an event is over and say “Wow, I really liked what you said. It was the truth.” or “it really needed to be said”. I guess I don’t blame those same folks for not saying this publicly — one of our rules around the truth is keeping it a secret in when you’re in a group of people.

“Inconvenient” is a very nice way to describe the truth, a politician’s way of describing it, but in our world today, “dangerous” would be more accurate. That’s why it’s a secret. Say the truth to your peers, tell it like it is to a Board of Directors, in a classroom even, and at the very least, you will surprise everyone in the room. That’s the least harm you will do. You’ll wake them up like a double expresso, which can be amusing at best. But at the very worst, you might lose your job, lose your standing in the community, or just be quietly ignored, shuffled off to the side and seen as a “troublemaker”. No one will want to hear from you again. It seems to me that we deal with the truth by making it unimportant.

Speaking the truth is seen as “confrontational” not “conversational”.

In many areas of our society, if you tell the truth about something, you are being confrontational. And confronting suggests a battle of some kind. So first line of defense is to eliminate the enemy by ignoring him/her. If that doesn’t work, you can just minimize their comments and try to put a lid on future questions the subject. If that’s still ineffective, you always pull rank, and intimidate the truth-teller publicly. When all these tactics fail, then a bold faced lie is your last line of defense. Say something that sounds good but is clearly not based on anything like fact, and you have won the battle, and saved your own face. That way, no one can ever be sure what the truth is. That’s the way we put people in the highest offices of our land. Lying is as American as apple pie.

Truth is trouble, that’s for sure. But lies are trouble too, only their trouble is much more long range, and seems to affect more people in the end. A whole bunch of lies got thousands and thousands of people killed in Iraq for corporate profits and land control, but I still hear middle-class suburban Americans repeat what they heard on CNN “we had to fight them over there so we wouldn’t have to fight them over here”.

In an intelligent society, where democracy is (supposedly) worth killing people over, the truth should not be a surprise, a unique or exciting moment in a parade of “business as usual”. The truth stays shocking to us. I’m starting to think if we really want to see some change in this behavior, we need to start with our own lives. Until we can actually welcome the truth in our Board rooms, in our conferences and in our classrooms, even with ourselves, we can have no hope to get it from those TV news reports we get at night on CNN. We can’t hold our newscasters more accountable than we are willing to be in our own meeting rooms or living rooms. When truth becomes as dangerous to tell as it is today, it’s no wonder that we are all afraid of it.