To tell the truth

Do any of you remember the old TV game show, “To Tell the Truth,” where a panel had to identify the real person among the imposters? Last week’s entry was a sort of “To Tell the Truth” experience for me, where I decided to present my real situation rather than what I thought was suitable blog material.

I’m glad I did. I was very moved by your response through your comments, emails and phone calls.  I don’t have THE answer to my questions from last week, but I now have some paths to follow, and some reassurance that I have friends along the way.

The entry I had intended to write last week was also about grappling with the truth. I had been thinking what a sweet relief it would be if our elected officials re-directed their considerable energies from scoring points off each other – the political theatre that feeds the headlines — to the real debate about the issues facing our country.

That doesn’t mean there would be no political wrangling. There is, and should be, real disagreement about what facts are important, what they mean, and what action should be taken. But it would mean grappling with a reality that extends far beyond the next Question Period, or the next election. And it would mean drawing from the best in the civil service, and the best experts outside the civil service, to make the most informed decisions. In other words, it would mean trying to get at the truth of things.

The whole truth, and nothing but

“Truth” is a big concept in Christianity. Jesus said, “I AM the Truth.” He defined the Holy Spirit as the “spirit of truth.” And he opened his remarks with the phrase, “I tell you the truth” so often that the King James version, “Verily I say unto you” has become a stock phrase in Bible parodies.

Jesus’ speaks the Truth with a capital T.  I am often struggling with just the “small T” truth – how to be truthful in the way I want my elected officials to be truthful. My work involves advocating for certain causes, asking for money, persuading people, and marshalling the facts that support my case. In this work, it is very easy to sideline or dismiss any facts that might undermine the case, or simply make the text “less punchy.”

I believe in the “big Truth” that these causes often represent. And I do believe there is benefit in re-framing to show the positive side of a situation, and point the way to action.  (For example, just last week I urged a client to expunge a web page that described some of its affiliated organizations as “total failures” –- there’s no going back from a phrase like that.) But I also know that an argument that is not truthful – and does not take all the facts into account – cannot stand for long.  And besides, what would be the point?

The power of the truth

A few years ago, I was inspired by an anthology of writings by Mahatma Gandhi—so much so that I preached a long sermon on the ways Gandhi, a Hindu, had helped bring Jesus’ teaching alive for me. I talked about five big ideas – ideas that Jesus taught, and Gandhi lived: prayer, publishing truth, renouncing anger, non-co-operation with evil, and sacrifice.  But the topic that has really stuck with me is “publishing truth.”

Gandhi spent his life making speeches, writing books, and publishing several newspapers. And in all this talking and writing, Gandhi’s big idea was the power of telling the truth – truth in the most simple, basic sense of getting the facts straight. He said about his newspaper in South Africa.  “One thing we have endeavored to observe most scrupulously; namely never to depart from the strictest facts . . . We should fail in our duty if we wrote anything with a view to hurt. Facts we would always place before our readers, whether they be palatable or not, and it is by placing them constantly before the public in their nakedness that we will build an understanding between the two communities,” (meaning white South Africans and Indians).

Gandhi would even concede the nuggets of truth uttered by the most contemptible enemy. In South Africa, the Indian community was accused of every sort of evil. These opinions shaped legislation and policy. Gandhi knew, and said, that these accusations were rooted in the wildest sort of prejudice and self-interest. But he also sifted through them and wrote, “Yes, here the accusation is true. We Indians must do better in this matter.”

I have found Gandhi’s perspective both inspiring and practical. I’m not sure I always meet his standards of truth-telling, but I believe they are the right standards.

Friends, I would like to hear of your own “experiments with the truth” – both big and little T.



Filed under Joy's entries

2 responses to “To tell the truth

  1. Dan Cooperstock

    Thank you, Joy. The Truth is a very important concept to me as well, and I have had some similar struggles.

    Way back when, when I was on the executive of the teaching assistants’ union at the University of Toronto, at one point I stayed out of the collective bargaining process because I saw it as fundamentally untruthful. You go in saying, “we need to have this, this and this” when you already know you are willing to settle for much less.

    Similarly, one thing Quakers are known for way back in the 17th century, I think, is introducing fix-rate pricing in stores, so you could send your children to buy something and not worry about them getting fleeced because they couldn’t bargain well. When I was in Jamaica recently, bargaining was required for some things (again, in order not to get fleeced!) but I handled that by going in with the top price I would pay, and sticking to a “take it or leave it” policy.

    As a non-Theist, I look for language for things that doesn’t always use “God” language. In Quaker Meetings for Business, we traditionally say we are “seeking God’s will”, and the best way we know to do that is to use a process that externally looks like consensus decision making. The “translation” of “seeking God’s will”, that works for me, is “seeking the Truth”. (I have no problem with the concept of there being “Truth” with a capital “T”.) Although I also like another phrase that another non-Theist Quaker offered up, “seeking the deep will of the Meeting”.

    I also find that one of the things that I can be most offended and angered by is having my truthfulness questioned.

    “Little white lies”, however, are a slightly different issue, and I find much more complicated. Probably a whole blog entry could be devoted to that topic. (Of course, whole books have been written on these topics too.)

  2. Elizabeth Sherk

    “I had been thinking what a sweet relief it would be if our elected officials re-directed their considerable energies from scoring points off each other – the political theatre that feeds the headlines — to the real debate about the issues facing our country.”

    There is an issue I am responding to with my pocketboook this morning, The Appeal from Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians for money to take the federal government to court to contest “Schedule 2 of the Mining Effluent Regulations of the Fisheries Act” which permits companies like Brazillian Vale Inco and Vancouver based Taseko Mines to dump 400,000 tonnes of toxic waste a year for the next 15 years into a pristine freshwater lake in Newfoundland, Sandy Pond in Long Harbour NL, or to drain Teztan Biny, a lake sacred to the Tsilhquot’in & home to 85,000 rainbow trout, not to speak of grizzly bear, deer & wild horses, & part of the spawning system for the largest runs of sockeye salmon in the world & an important source of food security for the Tsilhqot’in who live on less that $10,000/year, so that the Prosperity Gold-Copper Project can stockpile its rock waste & dump its highly toxic tailings. The mining industries in North America had a 2007 net profit of $80,000,000,000, more than enough money to affordably use existing technologies to manage mine waste in a sustainable way.

    I do feel uncertain about the truthfulness of all that I have quoted to you from “the Appeal Letter,” but I also feel constrained to do something. In church on Sunday the sermon was about the utility of the practice of tithing (based on 2Cor. 8 & 9: “excelling in the grace of giving” & “not giving reluctantly or under compulsion but cheerfully”) to support righteousness for the poor, for the earth, for the Gospel work of Christian missionaries. I checked my April Bank Statement & my Visa Bill & realized I have about $128.00 undistributed if I am to abide my my own conviction that tithing is a healthy life principle. So $120.00 is going to The Council of Canadians.

    I offer this as a personal experience I have gone through today with an issue of integrity around a real issue facing our country.

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