Confucius, when asked about the first act of government, said: “Call things by their right names”.
There is something genuinely mysterious about this language we use, we human beings, which must be considered before embarking on the use of it and before using it to tackle the largest purveyors of language and their doings in the modern world. The problem of course is that we are already using language in order to think, reflect and talk about it.
On a purely pragmatic and utilitarian level, truth and lies exist merely at the two extreme ends of a spectrum, and we might merely give them plus and minus scores, or, since we live in a value-free age that is non-judgemental, we might look to give them some even more neutral evaluation if one existed.
For our purposes, we must look deeper and hazard an axiom if not a hypothesis: the very nature of language is for telling the truth. Again on a pragmatic level this means that the word ‘tree’ ought to be applied to trees not rocks, and the colour ‘blue’ to the colour blue not red. If language is not telling the truth, it is actually contrary to its own nature. And as language-creatures, if we are not telling the truth, we are doing some essential damage to our very selves. We would only add to George Bernard Shaw’s admirable adage, “The liar’s punishment is not in the least that he is not believed but that he cannot believe anyone else,” the corollary that the liar ceases believing himself, surely the most terrible blow a person can deliver to themselves.
And yet language contains the word ‘lie’ so it is clearly a potential of language itself, and we even distinguish between lies. When the maniacal wife-beater comes to the door looking for his weeping and battered spouse who is within pouring out her heart to your own wife, you lie and tell him she is not in the house. When the army sets out for battle, they will make sure that the enemy believes they are headed for Paris when in fact the intention is Rome. In a subtler context, when two souls are at loggerheads, you will gladly tell each of them things about the other that you hope will not fan the flames and may even quench them.
But when the lie comes into the public discourse, because the great majority of us are not in the main liars, we have few defences against it. Since we are not liars, we generally refuse to believe that others are liars, and so the liar can carry the day.
It would be easy to proceed to current events and demonise this party or that, but the troubling aspect of our times is the easy acceptance of the lie in general. To deal with that we ought really to have a better understanding of truth.
We can understand truth better by contemplating one very socially acceptable and highly honoured lie: literature and fiction in all their forms, for in essence, fiction is a lie, inasmuch as the author talks about people who do not exist and events that have not happened. In the best of hands, the author tells a story that is not factually true in order to tell a much deeper truth about the nature of man, woman and the human situation. It would be the height of naivety to assert that this is always the case even with ‘great’ artists or that it is always false in the case of popular culture.
It is certainly a factor in our reflections that Hollywood is pumping out this material and giving people a narrative for their own lives and understanding of themselves and the world that is in the main palpably false and yet which avails of every possible technique of the entire history of Western culture from the visual arts, music, literature and the theatre to hammer home this falsehood. And in the midst of it, sometimes the most sublime and insightful work can be done. But it is rare.
Fiction is a tradition almost as old as humanity and our attempts to understand ourselves. The media, in the sense of news-outlets, are comparatively recent and are intricately bound up with the history of politics and the arrival of democracy in our lives. Certainly, the French Revolution was a key staging post in the evolution of ‘journalism’ – which word derives from the French ‘jour (day)’, being the recordings of the daily doings of the great and often not-so-great. The assumption behind it is that if the people must govern the people for the sake of the people, they ought to know in detail what those in power are doing, sometimes including their private lives and sexual peccadillos, in order to make informed decisions such as voting for this or that candidate once every four years, and possibly in the interim – as is often the case with the French – taking to the streets in order to effect the downfall of politicians and regimes who have fallen out of their favour.
The fly in the ointment is the change in the nature of power and wealth since journalism’s origins in the Revolution. Where once journalism bravely told the truth to power and wealth, today new wealth in the form of banking and finance has stealthily dethroned the old interests but, horror of horrors, also stands behind the brave truth-tellers of journalism bankrolling their by-now very capital-intensive industry. Thus the banker stands discreetly behind the throne and perhaps less discreetly behind the court jester who used to be able to tell the king: “If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time.” And in hindsight we would have to re-evaluate the Revolution and ought not to be too surprised if we find the banker standing ever so discreetly behind the journals just as we find him there somewhat obsequiously at court.
Thus, in our current hoo-ha, we do not even know where to begin in examining the lies. We are rather like the little boy when he removes a rock and watches with appalled fascination as creepy, slimy, slithery things unaccustomed to the light of day scurry away to their hiding places. But how did we get to the point that something that can be justified in war has now become the quotidian reality of our public representatives, our media and our intellectual class? Are we now in a permanent war, that clearly long predates the ‘war on terror’, being lied to by whom we do not clearly understand for reasons perhaps for now beyond our comprehension? Who exactly is at war with us and must lie to us?
Our real problem is our definition of lies and truth, for if we merely proceed negatively and we define the truth as what is left over after the lies, then we have no basis to proceed whatsoever for we have no clear idea of what the truth is and would hardly recognise it if we met it. If, as we began, we admit that language is mysterious, then truth is not a mere statement of ‘facts’ because even the most mundane of facts come heavily laden with our preconceptions and prejudices, as we recognise from Mark Twain’s typically wry, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Since truth is subtle and requires careful thought and reflection, there is no room for it in a culture that is running as fast as it can to keep its head above water in a world that is run on rapidly escalating debt and running faster than ever just to sell its products and advertising. And when that is the case, the lie is king.