Here we are again – in the run up to the General Election. Manifestos are out, politicians are quizzed: it’s a good opportunity to think about truth in the public forum. No doubt there are few direct lies, if only because a discovered lie carries a heavy price. But, short of that, it would seem that distortions of truth are the order of the day.
My theory is that politicians do genuinely fool themselves that getting themselves into a position of power, or continuing there, is always for the common good. And it is this which justifies their economy with the truth. I have just been reading Broken Vows, which is a biography of Tony Blair in power, written by Tom Bower. This presents me with a picture of a whole government, including the civil service, which is a stranger to the truth. Fighting for position, doing down your enemies, making sure that your views are accepted no matter what. It is a cauldron of deceit. You can only serve the people by dishonesty – from the subtle to the flagrant. And I write this on a day when I have just heard that epitome of virtue, Theresa May, claim that her ‘end of life’ social care plan remains the same notwithstanding the collapse of a major element. I am thankful that when many years ago I toyed with entering politics I decided that I was unlikely ever to be able in conscience to subscribe to a complete manifesto.
But, while politics by nature tend towards the distortion of truth in the thrust for power, it may be useful to consider the standards of honesty which we impose on ourselves. I am not thinking only about direct lies, I have in mind a variety of ways in which we might deceive others. Telling a truth which we know will be misunderstood is one example. Failing to say some thing which should be said is another. Presenting selective information to get our own way, is not confined to advertisements – it is to be found in family conversation. We might go deeper down and think about lies which we take to be good manners. Have you ever told a cook how much you have enjoyed a meal when it fact you disliked it? Kindness intended, no doubt, but a lie nevertheless. I recommend an exercise in which we take a single day and note how often we diverge from the complete truth, even if we distinguish between the important and the trivial.
The fundamental principle is that we have been created, as rational social animals, to communicate with each other. And ‘communicate’ means ‘to come together’. Divergence from the truth, or omission from a truth which is owed to another, is an offence against communication. It does not bring us together, it pushes us further apart. We might see ourselves as honest persons. But in fact honesty is not a stable characteristic, it is one we have to work at continuously as we step up the long ladder which leads to God.