Here lies truth

I write this on the day when I read of Theresa May’s deputy, Damian Green, resigning, admitting to “”inaccurate and misleading” statements about pornography found on his parliamentary computer. I suppose I should not be surprised – there have been plenty of misleading statements by those in authority – whether they relate to personal moral questions or to political decisions.

My eyes were first opened when I read Tom Bower’s Broken Vows which described important episodes in Tony Blair’s period as Prime Minister. It seemed to me that honest, clear statements were out of fashion: it was not so much the lies told but the almost invariable capacity of those in charge to shape their phrasing in a way which supported their own views and ending up by deceiving their listeners. And that means us. And of course if a statement turned out to be an embarrassment, a little ingenuity would be needed to show that the statement had been misunderstood.

I am not naive – perhaps all of us have been guilty of deceits in our time – but I am scandalised by the thought that political statements appear to have abandoned any attempt to achieve the truth. All that matters is that the audience is persuaded to favour the speaker. Truth has no a value in the public forum.

Of course this is not a problem confined to the 21st century. Plato and Aristotle both wrote about rhetoric. Plato was attacking the dishonesty of rhetoric, Aristotle provided a handbook on how to make the power of rhetoric more persuasive. Ironically Plato’s attack is a delight to read while Aristotle is rather boring. The best example of effective rhetoric in literature is Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”. Since I cannot conceive of a Secondsight Blog user not having a Shakespeare at hand, look it up and remind yourself. (I daresay it’s on the Internet, too.)

I think we accept that telling the truth, or not deceiving our neighbour, is required by natural law: we are by nature social animals and so in order to flourish we must communicate truthfully or, if you prefer, we must avoid damaging our neighbour’s rights by our deceit. The measure, I think, does not lie in the exact words but whether the truth in the speaker’s mind is the truth which is conveyed to the listener.

So now, children, here is your homework. Look out for politicians and similar, whether they are presenting an attractive idea, or attempting to down an opponent, or simply excusing their own malefactions. Try and decide the likely truth behind the statement and see how it has been manipulated in order to deceive you. Then, if you are daring, do the same to your nearest and dearest. And, if you are truly heroic, do it to yourself. Happy Christmas.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Here lies truth

  1. John Thomas says:

    Surely, the political class has for some while been known as not very reliable, ‘economic with the truth’ is a phrase that was, after all, coined by a politician, was it not? But the “post-truth world” is, sadly a feature of our times/culture – see Patrick Sookhdeo’s ‘The death of western Christianity’ (2017), Ch. 5. I think it’s wonderful (!) how all kinds of human activities and organisations are “regulated” by parliamentary committees, etc. – ie. politicians. Personally, I’d rather trust the men who empty my bins …

  2. galerimo says:

    Our whole lives are a lie and that’s the truth.

    If we are honest enough to admit it then it is right to say that this condition of truthlessness has been with us as a default existential position since at least the times of Plato and Aristotle.

    In the case of our own individual lives it is laziness that is at the heart of our “underlying” position. In the case of political life it is ambition. Overcoming these enormous odds in the course of a lifetime is impossible. Which only makes us anxious and fearful. But there is nothing immoral about it; that’s just the way it is.

    Communication then becomes a problem in this “underlying” position of truthlessness. Science and Religion have not helped.

    Arthur Eddington tells of a man who studied deep-sea life using a net on a three-inch mesh. After fishing out many samples he concluded that nothing less than three inches lives at depth in the ocean. All our ways of grasping the truth – scientific and religious truth will constantly fall short in the same way.

    The tools and methods we have made (intellectually brilliant and technically perfect as they are) are all hopelessly deficient in face of the enormous mystery that is our reality. We will only ever get a slanted and partial view from our very limited perspective.

    So how can we every tell the truth about ourselves or anything else if we never fully know the truth in the first place.

    The only surprising thing in Damian Green’s action is not that he admitted to being just like all the rest of us, all of the time, inaccurate and misleading but that he resigned from public office for that reason. By the way Quentin I love the cleverly nuanced title to your blog this week.

    Nothing would ever have changed until a child was born to a single mum in a shitty stable in Bethlehem. Jesus is not the miracle worker; Jesus is the miracle.

    If faith (and a big “if”, that is) can open us to His life then truthfulness can arrive. And only if the pitfalls of contemporary social, scientific and ecclesiastical life are successfully navigated with God’s grace is there a possibility of acting out of that truthfulness.

    Thinking of you specially this Christmas Quentin and with gratitude for your great work here every week – a blessing of Joy to all your family too – as well as my fellow bloggers at Secondsight – Have a happy and peaceful time this Christmas.

  3. John Nolan says:

    I expect it of politicians, but until recently would not have expected it from a Roman Pontiff.

    Galerimo, if you really think the BVM was a ‘single mum’, I think a novena to St Joseph would not go amiss!

  4. Geordie says:

    JN, I think the Roman Pontiffs, the hierarchy and the Vatican have manipulating the laity and the clergy for centuries with half truths and lies.

    • John Nolan says:

      Geordie, can you cite any examples from the last two centuries relating to doctrinal matters?

    • JOHN CANDIDO says:

      What about the international clergy sex abuse scandal? Surely this falls under,

      ‘the hierarchy and the Vatican have manipulated (my alteration) the laity and the clergy for centuries with half-truths and lies.’ (Geordie)

  5. Geordie says:

    JN, no; that is why I am still a practising Catholic. The Holy Spirit protects doctrine. In other matters, especially where money is concerned, they are as duplicitous as any politician.

  6. Geordie says:

    My post didn’t seem register so I’ll try again.

    John Nolan, no; that is why I am still a practising Catholic. The Holy Spirit protects doctrine. As for other matters, especially where money and power are concerned, they have been as duplicitous as any politician.

  7. Hock says:

    Just today I received the latest copy of the SPUC newsletter. One of the articles concerned the move by the Home Secretary , Amber Rudd MP, in which she is reportedly calling for a ‘review into the harassment and intimidation near abortion clinics, ” the object of which is to ‘ban ‘ them. The language of the review strongly suggest what outcome is sought. According to SPUC there has never been a single conviction arising from pro-life vigils outside abortion clinics.
    So what is the truth here? Language, in this case strongly expressed as though there is no dispute as to the facts of harassment etc.
    Language of a different sort , not to limit but to put in the mind that harassment and intimidation are undisputed facts that require action!

    • John Candido says:

      Hock, harassment and intimidation have been a part of those who oppose abortion clinics, for a very long time. There were several court cases in my own city that related to this subject. As a result, any demonstrator is given a specific space to continue with their demonstration without directly or inadvertently coming into contact with any member of staff of these clinics.

      • pnyikos says:

        “harassment and intimidation” — these are strong words, and all too frequently are misused by abortion rights propagandists as code words for “talking to women about alternatives to abortion” and thus “heightening their anxiety” over the abortion for which they have come to the clinic.

        Please, John, give us specific examples, and if possible the year in which they occurred. Here in South Carolina, sidewalk counselors have avoided judgmental words like “murder” and even the biologically accurate word “killing” for more than three decades now. Most show genuine compassion for the woman, who may have been heavily pressured to have an abortion she would have preferred to avoid.

  8. Nektarios says:

    When I was in my early thirties I was invited to go into politics. I said I had a problem with it. What was that, they asked. I replied, I love the truth….. there was silence!

    Here is the nub of the problem, this world does not speak the truth,know the truth, follow the truth,
    and deal honestly with their neighbour, no, not even in families.

    If we are Christians at all, we are called each to love our neighbour, speak the truth with our neighbour and to rebuke falsehood, lying, cheating stealing and so on.

    We have built up over centuries political and religious, not to mention business edifices whose main
    resendetra seems to be to deceive, manipulate and control, and profit while improverishing millions
    of people. History bears witness to this. and it all starts with not speaking the truth one to another, and we all know surely that this comes from the father of lies, the devil himself.

    But speaking the truth: MAY I WISH ALL THE SECONDSIGHT BLOG READERS AND CONTRIBUTORS A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR.

  9. Martin says:

    Sooner of later spin becomes self-defeating. In the long run it does nobody any favours, particularly the spinner.
    Sadly, spin contributes to a culture of cynicism towards politicians. Let’s challenge those who peddle ambiguities!

  10. John Nolan says:

    Well said Martin. Now who in the Church has made peddling ambiguities his personal hallmark? Let’s start at the top …

    • John Candido says:

      John Nolan, you have this unfortunate or fortunate proclivity at times, (depending on whether or not someone has found you agreeable), to make simplistic and wild assertions in a passive-aggressive manner, that others would find relatively easy to bring you down in an embarrassing thud.

      Why start at the top when you could find examples of clergy who not only ‘has made peddling ambiguities his personal hallmark’ but have done significantly worse by lying.

      And please don’t play this game of ‘give me some names’, because I am not going to run around serving you when it should be your own bailiwick to find them yourself.

      • John Nolan says:

        Sorry, John Candido, you’re not making sense. Have you been over-indulging in the Xmas port? I do wish you a merry Xmas, but excessive merriment can lead to incoherence.

  11. Iona says:

    John C – “harassment and intimidation have been a part of those who oppose abortion clinics, for a very long time. There were several court cases in my own city that related to this subject.”
    You live in Australia, though, don’t you? And Amber Rudd was describing (or misdescribing) the situation in the UK.

    • John Candido says:

      Hock asked, ‘What is the truth here?’ Clinics have been sights of intimidation and abuse by some demonstrators outside abortion clinics. It seems to be a pattern of behaviour in a number of countries that have to be stopped. As there seems to be a commonality of sorts, I thought that I would make a comment.

      Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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