It is almost always possible to tell the truth to children – and to others.
And it is necessary for the sake of our society.
The general agreement on a recemt Life Matters program that lies were inevitable to children is a change from the past, when theology not psychology would have provided the standard – however much people might have in practice fallen away from that standard.
When the children ask, tell them Santa and the Tooth Fairy are Pretends. Do you want to join in this Pretend? (Oh YES)
“There’s a bear under my bed.” “Mummy can shut that sort of bear in the cupboard.” (She leans under the bed and then shuts the cupboard door, and for as long as necessary at bedtime she shuts the ‘Imaginary Bears’ in the cupboard.) If a scent is used, it can be called a This-Can-Work,-We’ll-Try -This, without specific details or promises.
Promises. “We might be able to go to the beach tomorrow but I can’t promise.”
(Do I look nice in this? ) I like the blue dress better. (It is not fair to someone to let them think they look good in something that makes them look dreadful.)
(How are you?) All the better for seeing you, or Better than yesterday, or Battling on.
A dreadful dinner party. Choose the least worst thing to praise. “I particularly liked the – “
I believe that . . . but I may be wrong.
Dreadful questions – “Where is your father?” demand the baddies. “I don’t know where he is just now” or whatever can be told truthfully. Let’s hope we never are asked that sort of question. It’s not the sort that we usually are tempted to lie about.
If individuals have a reputation for truthfulness, we then know we can trust them. Nobody – neither me nor you – has never told a lie, but we can do our best.
A country with a reputation for dealing in truth has a great commercial advantage in the world as long as bad apples can be prevented from taking advantage of that reputation. We must keep our land incorrupt.
Victorian England and Scotland had a great advantage in an incorrupt civil service. The Quakers became wealthy because people knew they could trust them in business.
There are ‘pretends’, stories and fiction that can be shared around, as well as lies intended to deceive, not to amuse.
Suppose Truth became an ideal stronger than power or wealth or sensual pleasure. All of these goals are finally inaccessible in any ultimate form – but all of them direct our lives. What could happen with a goal for Truth?
A country with a reputation for dealing in truth would have a great commercial advantage in the world as long as bad apples could be prevented from taking advantage of that reputation. Currently the shift in business theory is to be quite open about deceit as a legitimate business manoeuvre, with best-seller adaptations of Chinese treatises on the art of war, such as Chu Chin Chang’s ‘Thick Face Black Heart’ so admired by the chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, which through a merger became the biggest banker in USA.
A great deal of time and money would be saved in politics with open government and even in diplomacy. ‘I am sorry we cannot support East Timor in this as we want the oil from the Timor Straits’. ‘We are backing X because we fear future invasion from Y.’ ‘We can’t ban landmines because we would need them if we were invaded ourselves.’ Such naivety would be so incredible that other countries would be stymied and incredulous.
No incoming government could be surprised by the financial situation it met – it would be open knowledge. No voters could be surprised by what a newly elected government would do – it would have told them. ‘We will do this, unless that happens, when we will do such and such.’ We could even have voting for major policies as well as persons on the ballot ticket – plus regular electronic voting.
Statistics would always be presented to the public with figures, not just percentages. For example, it could be made quite clear in an opinion poll on satisfaction with education that only 100 parents of primary children had been asked their opinion, so that the comment in a newspaper editorial two days later would read ‘as shown by the opinions of 68 of the 100 parents of primary children polled recently, the great majority of Victorian parents are very satisfied with primary education today’.
If a mistake was accidentally made in any reporting in the media, the correction would be given as much prominence as the mistake. When letters were published containing information that a newspaper knew was incorrect, the correct information would appear in an editorial note below.
A regular feature in all media, electronic and print would be features for viewers, listeners and readers, ‘We want to know’ – not just about pets, gardens, health, finance and kitchen renovations, but about what was going on. What special rebates are being given to which group where? Why can’t this be done? Why was this done?
Budgets and government accounts would be given mass media circulation in comprehensible detail, including spending on publicity and consultants. Calls for tenders would have open details. Government contracts, once made, would have no shield of ‘commercial confidentiality’. After all, a Victorian newspaper in the 1880s printed the whole of of the Westminster Confession of Faith during some local theological controversy.
Advertising – now that is tricky. At present advertisers are the real modern equivalent of Renaissance patrons for art – and they are the patrons of the art that the public really likes. And to a large extent, when consumers buy products advertised on television, it is really the cleverness of the advertising agency not the value of the product that has attracted them. I think my vision would be of ‘sponsored commercials’, rather like the present sponsorship of whole programmes – the advertiser produces a segment of pure entertainment, followed by a clear and accurate statement of the advantages of the advertised product. The policy of public benefactions and sponsorships would also continue to create goodwill for businesses. However, the disadvantage for small and new businesses in lacking capital for expensive advertising would be overcome by special chances for them too to advertise in print and in all the electronic and broadcast media. Truth in business and advertising would apply to prevent individuals simply changing business names to abandon responsibilities and to resurrect to despoil others yet again.
Mr Gradgrind of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times was suspicious of anything that was not a fact – and he backed teachers who would not allow that horses could be depicted on home furnishings because real horses could not prance up walls like that. Sometimes I sympathise with Gradgrind when I am fed up with too many whimsical picture-story books for preschoolers like ‘The elephant that wanted to be a geranium’ or ‘The best nest’ that get their laughs from depicting stupid and twee behaviour. Why shouldn’t reality be fascinating? Why shouldn’t a cabinet of crystals be delightful?
What would happen to schooling if truth was a priority?
In the first place, English and media courses could be radically different because they need not spend so much time and effort trying to warn the young against being duped by all the misinformation and misleading advertising they would face in the real world. They need not spend so much time teaching the young how to produce advertising copy that preached any side that was asked of them.
Historical novels such as The Hand that Signed the Papers would of course have disclaimers that fact and fiction were mixed; most would indicate the historical characters, and have a note about significant changes in interpretations and events – as many novelists already do.
History would contain many more connections and more context – it can never avoid interpretation, but readers would be given a note about interpretation. At present young students often study snippets of time without any overview, on the grounds that overviews are impossible – but they are necessary. The old memorising of dates was indefensible – but knowing about a time-line did give a setting for the present. Students need to know about how the past attempted to cope with its problems, and the results, and how it differed from the present, in order to stop repeating mistakes, and to have examples of ideals and heroes, with all their tragic flaws, and not just be fed models of the mean and mingy.
Drama is a special case – because here actors are deliberately trying to be other than themselves, in scenes that are not real events. I think that children, at least, are less likely to understand the characters if they act them than if they read about them or even watch great plays about them. This is because they cannot avoid injecting themselves and their own immaturity into what they play. After Socrates has died near the teachers’ desk or Captain Cook sailed on the playground or Antigone been shut in the cupboard or Jesus has had trouble adjusting his bath-towels, the triviality of the permanent impressions can make it unlikely that most members of the class will ever understand any of these above a childish level. Simply reading around the class divorces the present scene from the remembered language. That is what I liked about the way we ‘studied’ Hamlet and Macbeth at school, not the pundits who had written about them.
‘Honesty’ is often given the tag ‘brutal honesty’, in the same way that ‘reality’ is hard to dissociate from ‘harsh reality’. Here we face how much damage is done by people who think that if a cruel thought happens to come into their head, in order to be honest they have to say it and hurt people, often with barbs that never can be torn out. The matter is not as simple as that – the real truth is how to say what needs to be said in ways that will help not harm. If we have to say everything that comes to mind, we would all be the greatest bores, muttering all the time like so many Stephen Blooms.
If people felt bound in their inmost hearts to tell the truth, the law would be revolutionised, probably changing from the British adversarial to the Continental truth-seeking system. Pleading guilty or not guilty would solve most issues. However, I doubt if my vision can really assume a change in how easily human nature can deceive itself and in so many ways, when the personal costs can be so high. On the other hand, at present the law makes it often very difficult for the truth to come out. The only time I was called to be a witness, in a car accident case, it was possible to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but to tell the whole truth was against all the rules of procedure – and yet the magistrate could not judge the case fairly without knowledge of significant facts that were necessary and relevant for the case. I managed to tell the whole truth but it was hard in the face of the legal procedures,
Religion is an interesting case about Truth. Faith has been defined as ‘belief in what cannot be proved, the experience of things unseen’ and certainly there are more things in heaven and earth than can be proved. Prophets and their followers can be sincerely convinced of their messages. However, today there is a good deal of religion-inventing that is not based on experiences of revelation, deluded or not. People can invent goddesses simply because they don’t want to be patriarchal, not because they genuinely think a goddess exists. Druids dress up imagining horned gods in Sherwood Forest. Superstitions multiply today without any concern for scientific evidence. “Do you think it is true? What are the grounds for you thinking this up?” are simple questions that should get answers. Do Satanists really believe in the Devil and seek to propitiate it? What if they were truly faced with what they conjured up?
A fairly general opinion now is that there is no Truth, not even at the bottom of the proverbial well. Everything is mirrors, illusions, change. This perception is increased by the scams and spams on the Internet, by computer imagery and by psychedelic drugs, which at one stage people like Timothy Leary thought might make truth more accessible to consciousness. Watch a few dozen videoclips or virtual reality, and the real world may only be recognised in the prick of a pin – ‘I dislike what I fancy I feel’.
In personal affairs, the Moral Rearmament people have found that living by absolutes is pretty hard. There is the joke about the competition for liars, which so shocked a parson who claimed he had never told a lie in his life – and so he was awarded the prize. Francis Bacon’s essay on Truth (‘What is Truth?’ said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer) is worth revisiting – Bacon himself had problems in the practicalities.
Truth is a journey that may never have an end. Old-time pilgrims believed they followed a track with maps. The modern tourist usually does not even have a brochure, but it would be the holiday of a lifetime.