On Telling the Truth

Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.

Penelope Fitzgerald – Human Voices

It is difficult to think of a contemporary institution one might trust to tell the truth above all. Reading Fitzgerald’s description of the wartime BBC in Human Voices I can’t help but internally roll my eyes a little. I am a creature of my own time, skeptical and critical, and one need not be a full-fledged cynic to harbor serious doubts about the truthfulness of most public discourse. Fitzgerald clearly loves her fictional BBC, “a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn’t too sure where next week’s money was coming from” and makes a case for its integrity. But, she is no sentimentalist, and her BBC’s commitment to the truth isn’t some simpleminded idealism. One of the more dramatic scenes in the novel involves the DPP (Director of Programme Planning) surreptitiously “pulling the plugs” on a live broadcast of an escaped French general who delivers a message of despair and encourages the British public to surrender in the face of the oncoming Nazis. The result is ten minutes of silence on the airwaves. Clearly, telling the truth is no simple matter.

Among the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final writings from prison was an unfinished essay fragment on “What does it mean to tell the truth?” (it’s included in volume 16 of the English edition of his works, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945). Bonhoeffer was undergoing regular interrogations by the Gestapo at the time and so his concern with what it meant to tell the truth was an immediate, existential one. In a letter from prison he sums up the fragment: “telling the truth … means, to my mind, to say how something is in reality, i.e., respect for secrecy, for trust, for concealment.” Again, this isn’t truth-telling as a naive or quasi-robotic categorical imperative, but a consideration of what the truth looks like in a “life that is fully alive” – one that takes the “given world” into consideration.

For Bonhoeffer, the given world is one created by God. But, this divine foundation does not provide an escape hatch onto some higher, less ambiguous plane for the person seeking to tell the truth: “The truthfulness of our words that we owe to God must take on concrete form in the world. Our word should be truthful not in principle but concretely. A truthfulness that is not concrete is not truthful at all before God.” To tell the truth requires an assessment of the relationships one is engaged in, the position one holds, and the responsibilities one has: “the more diverse the life circumstances of people are, the more responsibility they have and the more difficult it is ‘to tell the truth.'” In Bonhoeffer’s view, a failure to pay attention to one’s context or position results in cynicism and ultimately in falsehood.

Bonhoeffer recognizes that his description of truth as something “lively as life itself” risks devolving into a sort of relativism where truth becomes twisted by the pressures of circumstances. But, Bonhoeffer says, this is the world we live in, one of real responsibilities and relationships, one marked by ambiguities and the necessity of careful discernment. It is still, however, a world created by God, and so “attentive discernment of the relevant contents and limits that the real itself specifies for one’s utterance” will ensure that one is aiming at the truth. Paying attention to the world (including, in Bonhoeffer’s view, to its character as creation) will provide a foundation for speaking truthfully.

The contemporary reader may feel the tension increasing with each step in Bonhoeffer’s (never completed) essay. He suggests that “every word lives and has its home within a certain radius. The word spoken in the family is different from the word spoken at the office or in public.” For Bonhoeffer, it is the created context, the fact that God has called us to different roles and relationships, and our own character as creatures, which creates the conditions for truthful speech. But, how does this work in the (virtually) limitless world of Twitter and Facebook? Bonhoeffer recognized that boundaries and limits were being broken down in his own time by “the increasing profligacy of public discourse in newspapers and radio … when the limits of different worlds blur together, when words become rootless, homeless, then what is said loses hold of the truth; indeed at that point lying almost inevitably emerges.” The loss of clear boundaries and limits has only accelerated in our time. In a world awash in words, words spoken from nowhere, words written by robots, words addressed to no one (think of that annoying online tic: “I don’t know who needs to hear this but …” ) are we left unable to tell the truth?

Part of the reason Penelope Fitzgerald’s BBC can tell the truth (at least potentially) is its character as an institution. It has a clearly stated area of responsibility, and a particular relationship with the British public that defines its limits and duties. This clearly defined identity is reflected in the internal structure which Fitzgerald (who worked at the real BBC during the war) emphasizes by often referring to people by their acronyms (DPP, RPD, RPA, ADDG) and using institutional slang (long time employees are “Old Servants,” a newscaster is “the Halibut”). As Hermione Lee points out in her (fantastic) biography of Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald loved to describe these sorts of communities and institutions defined by specific language, routines, and systems (the British Museum, a Cambridge college, a printing press etc.). Her claim for the integrity of the BBC is grounded in its identity as a particular kind of institution. To broadcast the tirade of the French general encouraging surrender would have been a violation of the BBC’s responsibilities to the British public (at least, that’s what Fitzgerald’s DPP thinks). Part of the dilemma for the reader throughout the novel is whether “pulling the plugs” represents a commitment to the truth or is one step towards falsehood. What does the BBC owe the public in terms of truthful speech? What do we owe one another? And when our relationships and responsibilities are no longer clearly defined, when we are awash in a chaos of words, what then?

In Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel, Fall, the first part of the book describes a world not too distant from our own. In the book, the internet is referred to as “the Miasma” – a morass of misinformation, abuse, fraud, and manipulation. America becomes increasingly polarized and splintered, eventually hardening into rural “Ameristan” (religious zealots, guns, conspiracies) and urban “Blue States” (educated, urban, microaggressions). This may sound familiar. We live in a world, says one character, where technology has “enabled each individual person to live twenty-four/seven in their own personalized hallucination stream” and so we have become disconnected from reality. The book is pretty grim in its prognosis as resistance proves (mostly) futile. There is an attempt to essentially break the internet with falsehood at an extreme scale (a faked nuclear attack on Moab, Utah). It has ambiguous results (at best). The Moab hoax, far from destroying the grip of the internet over people’s perceptions, instead brings into reality various conspiracy theorists and only exacerbates the trends of disinformation and fragmentation (but does encourage new forms of information curation for those who can afford/desire it).

Bonhoeffer again: “How does my word become true? 1) By recognizing who calls on me to speak and what authorizes me to speak; 2) by recognizing the place in which I stand; 3) by putting the subject I am speaking about into this context. These considerations tacitly depend on an earlier assumption, that speaking itself stands under certain conditions, that it does not accompany the natural course of one’s life in a perpetual flow but has its own place, time, and mission, and therewith its limits.” For Bonhoeffer, this is all grounded in theological reality: whatever the concrete situation we find ourselves in, the one who calls on us to speak and to whom our speech is ultimately responsible is God, and the place from which we speak is provided by God as creator. However, a commitment to paying attention to one’s own position and potential realm of authority and influence, of recognizing the context one is trying to speak into, of admitting that there might be limits to what one can say truthfully, is effort well spent towards the project of trying to tell the truth, regardless of one’s ultimate metaphysical commitments.

The language of authority and limits may make some skittish, but it is perhaps this skittishness that explains some of the challenges we are facing in trying to tell the truth. I can speak more freely if I don’t think about who might hear what I say or how the fact that it is me who says it might shape how they understand it, but I will not (typically) speak more truthfully. Stopping to consider the “place, time, and mission” of a particular statement prior to expressing it seems like it would be beneficial at a purely practical level. We might say less, or at least less in public. A pause before posting is not a panacea: mistakes and falsehoods will still occur (we are, to use the Christian language, fallen creatures). As just one example, the consideration of limits may make someone who really should speak out not do so for fear of possible reprisal (something Bonhoeffer would have recognized in his Nazi German context – he makes the point that to remain silent when speech is necessary is a form of lying). However, my impression is that we are at a moment when we are often too careless in our public speech rather than too careful, simply due to the tools we have available to us.

In Fall there are two developments I find especially fascinating in relation to the question of how to tell the truth amid the miasma of a hyperconnected world. One is the development of an online tool called PURDAH (Personal Unseverable Registered Designator for Anonymous Holography). This is a sort of blockchain-esque (it is registered via “distributed ledger”) personal identifier (don’t ask me to explain the technical details – you can read the book). It is a way to establish a “true” identity amid the confusion and complexity of the online world (and proves crucial to the action of the novel). It seems to point to one of the great challenges we face at the moment in telling the truth: that of establishing identity – for us when we speak, who we are speaking to, and in trying to evaluate who is speaking to us. In an online world we have great difficulty in determining “who calls on me” and “where I stand,” to use Bonhoeffer’s language. The second is that the second half of the book is essentially a digital creation myth that takes its cues from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not to give too much away, but the climax of the book is a moment where the “creation” is restored and a multitude of undifferentiated digital “souls” are invited to step into full identity within the digitally created world (it should be noted as well, that Stephenson, like Fitzgerald, is very interested in and frequently writes about enclosed, well structured societies/cultures/institutions).

The conclusion of the novel can be read in a hopeful sense (the restoration of meaning and identity in a new creation) or a despairing one (the ultimate solution to the digital miasma is literally escaping into a different digital world through death). The reason I mention it is mostly to point out that while Bonhoeffer’s mid-century theological idiom with its talk of “reality as it is created by God and exists in God” may seem distant and remote, the desire to establish identity and a “place” from which to speak is not. While Bonhoeffer’s vision of clearly defined boundaries for communication feels dated, we have not figured out how to manage the project of truth-telling in a world without clear limits and boundaries (and an unacknowledged desire for such limits may remain). Many of our contemporary debates could be seen as attempts to establish an identity, or a “place, time, mission” for our truth claims. We’re seeking to establish a position of authority in the absence of a structure that transcends our own construction. That so much of our communication online devolves into meta-arguments regarding authenticity and identity seems connected with this sense of loss (although, Wile E. Coyote like, we don’t acknowledge any loss and just keep running out over the abyss).

There was an earlier version of this essay, where I ended waving a (metaphorical) torch and pitchfork outside of Twitter headquarters and highlighting some particular examples from the past six months of people failing to tell the truth. There is something seductive about the idea that telling the truth could be as simple as the employment of the correct technical hack. It’s not that there are no technological tweaks a person can make to reduce temptation (there’s a reason this is a long blog post, not a Twitter thread), and I do think that it is very difficult to tell the truth in most social media formats (“Twitter can’t bear the weight of a real human being”). But, the problems with truth telling run deeper than technical tools, even if those tools do amplify falsehood and require the development of courage and prudence if one is to use them well.

“Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness” says Fitzgerald, and I think she’s right. There are no guarantees of easily recognizable success when it comes to telling the truth. Victory and happiness are obvious goods, easy to identify and desire. Trust is more tricky and nebulous, harder to measure, harder to broadcast online, but sorely lacking in our current moment. If we need to pay attention to the contours of reality in order to tell the truth, as Bonhoeffer urges, it is worthwhile to consider Fitzgerald’s claim, and the costs it implies.

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