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.

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