Sunday, October 31, 2010

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

I've been thinking about how easily we discredit ourselves when we exaggerate the truth.  Perhaps the reason that this has been on my mind is because we're nearing the end of the a political campaign season and we've all heard our share of pseudo-truths from  the candidates.  When confronted, their response is,
  • "I never said that."  
  • "You misunderstood me."
  • "What I meant was  . . ."
and when really backed into a corner, the newly popular non-confession
  • "I misspoke."
As much as I'd like to pretend this trouble with truth is limited just to politicians that I have never personally met, the fact is that it's not. 

Let me be the first to confess that I have done this myself.
  • "I've been waiting on hold for 30 minutes!" (Five minutes just seems like half an hour.)
  • "I was up to all night working on that." (I stayed up until 1:00 A.M. but that's still waaay past my normal bedtime.)
  • "It took me all morning to mow the yard." (OK, I've perfected my mowing to the point where I can do the yard in less than an hour but shouldn't I get some credit for my efficiency?)
The truth is the truth.  A partial truth is not the truth, it's a lie and telling lies destroys one's credibility. You may be thinking, "He's getting pretty self-righteous here, isn't he?  None of us is capable of perfection."  True, none of us is capable of perfection nor can we realistically hold others to such a standard.  There is a vast chasm, however, between accepting understandable human imperfection and living on the edge of truth and lying. The difference that I'm taking about here is NOT focused on the minuscule or irrelevant facts of the matter.  There's a difference between a historian and a storyteller.  The historian may be confined to the precise or exact facts ("She  arrived the house and knocked at the front door at 6:30 A.M.") while the story storyteller might generalize but relay the same information truthfully ("She stopped by the house in the morning, sometime before they left for work.")  Relaying essential truth in a non-precise way is NOT the problem.  One gets into trouble when one exaggerates the truth, ostensibly for emphasis ("She banged at the door in the middle of the night!").  There is a thread of truth here but the facts are distorted to make a point.  The problem with this is that the practice calls into question when we are being truthful and when we are not. 

I sometimes think that we don't give others enough credit for being able to discern whether or not what we're saying is true.  Credibility doesn't require a burden of proof.  I'm not automatically credible just because you can't prove that I'm wrong or that you are not a first-hand witness who can contradict me.  There are plenty of times that I might know that someone is lying even though I couldn't present the evidence in a courtroom that might be required to prove it.  Every instance of this erodes the credibility of the speaker. 

I'm not advocating that we become legalistic about every word that we utter but I sometimes wonder if we have become so desensitized to this that we really don't care about truth anymore, that it doesn't even matter.  

What do you think?

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