Caring for Words, X: Tell the Truth


I once was in a group discussion on social justice (is there a justice that’s not social?) at which one the discussants, whom I’ll call Kevin, chose to lecture the rest of us on the nonexistence of truth. “When someone talks about ‘truth,’” he said, “what they mean is what’s true for them. Your truth isn’t necessarily my truth, but they’re both true. Yours is no better than mine. We should stop talking about the truth because there’s no such thing.”

Kevin continued in that postmodern vein for what seemed to me a very long time. I wriggled in my seat, ready to voice disagreement, but when he finally stopped explaining the way things really are, the group leader quickly steered the conversation in another direction. It was later that night (in what the Germans call a Treppenwitz, the perfect witty retort you only think of while heading upstairs to bed) that I arrived at the appropriate response: “But Kevin, is that true?”

No one this side of the grave can claim certain access to “The Truth” in its entirety. Not even “Science” (with a capital “S”) can pull that off. Yet if my truth has precisely the same validity as Adolf Hitler’s or Charlie Manson’s, what’s the point of discussing anything, social or otherwise, each of us forever stranded on the reef of solipsism?

Truth may prove elusive. That doesn’t render it inaccessible. Healing a diseased language requires epistemological humility, not despair. There is a world beyond the confines of my skull that can be reliably known, however partially and imperfectly. We never get it all right, but whatever “social justice” looks like, its advocates must speak, write, and act as truthfully as possible. If not, they risk perpetuating the problem they seek to remedy.

Telling the truth requires the courage to name what we see and hear, even when – and that’s when, not if – we implicate ourselves and those we love. To do that properly, we must also cultivate the virtues of patience, compassion, and most of all, prudence (φρόνησις): the practical wisdom to know when and how to act. But act we must, for in a world of fake news and alternative facts, telling the truth is a first, necessary step toward health. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” wrote James Baldwin, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”*

GLENDOWER: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
GLENDOWER: Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command
The devil.
HOTSPUR: And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither,
And I’ll be sworn I have power to shame him hence.
O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!

  • -William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part One, III.1

  • ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise

    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind –’

  • -Emily Dickinson, (1129)

  • “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

  • – Ernest Hemmingway, A Moveable Feast

  • “The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is. Thus, to me, my life and preoccupations are not the truth. They are, simply, my life, my preoccupations. But now I am engaged in writing. And in daring to transpose my life into this narrative, I shoulder the dreadful responsibility of telling the truth.”

  • Susan Sontag, The Benefactor

  • * James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear”

    Image: Emily Dickinson

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