Monday, July 1, 2013

Truth, half-truths and the power of delusion.

"You can't handle the truth."

Over the years, due to personal experience, I have learned quite a bit about truth telling and delusion. I learned it first hand, beginning as a child, and in adult life working as an advertising executive on Madison Avenue. The lessons I learned have been a major education about the motive driving these matters. It’s a good thing that people employed in the advertising business are not required to answer in the positive the oath required in every court of law in our nation: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” If advertising people were so required we’d need to build many more prisons to house those who knowingly perjure themselves daily.

The reason I say this with certainty is that the advertising business is designed to deceive others by telling half-truths. The positive is singled out and the downside is always left out. After working for many years in the business I reached the point when I could no longer persuade myself that it was OK to deceive people, all for earning a very good living. By then I had learned that, for reasons justified by my parents, I had been lied to as a child which resulted in some very bad beliefs about myself.

Since that moment of truth (pun intended) I have noticed that people tell lies and half-truths routinely, justified on several flawed notions. One of these notions concerns a lack of confidence in those hearing the truth. The inherent belief is that if they hear the truth, somehow they will be destroyed or think harshly of the person choosing to withhold the truth. In the movie A Few God Men, the commanding officer of the Marine Corps base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (Colonel Jessep) is being questioned in court by Navy lawyer Lieutenant Kaffee, concerning the death of one of the men under the Colonel’s charge. Jessep is lying because he doesn’t think anyone can handle the truth. The dialogue goes:

“Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to them.
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!”

In the end, Jessep is arrested and charged with perjury. This movie is of course, a fictional portrait of behavior that happens, with seeming justification, on a vast basis, but this is not a limited fiction. I am personally aware of a situation where an entire family participates in a fraud, feeding the family head with half-truths since all concerned know that the head chooses to live with the fantasy that the family is perfect and without flaw. None of the family members ever tells the truth to the head but instead affirms the fantasy in order to preserve the desires of the family head and thus receive her blessing. Consequently the family head refuses to listen to anything that undermines her desires and other family members have chosen to endure lives of shame, guilt and feelings of inadequacy to support her desires.

Often times the motive of feeding another half-truths or lies appears to be well intentioned: to either preserve a belief that isn’t considered to be beneficial (to either the teller or the hearer), but what is the result? The one being protected or lied to is not made stronger but instead made weaker by not being challenged to deal with adversity. And the one telling distortions is forced to try to remember the details of the lie, to tell other supporting lies (or be exposed) and thus endure self-condemnation and shame. 

Knowing whom to trust has always been a dilemma. As far back in recorded history as the time of the Buddha, people have been perplexed by this conundrum. In one particular sutra the people of Kesariya, India asked the Buddha how to ascertain the truth. His famous answer was:

“Now, Kalamas (a clan in Kesariya), don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’—then you should enter and remain in them.”

That’s a tall order in a world dominated by deceit and misdirection. We find ourselves in a predicament of degrading confidence, falling trust and loss of regard for just about everyone, from those close to us as well as public officials of all sorts. However, perhaps this loss might be a good thing since for far too long we have placed our trust in others and lost trust in ourselves.

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