Telling the truth

I recently upgraded my cell phone. As usual with upgrades of this kind, and despite my first occupation (many years ago now) as a telecommunications technician with the Australian Government (PMG’s Department), I was rather dependent on my willing and most able offspring to demonstrate to me the multitude of applications available on the new cell phone. Some of these applications I am now using.
Aided by my growing familiarity and confidence with the new cell phone, I managed to wade through a recent newspaper article dealing with the current applications available to the mobile phone user. The wealth of usage is truly amazing but, not surprisingly, my understanding was ultimately left behind in a welter of technical statistics and jargon and a plethora of applications which, with the touch of a few icons or the flick of a finger, enables a cell phone to act alternatively as telephone, television, computer or whatever, according to the whims and fancies, dexterity and wizardry of the user.
The cell phone and its applications, for example, Facebook and Twitter, are ways in which we are able to mediate our social relationships. In a most peculiar way, young people today see these applications as their actual lived experience – more than just the documentation of what life is.
Indeed, it is not just a prerogative of young people. Who might have thought several years ago that the present writer would one day inhabit “the world of blogging” – rehearsing things learned, recounting experiences, expressing opinions, becoming vulnerable to comments and counter-opinion and then having all of this available on a cell phone via the internet? Life is now lived much more in the public arena, under the scrutinizing gaze of others, more and more of whom are becoming significant.
However, my admiration for the extensive adaptations of the cell phone was somewhat tempered by a non-technical item that the above article discussed. Commenting on the amount of information that can be stored, used and accessed on a cell phone, and the invasion of privacy that this situation can cause, the writer of the article stated that a way of overcoming this disadvantage was in fact to enable the cell phone to tell lies. Information can be fed into the cell phone (or computer) in order t0 convey confusion or falsity – to prevent the true picture being seen or, put simply, to lie. In this way, truth is subject to expediency.
Now, I can understand the reasoning behind this move to falsify the stored information on a cell phone, in order to protect privacy or process. However, does this not also neutralize one of the stated benefits of the technological explosion vested in contemporary communications equipment, that is, to encourage greater interaction between people, to break down barriers and to spread and share information – to make  life and its experiences more accessible and transparent?
So too, and for me a major consideration, false information in any way, shape or form, implies the practice of lying. It would be counter-productive if the further development of communications technology actually encouraged the practice of falsifying, lying, deceiving or otherwise betraying the truth in the on-going process of human discourse in the shaping, sharing, understanding and application of information.
When, as a secondary teacher of Religious Ethics, I shared with the sixth form students the ideas of the German philosopher, Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), they had mixed feelings about following Kant’s philosophy that moral law should, indeed could, never be affected by expediency. Kant believed that “it can never be right to tell a lie”. He called the obligation to obey this moral law the “Categorical Imperative”. His dictum was that a person should “always tell the truth”, no matter what the consequences would be of doing so. Kant applied his dictum to communities as well as individuals.
Behind the wisdom of Kant was the idea that if lies were told whenever it suited the person telling, or carrying-out the practical implications of, the lie, then the world would be a far worse, exceedingly more complex, difficult and dangerous place in which to live – a world in which mistrust reigned and deceit becomes a way of life; a world, in fact, that would be a living hell for those who lived in it. For Kant, truth should never be compromised.
It is, of course, difficult for us to comprehend what the world, indeed, our individual lives, would be like if the truth were always to be told. Kant acknowledged this when the said that “only the descent into the hell of self-knowledge can pave the way to godliness”. Telling the truth, living the truth, brings its own rewards – it leads to self-knowledge and enlightenment, harmony and tranquillity. Such a way of life is, however, complex, hazardous and highly challenging and, for these reasons and more, is very much a road less travelled.
We have some concrete awareness, however, of what our world is like with the prevalence of lying, deceiving and betrayal. We are aware, for example, of how the image of someone can be enhanced or diminished by air-brushing a picture or a photograph. The same holds true for stories in print.  The reputation of public figures can be made or destroyed by the stories told about them on the printed page. Scandal-type tabloid newspapers seem to be as popular today as ever they were. It has been said of fundamentalist religion that it states it conclusions and then makes the facts fit those conclusions. The scientist responds with the claim that the facts must be stated and conclusions drawn from an examination and analysis of these.
It is a common accusation against politicians that they twist the facts in order to suit their policies, if not their ideology. When a young, but very astute, journalist with The Independent newspaper recently offered an opinion to a politician that “the poor sometimes support welfare cuts because they are systematically lied to by the media”, the politician responded by accusing the writer of being “patronizing”. This was a fine slur, perhaps, but an all-too-common reaction and one that takes the reader no closer to the truth.
Within the last week a poll taken from among one thousand primary school-aged children found that 75% of those polled would cheat if doing so led to achieving a desired goal. Cheating is tantamount to lying and, if we believe the outcomes of the aforementioned poll, we learn to differentiate between telling the truth and lying at a very early age.
Now, lying is all too often a present practice, but it can have application to the past. The following story appeared in an article in From Page to Screen.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950 film, Stage Fright, was criticized for what became known as its “lying flashback” – a long flashback about a murder that we later learn is untrue. It would seem that audiences felt tricked and the film didn’t do well.  Speaking to fellow movie director, Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said: “In movies, people never object if a man is telling a lie. And it is also acceptable, when a character tells a story about the past, for the flashback to show it as taking place in the present. So why is it that we can’t tell a lie through a flashback?”
It would seem an answer lies in the fact that movie audiences still want objective truth – following the old adage that ‘seeing is believing’, or that there is more to listening than mere hearing. So too, there may be the realization that lies told in the past have present and future consequences. I also believe that it is a question of how we treat others. This is one of the great ethical questions of our age. Maybe that is the reason why science fiction films are so much a part of contemporary culture. There is the view that SF, at its best, is the most appropriate way to explore the question of our treatment of others. So, when the invading aliens threaten, what do we do – blast them with such modern weaponry as high-velocity rifles, cluster bombs or nuclear weapons? SF seems to understand that there are more interesting things that can be done with and to aliens, as fans of Dr Who would appreciate.
So, when faced with a situation that personally challenges or questions, how do we respond? Do we neutralize or extinguish the threat of the alien thought or activity by lying, deceiving or even ignoring? Or, do we face the situation front on, acknowledging its reality, recognizing its consequences and, in a Kantian way, truthfully seek to provide an answer, reach a solution or point out a direction for further travel? The road less travelled is often the road that leads to truth.
Surely then, it diminishes ourselves, as well as the other person(s), when we resort to lying in order to provide an answer, or seek to explain, or to justify – on our cell phones or face-to-face. Is this the way we would wish others – politicians, movie directors,  journalists, philosophers, family and friends to name but a few – to treat us?  If so, then what kind of world are we wishing on posterity? If, however, we embrace truth and truth-telling, then we are laying the foundations for a future that has integrity, even if  that future will be a more demanding one in which to live.
With all of the above in mind, I look forward with new insight and renewed enthusiasm for and, hopefully, improved skill in, using my upgraded cell phone.
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About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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