Truth-telling is an essential skill for personal life, for interpersonal social interactions, for community activities, and for governmental decision-making. This obviously goes without saying but I would argue that we are suffering from some of the recent ill effects of “less than truth-telling.” But before everyone starts pointing fingers at each other or at the other political party, let’s settle back and just be honest with each other. Truth-telling can be hard at times (it has consequences) and listening to truth-telling can be hard at times (it can change our thoughts and actions). And it indeed takes a good deal of perseverance. Truth is not in the eye of the beholder. Truth is a series of facts that often need to be proven or investigated. Truth is not an opinion. Truth is not a series of alternate facts because a series of alternate facts is a series of untruths. The search for truth can be frustrating but eventually leads to the correct way to live and to conduct oneself.
Let’s look at the various spheres of involvement—
- Personal – Truth-telling on a personal level affects interaction with ourselves, family members and others. We have all been guilty of “fudging” the truth sometimes when trying to figure out if we should admit to an indiscretion or not. Yet such an exercise is critical for our personal development, our physical and emotional well-being, and our ability to mature and engage others in an effective way. Honesty with ourselves allows us to promote the truth and also can allow us to improve our lives. We need to realize that we might know some facts but not the whole truth. Life and knowledge can be complex. Context may change the relevance of certain truths, and new revelations can lead to reassessments that can alter our behavior. Introspection is critical and must be done with sincerity and humility.
- Interpersonal – Our interactions with others demand our use of common truths. If we expect to interact in an honest manner with others, we have to accept the facts that govern a civil society. We have to interact with our family members, friends and colleagues in a truthful manner. This means that we have to be willing to listen and adapt to change with interactions with others and that we don’t simply tell folks “what the truth is.” We must listen and assess and use the truth as a guiding principle, calling out untruths when needed.
- Community – For any positive changes to occur in our communities, citizens and their leaders need to exchange ideas and improvements in a manner that uses facts and groups of facts (truth). In the search for truth, citizens need to be willing to listen to each other, to have open discussions with honest interactions that can accept information that can reveal uncomfortable information that might change our views and behavior. Often, we need to seek the counsel of others (educators, teachers, scientists and the like) as we reveal past “truths” that might have been inappropriately labeled as undeniable truths but in fact were based on past biases and are clearly not true. Communities only move forward with a common set of values.
- Government – The actions of our public officials should be predicated on truths, but this can be very difficult to accept. Over the last year in 2020, we have had dramatic demonstration of this. Information based on science can be static and ever evolving at the same time. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that basic science (the understanding of virology) can be altered as new information comes to light about how this disease spreads and causes disease (the use of epidemiology). The former is rather static, but the latter can be quite the moving target. However, the subversion of epidemiology (by dismissing the importance of face masks and physical distancing and appropriate public health information) during the pandemic by non-experts in the previous administration led to excess unnecessary deaths. Ignoring the truth about the public health crisis and ignoring the promotion of widespread measures that could have averted thousands of deaths provides a dramatic example of the importance of truth-telling.
Truth-telling is essential at all levels and the necessary precursor to trust. It requires honest interactions with ourselves, our families, our fellow citizens and our public officials. This work is hard and ongoing.