The Importance of Truth

July 2004

In the Buddhist tradition which I follow, a very high value is placed on the virtue of truthfulness. Speech in accord with reality is the only speech which the Buddha would utter, and all Buddhists are admonished to keep the precept to refrain from false speech. A lie might seem a small thing, but for Buddhists attaining clarity of mind is of paramount importance, and every time you tell a lie, you are planting a seed of delusion in someone else's mind-stream. This is a grave injury because it impairs the movement towards seeing reality in it's own true nature.

Western culture also recognizes truth as a virtue. We can certainly see how society suffers when it is lacking. The recent federal election was a case in point. In spite of a close and hard fought contest there was a record low voter turn-out. This is a cause for serious concern. Civic society can only deteriorate through non-participation. One of the reasons cited by Canadians for not voting was that they didn't trust the politicians to keep their promises, so what was the use of voting?

It must be admitted that the complaint is largely justified. We have seen far too many instances of parties and leaders making specific promises to the voters before an election, only to do the exact opposite afterward. We have more than once heard the sorry excuse that the promise had been made "in the heat of a campaign," which is tantamount to admitting that election promises are worthless.

The leaders of our society would be wise to heed this concern of the public If they want to regain the trust and participation of the public they should start treating us with more respect. All the parties have a bit of a breather now, a chance to reflect and consider their next moves. They should deeply consider the damage done by loose and careless promises.

If we look to the broader world, we can see the terrible consequences that can come from lying speech. The entire war on Iraq has been based on a tissue of deceit that is really shameless. Starting with the non-existent weapons of mass destruction ("ready to launch in forty-five minutes") we have been assaulted with one phony story after another. There was the stage-managed toppling of the statue in Baghdad, the bogus "rescue" of Jessica Lynch and now the sham transfer of sovereignty. There have also been serious lies of omission, like the smuggling back of the coffins of dead service-men in the middle of the night, no cameras allowed. It is disgraceful that much of the mainstream US media has been very complicit in all this.

These lies have had literally deadly consequences for hundreds of Americans and uncounted thousands of Iraqis, with no end in sight. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (who himself has known something of war) speaks about the transformative power of "calling things by their true names." It wouldn't be possible for governments to wage wars if the whole ugly truth were exposed to the mass public from the outset. The US war in Vietnam became hugely unpopular when the public could see the horror of it on their television sets. The war-makers have learnt a lot about managing the images since then.

It is no use however, to simply blame the politicians or the media. The public in a free society has a responsibility to seek and to demand the truth from their leaders. This requires some hard things. It requires overcoming our natural laziness and complacency, and what may be harder yet, it requires that we have the courage to face the truth when we see it, and it is not always pretty.

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