I suspect there is no more often misused word in the English language than “truth.”
It’s used to connote honesty. Once advanced, it invites absolution, forgiveness, understanding and regained trust.
That feeling of innocent reliance on the truth has been eroded in our world. It has become part of daily protestations encompassing almost everything and often ignored.
True love, true crime, gospel truth, home truth, moment of truth, stranger than fiction, truth will out, naked truth, unvarnished truth, a true friend, a true copy, a dream come true, true blue, true colours, too good to be true, tried and true, the honest truth, the truth will set you free, universal truth, sad truth, God’s truth, truth or consequences, just tell the truth . . . true enough!
The truth of the matter is that truth is in the eye and mind of the beholder, open to individual interpretation and acceptance. Artist Tracey Emin opined as follows:
“What is truth? Truth doesn’t really exist. Who is going to judge whether my experience of an incident is more valid than yours. No one can be trusted to be the judge of that.”
Trying to define truth is impossible. Philosophers, writers, academics, teachers, spiritual leaders, lawyers, politicians and parents have all tried to capture its essence. Truthfully, dictionary definitions are of little help. For example, “the quality or state of being true.” Several synonyms are often used, such as veracity, sincerity, candour, frankness, precision, exactness and facts.
Interestingly, I am advised that architect Frank Lloyd Wright once suggested that “the truth is more important than the facts.”
The president of the United States, who daily complains of fake news, has been described as a stranger to the truth. For example, Donald Trump claims that migrants are storming the gates and are rapists and criminals. Many accept this as true, despite or because of its source.
From this banal example, we can examine a spiritual one. Some religious leaders tell us that true faith is found in the fact that, although we die, we will all be reunited in heaven. Many accept this, perhaps, again, because of the source. It is seldom publicly questioned.
We today have become skeptical of what we read and hear through media streams. We approach each news item with the fake news radar lurking below the surface. News anchors often report sensational headlines while in-depth examination is sacrificed by the restraints of air time. We often find out that the headline was far from an accurate reflection of the story.
Truth, if you will, is then sacrificed on the altar of sensational and instantaneous messaging. The sacrifice of the truth on social media destroys lives and reputations on a daily basis.
Truth in advertising is a slogan often inherently contradictory. Outrageous claims are made to sell a product. The fine print is never promoted. We listen and then buy because we decide it must be true and we must have it.
Politicization and manipulation of the truth is rampant and often disgraceful. Each successive government (in our democracies, no less) rolls out a budget, accusing the previous government of not telling the truth about the deficit.
Andrew Scheer, the leader of the federal Conservative party, recently accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “restricting gun ownership for Canadians instead of taking aim at real criminals.”
The premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, campaigning — for some reason — in Alberta, referred to the Liberals’ carbon tax as “the worst tax ever” saying “it will drive up the price of heating your home. . . . I am speaking to all people who are worried about paying rent or worried about paying bills.”
Furthermore, he tweeted that the carbon tax was “a tax designed to make everything more expensive.”
The current federal government sold misleading statistics and situational anecdotes to legislate the end of preliminary hearings and challenges for cause, suggesting this would address delays in the criminal justice system.
In 2017, the minister of Justice proclaimed, “I am going to be moving forward on revisiting mandatory minimum penalties in the Criminal Code in a comprehensive way and that’s going to be coming in the very near future.”
Bill C-75 was silent on this declaration.
The former federal Conservative government under Stephen Harper introduced the Truth in Sentencing Act in 2009, a misleading piece of law-and-order legislation that implied that sentences meted out were dishonest. It was likely received as truth by a certain political base but, of course, it was false.
Recently, on the international stage, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has featured so many evolving explanations from the Saudi Arabian government that the world — perhaps although not in agreement on the truth of what exactly happened — is certainly in agreement on the multitude of lies.
The White House seemingly brushes it all off. “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of the tragic event. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.”
Business, it seems, will continue as usual.
“Saudi Arabia, if we broke with them, I think our oil prices would go through the roof,” Trump said.
In a remarkable, disgraceful and shocking tweet to the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, Trump said the following:
“Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have ‘Obama Judges’. . . and they have a much different point of view, than the people who are charged with the safety of our country.”
Pointedly, Winston Churchill once said, “Men occasionally stumble over truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened.”
The erosion of the pure concept of truth is a problem that we as lawyers need to confront. We start off with a bit of disadvantage. Lawyers are often disparaged, perhaps occasionally for good reason. There is an old saying that lawyers and painters can soon turn white to black. Writer Samuel Johnson was reported as saying, tongue in cheek, that he “did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman to be an attorney.”
We as lawyers don’t do a very good job explaining, for instance, that we have no duty to find the “truth” as our duty is to act in the best interests of our clients.
Moreover, our profession is not served well by the “we don’t get paid until you get paid” slogan, again often with hidden fine print.
Nevertheless, if we do not speak up and question the misuse of the truth in politics, in justice, in our professions and in daily life, then who will? The truth is not always popular, but our duty as privileged members of society is to at least defend against the tyranny of deception.
It really should not be difficult. Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”