I Swear To Tell The Truth...

Rainbow Slide - Mei Schwein

...the whole truth, and something in between.

I recently attended a PR course and one of the sessions focused purely on the topic of ethics. Without doubt, much can be said about ethics whether in relation to the PR industry or any other, however the subject matter prompted me to think further about the concept of truth.

As children we are all taught to tell the truth. We are made all too aware of the awful consequences of telling a lie - whether one looks at Pinocchio or at the shepherd boy who continually cried "wolf". If we dared to tell a lie, we had to live with the permanent fear of being found out. Truth was, without doubt, the best option.

According to legend, America's first president, George Washington, was reputed to have destroyed his father's cherry tree when trying out his newly acquired hatchet. When asked by his father if he knew who had caused the damage, the young Washington responded, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." He was rewarded with seeing his father's pleasure at him telling the truth, apparently fully compensating for the massacred cherry tree.

In our young eyes, the truth is black or white. However, as we progress into adulthood, the matter becomes distorted; there are shades and grades of what constitutes the truth. I feel sure that we are all guilty of some of the following:

  • "Yes, you have seen this outfit/these shoes before. I bought them ages ago and they've been in the back of my cupboard since then."
  • "I am not quite sure what time I got in but it was definitely well before midnight."
  • "I really didn't have that much to drink. I am sure the prawns/chicken/peas were off and I've got food poisoning".
  • "Of course I love you", or even "Well, I don't love you anymore, either."
These are some of the standard so-called 'white' lies (the distortion begins) that roll off our tongue with consummate ease. Do we even realise that we are being untruthful? Logically, our minds tell us the required course of action is clear. We are trying to extricate ourselves from a potentially tricky situation and so feel justified in bending the facts to suit.

When we see a good friend we haven't seen for a while and they are looking terrible, we would not countenance telling them what we think. That would be cruel beyond measure. We might ask how they are, and if the response did not provide a clue to their change, we tell them how well they are looking. Thus, another 'white' lie, but surely entirely justifiable. Maybe only a low-grade fib?

The distortion continues. This time not by bending the facts, but omitting them altogether.

Actual statement: "I had a lovely time last night. I saw X, Y and Z and we had drinks at the pub followed by supper.

Actual occurrence: "I had a lovely time last night. I saw X, Y and Z, and then bumped into R, my ex from a few years ago whom I know you are quite jealous of. We had a really nice chat as we hadn't seen each other for ages, and I really enjoyed seeing him/her again. And then I went to have supper with with X,Y and Z."

If there really is no residual feeling between you and the ex, and it is purely an exercise in not hurting someone unnecessarily, then surely the omission is excusable? Moving up on the lie grade scale certainly, but still not that serious, surely.

Progressing somewhat further up that scale, how do we judge the Clinton/Lewinsky situation? Bill Clinton manipulated his truth. For him, 'sexual relations' meant the act of sex itself; it excluded any of the associated foreplay and fun and games. His definition of the truth enabled him to stand up in front of the world, hand on heart and declare fervently: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Given that the details of what he actually did get up to were plastered over every available form of media, it is perhaps debatable whether his approach was the right one. Personally I thought Clinton was a superb statesman, and for all his faults I was able to forgive him - which does not reflect well on me as, with that acceptance, I did not condemn his lie, but condoned it.

Then we reach the zenith of the scale. Who can forget the stark headlines stating that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons that could be prepared for attack against Britain in just 45 minutes? As it transpired, information released by the Government had been misinterpreted by a number of newspapers. When it became obvious that there had been a misunderstanding, did the Government correct the newspapers' interpretation? No. Did they lie when they did this? No, they just did not contradict the erroneous information being quoted. When questioned on this point, Jack Straw's response was along the lines of, "Government ministers don't have time to go around correcting every inaccuracy that appears in the papers." On a point of national security, with the lives of British troops being put on the line? I believe we are off the lie grade scale now.

I realise that it is unlikely that I will ever be in the position of manipulating the truth to such as an extent as to put lives at risk. But I am, perhaps, a little concerned that with my verbal twists and turns, when I say what I think is the easiest thing to say or when I omit what I should be saying, am I not potentially at the top of a very slippery slope?