I don’t suppose that there is a single one of us who hasn’t, at some stage, been ever so slightly elastic with the truth. We are all capable of concealing the truth and stretching the truth. We are all guilty of having an inconsistent and erratic relationship with the truth. In the face of anxiety, difficulty, danger and stress we can all, like Simon Peter, deny the truth. We are all capable of scripting an alternative reality. As Hugh Laurie maintained when playing House, ‘everybody lies.’
If this is true – which I hold it to be – should we be too concerned with truth telling? And, should we hold those who have an overly elastic relationship with truth to account? If we start holding others to scrutiny, or account, are we being overly judgemental for, after all, ‘everybody lies?’ One more question: if holding others, perhaps even significant others, to account is permissible, who should act permissively?
The answer to my last question in some ways feels rather obvious: it depends, and the dependency is context. If our children are telling outright lies, or just stretching things, then presumably it is the parental right to hold them to account? If a spouse cheats on their partner, breaking a sacred vow, then the partner presumably has the right to hold them to account? The situations I have described have a fairly obvious response mechanism for the context is a closed, or at least relatively closed, essentially private, system.
Where the elasticity of truth is stretched within an open system, or public system, things get a little bit more complicated, for the harm caused is less personal and direct. The harm caused is instead systemic, and the problem with systemic harm is that it goes viral, its effects spread uncontrollably.
As yet there is no vaccine capable of inoculating against systemic harm. Wishful thinking and carefully choreographed messaging, in the absence of a vaccine, are the only strategies available in seeking to reduce the symptoms of public harm.
The trouble with wishful thinking and choreographed rhetoric is that in the spin doctor’s mind they become the truth. Truth becomes so elastic that anything that approximates to reality becomes the truth, in the spinners mind. The spinner of truth stands in solidarity alongside that great elastician, Pontius Pilate, and asks ‘what is truth?’ A script is then written to support that truth. Truth becomes a matter of expediency and a mechanism for the retention of power. It is not a very pretty set of propositions.
So, despite accepting that ‘every body lies’ who should hold the spinners to account when truth is stretched within an open and essentially political system? Should, say the bishops, those men and women (in the C of E) who stand in Peter’s line? My answer to this is a resounding ‘yes.’ Because the bishops stand in Peter’s line they fully understand the reality that ‘everybody lies,’ and they know that lies, distorted truths, narratives retro fitted to render the implausible plausible, go viral and the result may well be death.
The bishops, you see, in criticising the masters of spin aren’t doing so from a place of moral superiority, still less perfection, but as men and women who stand in the shoes of the Peter who three times lied; as men and women who fully know the consequences of sacrificing truth, real truth, public truth, on the flimsy altar of political expediency; as men and women (even though ‘everybody lies’) who have been consecrated into the truth, to speak the truth (cf John 17, 19), and especially to those who exercise viral power.