The Phenomenology of Truth
Of course, there are valid reasons to lie.
Your six-year-old wants to know if the food they made tastes good (it doesn’t). Your husband wants to know if these jeans make him look fat (they do). ICE wants to deport your undocumented friend and asks if you know where they are (you do).
Most people would agree that lies are morally justifiable under the right circumstances. Sometimes, lies are harmless. Sometimes, they can protect people from harm. I’m not completely against lying, per se, but I do think that telling the truth is the right thing to do under most circumstances. I think that most people believe this, but I also don’t know anyone who is such a strict Kantian that they never lie.
Whether telling the truth is a moral or virtuous thing to do and to what degree isn't quite what I want to discuss. I want to try to explain how truth-telling can impact the person speaking and how it can impact the world. What is right or wrong is something for moral philosophers to discuss. I’m more interested in the phenomenology of truth-telling.
First, there is the massive question: “what is truth?”
Do you believe in an objective, absolute concept of truth? Do you believe that the truth is more like an elephant and that those attempting to tell it like are the blind men from the famous parable? If you’re the one doing the truth-telling, you must base your own truth-telling on your own experience of what the truth is and what it means to tell it.
So what does this feel like? Some truths are easy and some are hard. Some are simple and some are complicated. Some are comfortable and some are uncomfortable. Some benefit you and/or others and some don’t. Some are easy to believe and some are difficult to believe. Sometimes telling the truth has a big impact on your life or on the world around you. Sometimes it doesn’t.
One thing I’ve noticed about my own experience of telling the truth is that it always makes me feel better. Even if I’m admitting to a personal failing. Even if people don’t believe that what I’m saying is true. Even if there are bad consequences for me. I always have this incredible sense of relief when I tell the truth, like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I feel like my soul is lighter.
I think there are some interesting things to be said about the ritual of the “confession.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I read Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Foucault paints the “confession” as a means of social control, and he is not wrong that it is used that way. Look at the power of the Catholic Church for the most obvious example of this. I think that it’s inaccurate though, to say that “confessing” must always further entangle us in bondage to the institutions that encourage or require these “confessions.” Sometimes confessing is liberating. That’s part of why it’s such a powerful thing. It feels good to get things off your chest.
It’s true that if you tell someone your secrets that those secrets can then be used against you. But what if we were not ashamed of our secrets?
There is that old aphorism: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
We are in an age in which privacy is becoming more and more difficult to attain and preserve. I think that there are many things wrong with this, but I also think that there are many things about ourselves that we would not feel the need to keep private if society were more accepting of them.
If “confessions” were not confined to the privacy of the priest’s booth or the therapist’s couch, wouldn’t that somewhat rob the “confession” of its power as a means of control? If everyone already knows your secrets, and you aren’t ashamed to tell them, wouldn’t it be impossible to use them to blackmail you into compliance?
What if we lived in a world in which we weren’t punished so much for telling the truth? What if we lived in a world in which we weren’t afraid to share what we really think and feel? How different would our experience of life be if no one had to hide who they really are or lie about what their life has been like?
“But Meredith,” you might be asking, “what if I’ve done something immoral (or something that society perceives as immoral) or illegal, and I am afraid of being punished for it?”
I don’t think that punishment is always a bad thing, but I also think that there are often better ways to create justice in the world besides punishing people who have done things that society and/or the law has decided are wrong. If people weren’t so afraid of being punished, maybe it would be easier to figure out why people do things to hurt each other and to prevent them from happening in the first place. Maybe people would be more inclined to be honest about the things they’ve said and done if they knew that they would be met by a world that attempts to understand rather than vilify them. I don’t mean that we should let bad behavior slide, and I do believe that punishment is sometimes the desirable response, but I think that there should always be an opportunity for redemption and growth.
What if the structure of our society didn’t make lying seem like such a necessary thing? Maybe if we didn’t teach our kids to be ashamed of their mistakes, they wouldn’t care so much if the brownies they made had too much salt. Maybe if being a little pudgy wasn’t so frowned upon, no one would care if their jeans made them look fat. Maybe if ICE wasn’t putting children in cages and deporting their parents, we wouldn’t have to lie about knowing where our undocumented friends are.
What if the entire world is only as sick as its secrets?
What would happen if we shined a bright light into all the dark corners of the world?
How do you feel when you tell the truth?
How do you feel when you hear others do it?