An elderly Groucho Marx recounted a story that happened in a Texas town during the Marx Brothers’ early days in show business.
In Raised Eyebrows,, the memoir by Groucho’s secretary Steve Stoliar, a member of the luncheon party responded, “According to Harpo’s book, that story took place in Oklahoma, not Texas. Who’s right?”
Grouch said, “I am, because I’m alive and he’s not.”
Thus we get a lesson in the elusive nature of truth.
At first glance it seems that truth should be absolute. And sometimes it is. The atomic number of carbon is 6. The capital of Massachusetts is Boston. Harpo died before Groucho.
But ask several different people to describe an event they’ve witnessed. If there are n witnesses, you might get n+1 stories: one from each witness, plus the one you manufacture in your own mind as you attempt to reconcile the others.
So what do we say about truth? That it depends on whoever has the most convincing story, or whoever shouts the loudest, or (as in Groucho’s case) whoever outlives the other witnesses?
A lot of today’s news media would have it that way. So, for example, we have self-proclaimed journalists insisting — and many people believing — that the President and the Secretary of State were complicit in the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. No amount of hard evidence, or the fact that more than a dozen similar incidents happened during the Bush-Cheney years, will silence the accusers.
For the Murdochs and Limbaughs of the world, truth is simply whatever story will advance their cause. A lot of people are buying into the idea that truth is relative, or that truth is whatever you want it to be.
I beg to differ.
Most of the articles in my blog are about leadership and technical communication. They both depend on truth — truth that’s not relative and not subject to interpretation. A cornerstone of good leadership is trust, and you can’t earn trust without fidelity to the truth. Good technical communication demands accuracy — which is synonymous with truth.
Here’s what I wish for 2014: that truth will make a comeback.
That political debate will again reflect divergent views about what to do in the face of commonly accepted truths — not divergent views about what the truth is.
That leaders will again prize personal integrity, and that their followers will demand it in them.
Got a different view? I’d love to hear what you have to say.