We can't handle the truth

Diplomacy exists because unvarnished honesty can sometimes be ill-advised — even dangerous

December 05, 2010|By Matthew Olshan

When I was a young man, I loved Moliere's "The Misanthrope."

Alceste, the hero (or rather, comic antihero) of the play, fed up with the artifice and false manners of 17th century Paris, resolves to tell everyone exactly what he thinks, whether or not the truth-telling serves his own interests.

Which, of course, it never does, the lesson being that for people to get along — and, by extension, for society to function — one can't simply blurt out what one thinks without regard for the consequences.

This is true in all relationships, even the most intimate. We may count on our spouses to level with us when no one else will, but a certain amount of discretion is required to keep even happily married people from killing each other. "Honey, does this make me look fat?" is a question that no one really wants answered.

"The Misanthrope" is a young man's play. In the eyes of an adolescent, Alceste's rejection of the falsehood of the world — its "phoniness," as Holden Caulfield would call it three centuries later in "Catcher in the Rye" — is heroic, a refusal to buy into the hypocrisies of grown-up behavior. After all, these hypocrisies, which become second nature to us as we age, are coping strategies for dealing with fundamental imbalances of power, from the master/servant relationships that define the workplace, to the way we make ourselves vulnerable to the people we love.

Young people don't like to concede that the world is badly made. With the limitless energy of youth, they see imbalances and injustices as correctable. And the first part of solving a problem is admitting you have one, right?

Problem is, it just doesn't make sense to tell the boss he's being an idiot, any more than it does to answer "yes" to the fat question. And yet, bosses need to know when they're being foolish, and husbands need to know when their weight is unhealthy.

The answer to this seemingly intractable tug-of-war between untellable truth and need for honesty has been with us for millennia: diplomacy, the art of handling matters without arousing undue hostility. As an adult, I see the wisdom of diplomacy, but as a young man, I preferred to deliver doses of unburnished truth. Truth, like whiskey, was best served neat. The burning sensation that often followed was just the good stuff starting to do its work.

There's a great case to be made for truth-telling, particularly in a democracy, where citizens require the truth in order to act justly. But there are times when the unvarnished truth is ill-advised, harmful, even dangerous. Reporting the location of troops in wartime, for instance. Or exposing the "sausage-making" behind the scenes of international diplomacy.

I've been greatly troubled by the innovation represented by WikiLeaks, the organization that recently released hundreds of thousands of privileged diplomatic communiqués and documents relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — and before that, the shattering video, shot by an Apache helicopter in Iraq, of a July 12, 2007 attack that killed civilians, including two employees of the Reuters news service.

WikiLeaks presents itself as a latter day champion of the free press, the idea being that the world needs a completely secure venue for truth-tellers and whistle-blowers because the traditional media have become just as corrupt as the governments and institutions they're supposed to be reporting on.

True, corporate ownership and the entertainment-driven dumbing-down of many traditional news venues have blunted — and, in some cases, even neutered — the media. Where will we get the truth, then, if not from the bloggers and leakers?

But WikiLeaks is not constrained by traditional editorial rules. Its founder, Julian Paul Assange, seems to have a deeper agenda than merely holding up a mirror of truth to society. There's a strong element of mischief in the man's background, as is clear from the profile of him in the June 7 issue of The New Yorker. Mr. Assange's anti-authority streak is deep. His worldview seems to be shaped by a disgust of governments and institutions, per se, not just bad governments and institutions.

Truth, in the form of mountains of unmediated, sensitive information, is his prescription for what ails the modern world. But Mr. Assange has been known to massage his sources just as carefully as any producer from the world of "traditional" media (for instance, the video from the Apache helicopter, which was carefully edited for maximum emotional impact).

There's a place for whistle-blowing. But there's also a place for diplomacy — private diplomacy. Robbing the world of this precious tool may be a victory for truth-tellers, but it's a step backward for the nations of man.

Matthew Olshan is a novelist and newspaper columnist who lives in Baltimore. His website is http://www.matthewolshan.com.

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