Colombo, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

Media watch: To write or not to write the truth

I once asked the following question, not from anyone in particular of course: Why don’t pens, pencils and paper go on strike decrying journalists who will not write the truth?” I might have added the new tech instruments employed by writers such as word processors, printers, diskettes, thumb-drives etc., but that would not have added much to the issue.

Truth of course is a strange creature for its authenticity is not easily tested not least of all because the instruments of evaluation are by definition subjective. And so each of us will defend the truths we believe in, subject to the caveat that their authenticity is informed by perception. As such my original question seems rather stupid.

On the other hand, even within the universe of subjectivity, I believe we can talk of truth. Consider a great work of art, say, an epoch-defining painting or architectural masterpiece.

Is it only because it is talked about that we are amazed by the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal? If the person who ‘discovered’ the Aukana Buddha Statue held his breath for a moment, was it only on account of a significant archaeological discovery or by the sheer force of the creative genius that emanated from the carved rock? I am not a connoisseur of art or architecture.

I am not a student, even. And yet, I can fairly accurately categorise anything placed before me as being great, mediocre and something in between. So it is with truth, I believe. Especially in the matter of writing it.

Bertold Brecht outlined five difficulties when it comes to writing the truth: “Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties.

He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognise it, although it is everywhere concealed, the skill to manipulate it as a weapon, the judgement to select those in whose hands it will be effective, and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.”

Brecht also points out that these problems are formidable not only to those writers living under fascist regimes, but even for those working under far more favourable circumstances, i.e. where civil liberties prevail.

But what is so difficult about combating lies and ignorance in societies where comment is free, or at least far less constrained than in a totalitarian situation? What makes a person shy away from stating the obvious? What allows self-censorship to take the place of censorship?

I think arrogance. And ego. Fear too, not of opening oneself to intimidation, arrest, detention or assassination, but more perversely, to censure from one’s associates, friends, loved ones even.

Sure, in life sometimes friendships and love, admiration of like-thinking people, is all-consuming. In the matter of dealing with the primordial solitude that is the pitiful inevitable of the human condition, we do need the presence of these private entities. Not as cure but salve. On the other hand, if this is the bottom line, why write at all? Isn’t courage about writing what has to be written in the public interest even though it may isolate us from everything that made life livable?

I believe that there is for all of us an at-the-end-of-the-day moment where we encounter ourselves, a moment which decides whether we can stand tall or whether we are condemned to cringing. A moment when we are charged not so much for having betrayed the weak, but for having betrayed ourselves, not so much for having increased our possession by pleasing the possessor, but having dispossessed ourselves, not so much for embracing fame by accepting the offer of the mighty, but for having made the choice to stand disgraced by ourselves.

I do not know what that poignant moment is when we are made to choose between the comfort of the world as we’ve always known it and the mighty unknown entered only by speaking the truth that enables us to look at ourselves in the mirror, but I know it exists. I do not know what that line is that separates selfish and self-seeking man from man, but I know such a line exists.

And I know that it has little to do with not allowing emotions to sway reason. One can listen to the logic of the heart without compromising the reason that flows from ethical consideration and vice versa of course, but only if one is in totally concord with the conditionalities pertaining to speaking the truth.

Chief Cochise once said, “You must speak the truth so that your words may go like sunlight straight to our hearts.”

There is no penalty for deft twisting of event through word and metaphor except for the loss of faith and even that depends on the eloquence of the writer. And yet I firmly believe that being mischievous with words inevitably makes penetration of heart and thus the connection of man with man a difficult proposition.

Truth, Brecht asserts, “is belligerent: it strikes out not only against falsehood, but against particular people who spread falsehood,” Sometimes this striking out is of the kind that makes the writer of falsehood or the protector of the hypocrite obsolete in the public mind. People stop reading the person.

What greater punishment is there for someone for whom writing is a vocation? Brecht adds that “shouting generalised demands to a world of friends and harmless persons” does not advance the cause of truth either. In both cases, writers do themselves a disservice. They may sleep well at night, but only if they’ve succeeded in intoxicating their sensibilities into oblivion.

The night ends, sooner or later. They have to wake up. And then it is night again, it is once again that at-the-end-of-the-day moment. They are condemned to their worst nightmares possible, those that torment them through their incurable insomnia.