Public affairs professionals rightly advise people in crisis to be open, honest and transparent. While honesty is the best policy most of the time, it seems that the dishonesty and dissembling works too.
I read a couple of articles recently that made me think about that. The first one was about a German police officer who shot a student protestor in the 1960s. The protestor was called the left wing’s first martyr and the story and famous photo that went with it was one of the sparks that set off the massive student protests and the terror movement that swept Europe during the late 1960s and 1970s. It turns out the cop was working for the East German communists. His action may have been provocation. Okay, it comes out, but it doesn’t change forty years of history. The bad guys got what they wanted. Another article talked about the Russians sanitizing the communist era. It may become a crime to equate Stalin with Hitler. I wrote my own article about Katyn a couple days ago. What is truth?We like to think the truth comes out, but sometimes it doesn’t or when it does it has lost its context or just doesn’t matter anymore. Once a story line is set, subsequent revelations might have little effect. The world has always been full of all sorts of horrible regimes and people. Many have diligently stonewalled on the historic record or manipulated it. Think of that horrible murder Che Guevara. People still wear his image on T-shirts. Historians know about his sadistic ways, but his image was protected long enough that now the general public no longer cares. The Soviet and the Chinese communists killed tens of millions of their own citizens. They denied it and made investigations difficult. Much of the detail is lost forever. Once again, historians know about mass terrors, but it often ignored in the general consciousness.
We in the West take the opposite tact. We sometimes seem to reveal in the revelation of our faults. Sure, we should hold ourselves to the very highest standard and you cannot learn from mistakes if you don’t identify them, but doing this w/o context can lead to the wrong conclusions and let some real bad guys off the hook. In geometry it takes two points to define a line. You need context.
Most of life’s achievements are graded on the curve because nothing can be properly defined except in relation to other things. We do not serve the cause of truth when we loudly confess and even exaggerate our own mistakes, while implicitly or sometimes explicitly allowing others to downplay or obscure theirs. Turn that around and consider what it would be like if we only bragged about our own achievements while denying the opportunity to others. We suffer from a massive availability bias, in that we overemphasize information that is nearby or easily obtained and overlook that which is hard to find or actively hidden. The commitment to truth requires that we seek it in ourselves and also demand truth from others. We should always ask the “compared to what?” question. In our personal life it is bad manners to put others on the spot or catch them in a lie, but in the public sphere the pursuit of truth requires occasional truculence.