On the Use and Abuse of Truth

One question must be asked: what is the value of truth?

It all started recently with the revelation that a couple of well-known memoirs turned out to be fake, and there was a huge outcry among the media. But that puzzles me: after all, what does it matter, if it matters at all, that these memoirs are fake?

To me, these “fakes” only matter from a legal point of view: they mislead their publishers by selling the publishers stories which they did not create. But that is about it. Would there even be a controversy if these people simply told these stories without selling them?

Which brings me to the question at the beginning: of what value is the truth?

What is exactly wrong with making stuff up, if you are not doing it for the wrong kind of motives, i.e., to make money in an illegal way, to manipulate others and ultimately harming them, etc.

In other words: can one lie in a good way?

I think the answer is yes, because ultimately I am a pragmatic person. And as such, I will cite William James in The Varieties of Religious Experiences and say that if a fiction is needed in order for some people to live a better life, then so be it.

Then what ultimately matters is what kind of stories we make up and tell to others. This is why I am not ultimately opposed to mythologizing and telling narratives. I am with Nietzsche on this: sometimes society needs a myth in order to be life-affirming. Sure, the Founding Fathers were less than perfect than their words in the Constitution: they owned slaves, legalized the slave trade, but why should those FACTS matter if we are truly serious about pursuing equality and liberty?

All I’m trying to say is that stories matter, especially stories we tell about ourselves, because they constitute who we are in part. Sure, there are stories which are harmful, like Nazi stories about Aryan superiority. But that is only to say that that particular story is harmful, not that all stories are harmful. If society has a myth about peace, equality, freedom and establish those values as national values to be pursued, then I see no reason why those stories should be discredited simply because they are not the “truth.”

In fact, it is precisely because I know what actually happened that makes me value narratives and myths MORE. I know America has had a less than stellar record of treating its people equally, of granting all of its citizens liberty, of not living up to its professed ideals. But the knowledge of that, that is precisely what makes me appreciate the founding myths of America: the stories about the pursuit of liberty and equality.

Lying is a fundamental characteristic of America: Americans are obsessed with self-invention, to get rid of past histories, to create a new identity in a new place. Whether it’s John Winthrop saying that America must be a city upon a hill, or Gatsby’s reinventing himself into a capitalist–it’s all the same to me. The fact that many self-inventions and reinventions end tragically does not diminish my appreciation of the act.

This is not to say that the truth has no value; far from it, truth is valuable, but not in ALL circumstances. All I’m saying is that there can be good reasons for deliberately deviating from the truth.

It’s really easy to look at a story and do research and claim that the story is not 100 percent accurate–that is really easy. Anyone can say that something is not true, but it take an artist to lie in a way that makes life interesting, and ultimately, better.

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