URSABLOG: My Struggle With Truth

I struggle with the truth. I admit it. I do not admit for one moment that I construct a world made out of lies, or I peddle blatant untruths in order to gain what I want. My own my compact with myself is: the truth is always the best option. 

I admire greatly Simon de Beauvoir (her novel The Mandarins, and its depiction of both Jean Paul Sartre andAlbert Camus is one of my all-time favourites) that for a while I had this as a mantra:

“I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth – and truth rewarded me.”

But sometimes, if I am to admit it to myself, deep down, the truth has not always been that rewarding, whether financially, professionally, personally or emotionally. Admitting your mistakes rather than blaming others, taking responsibility for your actions may sound wonderful on the page and form the foundations of a ‘good life’. But if I take this view on how I wish to live my life – and I do – I become very disillusioned when not everyone shares this point of view, or worse, takes advantage of my ‘naiveite’ for their own gains. It is a struggle to maintain this attitude in business – especially in my chosen profession of shipbroking – when many of my competitors appear to take quite the opposite view. But maybe I am mistaken in this.

And what do we mean by telling the truth? Is it the painful, almost didactic, blurting out of what we believe to be true and right, even if by doing so causes harm and isolation, and by not doing so leads to agreement and progress? Is it holding back bits of unfortunate but essential bits of truth in order to present a better picture of ourselves, or hiding what we have done or are doing in order not to damage a relationship, whether professional or otherwise? Is it promoting the best of something, and hiding the worst of it, in order to persuade someone to do something they would not otherwise do?

The English language, malleable as it is, tries to deal with this uncertain terrain. There are half-truths (a bit sneaky), home truths (painful, sometimes very), inconvenient truths (which we do our best to ignore) and then there is the post-truth era we are apparently living through now. 

This reflection on the nature of truth is inspired – in part at least – by the many recent discussions I have had recently about misinformation, social media, conspiracy theories and so on, as well as watching and thinking about the effects of influencers who try and influence our spending patterns, voting intentions and general behaviour. My personal view is that social media, whilst pervasive and worrying is also a convenient scapegoat for what has always existed from the beginning of human time. 

We are hard-wired to be a social animal – even a political one as Aristotelis tells us – and social exclusion is a powerful weapon, whether it is teenagers in school unfriending each other as a punishment for an unknown slight, or the loneliness of a whistle-blower in a toxic business environment. It takes strength to overcome exclusion, a determination, a stubbornness that can inflict mental damage on the person sticking to their own particular truth. 

According to Dawn Field, who was writing in 2016 in the Oxford University Press during the two critical – and to many traumatic – events of the time (the election of President Trump and Brexit) there are two types of Truth, one absolute and the other manufactured to suit humans. Absolute Truth (in CAPS) is based on empirical evidence and objective reasoning, human-concocted notions that gain wide-spread acceptance are truths (with a small “t”). “Truths” and “truths” are evidently very different but are based on knowledge. But we can never – either individually or as a society, even a species – know everything all at the same time, and it takes time for the truth to out. 

“Truth is often eclipsed but never extinguished.”

So said Titus Livy, but I doubt whether he knew whether he was talking about Truth or truth, but nonetheless the truth does have a habit of coming back to bite us on the arse. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson may be experiencing a feeling of vulnerability around their rumps at the moment. Or maybe not. 

In any case, even in the case of Truth, it may take some time for the full Truth to come out. For example asbestos was a wonder material before it was found to cause asbestosis, and tobacco was prescribed as a medicine before its deadly cancer causing effects were determines, and even other truths were brought in to muddy the waters and protect interests involved in the sale of these items. There is a reason why criminal and other contested legal cases are decided by judges or juries: the facts – or the Truth – by themselves is not enough. Truths have to be considered too. 

I believe that although we get very frustrated when other people refuse to accept our truths, we have to accept that there are reasons for them unwilling to do so. It could be that their background and history that makes them stubborn to accept our point of view or opinion. It could even be our own very history and background that they have come to understand will mean they cannot accept our truth, even when the evidence to the contrary stacks up before their eyes. It is a very risky thing – I speak for myself – to abandon our own notions of truth to finally accept that we can and should change our minds. But by then it is usually too late. 

In shipping, that most human of businesses where relationships are paramount, to question the veracity of everything that comes across our desk or that we hear would be exhausting and self-defeating, and lead to a loss of valuable bits of business, if not our sanity altogether. A basic level of trust has to exist to make the markets work which means accepting a different truth – in order to reach a compromise, or agree a contract for example – but also a healthy scepticism of what is being presented cannot be abandoned either. This is what I mean when I say I struggle with the truth sometimes: acceptance of someone else’s truth can turn out to be profitable. 

My influencers are not Kim Kardashian or Kanye West you will be unsurprised to know, but authors who have published books, objects of adoration for me. But because I love books, due to my history and background, are they of any value in finding the Truth? All these books – excepting the serious science text books – contain truths, the authors own truths, so why should I accept them as gospel (especially when I don’t even accept the gospels as Truth)? Is it because I like the self-image of me sitting alone in a café reading a book, with a cigarette and a glass of red wine? Do I just want to attract women by looking like Albert Camus? I fear I am scratching an inconvenient home truth here a little too hard, so I will finish now before it starts hurting. 

But this is perhaps the point. If I consider myself well read and intellectual, the pride I have in that self-image will blind me to other truths, about me, about other people, and worse lead me to be a lonely, didactic fool insisting on my truths without realising that people have reached out to me and I have rejected them because of my own stubbornness. I am not just speaking of affairs of the heart, but of all the other human relationships that come my way. 

I have one consolation: if I am struggling with the truth at least I am not stuck in my ways, always convinced of my truth as Truth. I can quietly demote Simone de Beauviour from goddess to influencer, and stop hanging on literary quotes to boost my ego. In that way at least – and at this late stage in my life – I can say truth (small ‘t’) has rewarded me. 

Simon Ward