Scholars' Association News
Issue 22
May 2012


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On Truth and Lies
Can you believe what you read and is it ever ethical to lie?
By Leda Bouzali

The Onassis Foundation (U.S.A.) inaugurated a new Conversation Series entitled On Truth (and Lies) with Simon Critchley, Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy, The New School for Social Research, as the main speaker and coordinator. The purpose of these philosophical conversations is to explore the question of truth in various domains: what is the truth in science, in literature, in visual art, in history, in morality, in politics?

What is truth? This question has accompanied the human adventure for millennia, yet no question today seems more uncertain. In a world where claims to the truth seem to multiply on a daily basis, indeed minute by minute, as they enter our numerous information folders, the frontier separating truth from lies seems more porous than ever. Are we living in a post-truth era where the concern with truth needs to be abandoned as quaint and old-fashioned, or can we say, to the contrary, that this concern is more important than ever in our uncertain world?

The first discussion took place October 17th in the Onassis Cultural Center in Manhattan. Its topic was “Can you believe what you read and is it ever ethical to lie?” and Simon Critchley explored the theme with Peter Catapano, writer and online opinion editor of the New York Times and Jean-Michel Rabate, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania.

“In our lives we experience a paradox”, said Professor Critchley starting off the event. “We lie all the time and yet we live in a culture that is obsessed with truth. We are living in a time of crisis, of deep uncertainty. Certain things that we were told about the future, about our lives, about our prosperity, our pension funds, have been proved to be lies. There is an overwhelming sense that we are living a lie; we live in a Matrix culture, a Pinokio culture. Lets think all this in relation to Journalism. What does truth in Journalism mean?”, Professor Critchley asked Peter Catapano.

“Journalism has changed very much in the past ten years”, said Peter Catapano. “It now includes so many sources, so many more voices, so much more opinion, and also I believe a lot more people read it than ten years ago. Readers are so much more involved in the process now. My general idea is that the truth is best worked out in groups and now the group is really large, so the process is messier. But it seems to be still working in the same direction”.

According to Simon Critchley, there has been a shift in what the news is and the way the news is gathered and in particular a shift in the relationship between news reporting and opinion. In the last several years we have seen that a divide between opinion and news seems to be harder and harder to draw. “At least in our newspaper, and in all traditional newspapers, there is and there should be a clear line between news and opinion”, said Peter Catapano, “and it should be laid out in the pages of the newspaper or in the website it should fall under a certain heading. Reporting has gotten a lot richer and the talents of people who are very good at it had led to a deeper, more personal kind of reporting that some people can interpret as opinion. Admittedly there is confusion about which is which amongst readers and some times amongst people who work in journalism but given the present moment, which is full of crisis and antagonism between political parties, between social classes, this forum of opinion -where you get in the ring with some one else and you have to work it out- has become more dominant. Opinion pages are now proliferating because peoples’ opinions are more heated or varied; there are more people in the conversation now. Is there a danger? Yes, but the idea in journalism is that if your opinion is published in a respected publication its underline basis should be factual”.

Simon Crithley placed next the relationship between truth and trust. “As one of my teachers used to say: ’If you are interested in the truth read the phone book’. Even the word ‘truth’ is linked to the germanic term ‘Treue’, which means loyal, faithful in a relationship. So truth has this link to the idea of faith. If we think of that in the context of newspapers, you decide to read a certain newspaper because you trust it”.

“There are elements of agreement in truth”, remarked Peter Catapano. “Truth for it to exist first of all you need people. I can have a revelation, but if I cannot communicate it to a certain number of people in a certain way and convince them, it doesn’t have the ring of truth; it doesn’t exist unless other people agree with you. So, in the realm of the media obviously you have a responsibility to be as trustworthy as you know how to be. We all have to accept that we are operating within a certain group, we have common agreements about the nature of the world and what facts are important, facts about political situations, about large groups of people. We, healthy, functioning people, agree to operate in this world and to communicate and we trust each other. When that trust is broken obviously it’s a danger for journalism”.

Since each media has its own audience, do we admit that there are different kinds of truth for different social groups? was the next question posed by Professor Critchley. “Any process involving groups that are made up by millions of people is definitely complex”, answered Peter Catapano. “But we accept the fact that the editors who work in a certain kind of media are trustworthy. However, we should not place the responsibility solely on the journalist; the reader shares the responsibility as well. A critical approach is extremely important for all of us, especially nowdays, when information is coming in ‘hot’ and ‘raw’ from everywhere. We, ourselves as readers have to be cautious towards the things that we read and we have to learn to sort out what is true and what is not. So there is a shared responsibility”, noted the New York Times journalist.

Professor Critchley mentioned next Jean-Michel Rabaté’s book The Ethics of the Lie, which was published in July 2088 by The Other Press editions. The book starts with a passage from Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, where the main character claims that « was all lies». People who are discussing or writing about the issue of lying are becoming themselves suspect in the eyes of the public, claimed Professor Rabaté, because they get in the delicate position of having to clearly state what is the truth and what is the lie. «During a conference where I participated, a man came up to me and pointing to my book he exclaimed: ‘Do not listen to him, he is a liar!’ So, if you are writing about lying you become automatically a liar». The notion «It’s all lies» is prevalent in cases of extreme cynicism, paranoia or conspiracy theories, added Jean-Michel Rabaté. As an example he brought up the claims that have been expressed around 9/11, according to which the CIA is behind the demolition of the Twin Towers. «There is suspicion in the public opinion and a belief that one cannot trust even the objective facts. From this point on it is an issue for philosophy. Personally I trust the New York Times and I would be very angry if I were to discover that the things presented by the newspaper are not true», said Professor Rabaté.

He then went on to present the case of Eugène Jolas, a journalist of French, German and American roots who had been the editor of magazines in Chicago and in Paris. In 1945 he was assigned the mission to de-Nazify the German newspapers so he had to introduce to the German Press the idea of objective journalism, at a time when propaganda was the prevalent force. Underlying was the main philosophical trend in Germany according to which there are no facts independent of the theories they are based upon. “Today we tend to believe that too many things are brought up to our attention and we do not know how to value or to grade them”, said Professor Rabaté. «What is an irrefutable fact? With this sort of question we have to deal every day”.

The case of the German Press after World War II is a typical example, commented Simon Critchley. “Hegel once said that reading the newspaper is the morning religious activity of the atheist. There is a deep truth in this claim. But how do you explain this tendency of many people to claim that everything is a lie?”

According to Jean-Michel Rabaté this phrase is a stereoype; it is a wide belief in Europe, where the public opinion appears a lot more cynical, as well as in the U.S., where the ‘culture of honesty’ is prevalent. By comparing the European and the American stance against lying (and by drawing examples from recent political scandals, such as the Lewinski scandal, the Strauss-Kahn case and Berlusconi’s attitude in Italy) he concluded that there is indeed a deep divide between the two continents as far as keeping the private and the public lives of politicians separate. «But still I wonder whether there is a general scepticism as a global trend and that we tend to trust noone –especially political leaders», added Professor Rabaté.

As the last topic for discussion Simon Critchley posed the question of the ‘noble lie’. Professor Rabaté referred to Plato’s philosophy, according to which the Republic is founded upon a ‘noble lie’ ; this justifies the fact that there are social classes. «In all discussions about truth and lies we immediately encounter a series of paradoxes’, said Jean-Michel Rabaté. «Take Nietzsche for instance”, he said. “In his work there is a widespread notion that there is no such thing as truth, that everything is a metaphor; however he was so in love with the lie that he went to the end of his investigations to find the truth in the lie. For Plato, behind the eternal truth there is the foundational lie in the system of governing the ideal city; a noble lie so that the workers are kept happy and they do not rebel against the status, a thought that never ceases to surpirse us. I wonder if we have reached a point where we realise that all that is brought into light is exactly a noble lie”, concluded Professor Rabaté.

For Plato Democracy was a lie, a ‘theatrocracy’ as he describes it, «rule by theatre», said Professor Critchley. Plato believed that Demoracy is a spectacle and that it trusts the illusions it creates by itself. However, the philosophical activity is at war with this lie; so it’s a lie against a lie.

Finally, there is a group of lies that we call ‘ethical lies’ because they are used under certain conventions among people so that they are able to continue their common path in society. In this category there are the lies grownups tell to young children (on the existence of Santa Claus for instance) or the lies told between lovers when there is no need for negative criticism. Jean-Michel Rabaté mentioned the case of Alceste in Moliere’s Misanthrope, who ceases telling any kind of lie, which brings upon his social exclusion and finally his demise. In this sense, the noble lie exists and is useful.

The conversation series with Professor Simon Critchley at the Onassis Cultural Center continued on November 8, 2011 with the topic «The Truth in Tragedy» and with writer, critic and translator Daniel Mendelsohn as a guest. The next discussions were; “The historian’s truth” with British historian Mark A. Mazower at the panel; “The faith of the faithless” with writer and philosopher Cornel West; and “Truth in religion” with Archbishop Demetrios of America and Professor Amy Hollywood.

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