Ethics: When Does Truth Bring Disaster?

Ethics: When Does Truth Bring Disaster?

As you can see by this blog, my plans for research — and life — can be a little scattered. Last summer, I started research on missionaries, and how they consider the ethics involved in “creative access” work. Hopefully I’ll write more on it at some point. Anyhow, in doing some follow-up interviews on the subject of honesty and integrity, one former missionary, “Jim,” referred me to Solzhenitsyn’s essay, “Live not by Lies.” I read it, appreciated it, and promptly put it lovingly and securely somewhere in the back of my email archives.

I ran into it again a few days ago, and again it challenged me — would I believe so strongly in the necessity of truth that I would be willing to live in stark honesty the way Solzhenitsyn advocates? Why would one feel so compelled? And what are the consequences?

I was reminded of this again while reading an article by Leon Aron* about the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union (and its ramifications in other post-socialist states like Mongolia). In it, he suggests that this change, like so many other revolutions and rapid social transformations, was in many ways spurred on by a search among political and cultural/artistic leaders for truth, for reform, and for a sense of restored civic and moral commitment to the common good within a society.

But the fallout of this search was in many ways brutal and traumatic (c.f. Nazpary’s book on post-transition Kazakhstan). There were good developments and a lot of resilient people building up their communities across the post-socialist world, but there was also traumatic inflation, the lost of safety nets, increased alcoholism, suicide, maternal mortality, violence, and a fracturing of meaning and trust within communities. Aron seems t think some of this was the result of ongoing processes of violence and alienation during the Soviet period, and that’s probably true. But it’s also true — in this and in other situations — that what was meant to bring reform and renewed growth to a social organization had the opposite effect in many areas.

the art of [truthing] isn’t hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.**

So do you prefer a stable autocratic or dysfunctional system over a potentially traumatic change? Do you prefer lies over truths that are acidic, that can dissolve?

I don’t know that we can say that. And indeed, we’re told that the truth will set us free. In the context of truth and goodwill, we can see a great benefit to knowing and being known in this way.

But it’s harder to see that in other situations. Sometimes the truth seems to put us, individually and communally, into much worse situations.  What if telling truths about our communities — our nations, our higher education institutions, our marginalized identity groups, our religious communities — causes the dissolution of communal meanings, allows for internal chaos or for punitive control to be exerted from the outside? What if truth can cause the very people and social groups that we value, to fall apart?

And maybe what I’m asking is, how do we frame the search for truth and the multiple answers we may find, alongside of other practices that could continue to provide cohesion?


*Corruption of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Art of Losing.” You’re welcome.

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