In the early 1970s I was involved in some pilot shows for a radio programme. In the end, we did so many pilots that they practically amounted to a series. The first prototype was offered to LBC with a view to being broadcast to insomniacs at 3 a.m. The second and third were done for the BBC. The tape of the third show survives and it is pretty bad, not helped by being recorded in front of a live audience of three people and a cat. But the idea: the idea was good, way ahead of its time, and deserving better treatment than it got from us.
The show was the brainchild of Noel Picarda and Richard Ryder. Its theme was the manipulation of language: how words are used (in politics, the media, advertising, business, the arts, our own lives) not to communicate their ostensible meaning, but to convey something else altogether and often their opposite.
In retrospect, communication in the early 1970s seems straightforward and candid compared with the artifices of today. But Noel and Richard had caught the way the wind was blowing and realised that the age of communication was in fact the age of deliberate miscommunication.
The programme had a different title in each of its incarnations. The final title, with a nod to the Sex Pistols, was (Never mind the bullocks,) Beware of the Bull. Its previous title was better: Never mind the Truth, here are the Facts. That would make a good subtitle for the past 50 years.
Most of us were brought up to believe in The Truth, with capital letters. We were told not to say things we knew to be untrue, or to deny things we knew to be true. The exceptions were – and still are – called ‘white lies’.
As a child, I had to write thank-you letters for dreadful parties. “Thank you very much for a lovely party,” my letters began. “You can’t write that,” my mother would say. “It’s not true. Think of something you did like about it and say that.” In vain would I remonstrate with her that to do so would be equally untruthful: the literal words might be true, but the meaning they conveyed would be just as untrue. What difference was there?
This is a trivial example of one of the most common lies we tell: lies that we think respect the sensitivity of others, although they also protect us from the emotional reactions of others. They are, for the most part, harmless lies – and often essential if civilised life is to be maintained. At least we know what we say is untrue or euphemistic; at least we know what our personal truth is when we are concealing it.
Other truths are harder to know. What is the truth of a relationship? Even if one is objective enough to know the truth of one’s own feelings, and that is seldom easy, what about the truth of the other’s feelings? Are they reconcilable? Is there any such thing as an objective truth in a relationship? Or in the ending of a relationship? Is there ever anything except two sets of subjective truths, imperfectly understood or admitted?
None of this stops us asserting our own viewpoint as the truth. “He is a shit and this is what he did.” “She is a cow and this is what she did.” And, if we do it in relationships, do we not also do it when confronted with other situations in which the literal facts are of secondary importance to the truth, as we would like it to be seen?
Nowhere are these difficulties more apparent than in the question of motive. We routinely ascribe the purest of motives to ourselves and to those people we like, and the basest to those we dislike. Neither part of this is truthful, or not wholly truthful. Many bad things are done with good motives. Many good things may be done with bad motives, or at least egotistical ones. Nowhere is the manipulation and misrepresentation of motive more evident than in politics.
The study of history is the battleground of conflicting versions of the truth. In a situation where there is no final truth, and may never have been one, the battle is to ensure that a particular version of the truth is accepted by posterity. Shakespearean history is the history of the winning side. It has few claims to objective truth. The history of our own age is told in Britain through the eyes of western social capitalism and democracy. It is equally partial.
Had we been conquered by the Nazis, we would have learned British history through Nazi eyes. If China comes to dominate the world as thoroughly as western Europe did, our successors may be taught the Chinese view of British history. Children in school today are taught a history that is different from the one my generation was taught.
There is no single abiding truth, only subjective perceptions of reality. Any account of an event that does not make a mockery of its known facts may claim a truth. Sometimes there can be emotional truths that do conflict with known facts. We each have our own reality and fight for it to be accepted by others.
And the lonely voice of youth cries
‘What is Truth?’
The words are from a minor Johnny Cash hit. The question was also asked by Pontius Pilate. He could not answer it any more than I can. Nor can anyone else. The lonely youth is still waiting for a reply and he will wait forever. The Truth does not exist. Truths exist. My truth exists. Your truth exists.