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Truth and Consequences


"Truth is truth."

"...while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!"

I didn’t say those things. Well, I might have said the first one in a cheap, tautological attempt to define truth when called on in a class I’d been napping through, but the second is way too cool to have come from me. William Shakespeare said both of them, or rather, penned them long ago and far away. They’re just snippets from a couple of his plays and, as such, are taken grossly out of context. To put them into their actual context would take this whole column. As appealing as that is – since it would relieve me from thinking up anything more to say – it probably wouldn’t be within the spirit of my agreement with Mr. Barnett, which is to come up with something marginally original every week. Unless I decide to rerun something because a new president was inaugurated in the US who has less intelligence than a Popeil Pocket Fisherman.

Originality is a tricky concept. Some years ago, an aspiring actor-playwright did a one-man show off, off Broadway. It consisted of him, sitting at a small table, under a bare bulb, sipping unidentified liquid from an oversized coffee cup and reading the New York phone book white pages. The only other prop was a lacquered bamboo backscratcher. The show ran some three hours and closed, surprisingly, after its first night. He is, today, doing community theatre in Lincoln, Nebraska, and working in an abattoir to make ends meat.

But truth has been on my mind a lot lately, largely because it seems to have become a much more slippery concept than it used to be. Choosing to tell the truth or tell a lie used to be pretty much a binary choice. If you were predisposed to tell the truth, whether for reasons of scruples or simply because you couldn’t keep your lies straight, you just told the truth and let the consequences flow. If chronic truth-telling became apparent early enough in your life, some benevolent guidance counsellor might have tried to steer you into areas of endeavour where truth wouldn’t be a handicap. Cheesemaking, for instance, or maybe woodworking.

If lying was your long suit, you probably thought you were better at it than you really were. Sooner or later, everyone around you clued into your modus operandi and came to regard you as a liar. They may well have continued to be your friends and even liked you but they tended not to completely believe you in matters that counted. If your lies were relatively harmless and interesting to listen to, you may have been encouraged to become a writer. If they were too wild to be misconstrued as fiction or hinted at a pathological predisposition to lie, careers in marketing, investment banking or politics might have been strongly recommended.