O.P. Recommends: Malcolm Gladwell on Brian Williams, the Fungibility of Memory, and Journalistic Integrity

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast about a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time: how memory actually works and how that understanding relates to our relationship with the truth.

A few years ago, I wrote a short opinion piece that was, in part, about news anchorman Brian Williams’ disproven claims to be on a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq in 2003. In that piece, I favorably compared how Williams behaved in the wake of that scandal to the behavior of other media personalities who made similarly false or distorted claims. Unlike the other figures I criticized in that piece, I believe that Williams’ ready admission of his mistakes and his willingness to heap recriminations on himself reveal that he is, in fact, a person of integrity with a real respect for the truth.

While listening to the podcast yesterday, I found that Gladwell agrees with my assessment and for many good reasons. In ‘Free Brian Williams’, Gladwell summarizes what we now know about the fungibility and therefore unreliability of memory, and applies this to a very good discussion of how we all should be careful about the claims we make, especially when we’re in a position to inform and influence the public. A very interesting listen…

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Is There Such a Thing as a Good Lie, and is Truth Merely a Tactic Anyway?

Mouth of Truth, Rome, Italy, by Serghei Topor, CC0 Public Domain

The Mouth of Truth, Rome, Italy, by Serghei Topor

‘A lie that serves a vital purpose, after all, is a lie that should be told. Whether we tell falsehoods or nothing but the truth, we all of us have the same objective: liars are always on the alert for the chance to profit by convincing others of their lies, just as those who tell the truth do so with the aim of ending up more trusted by everyone else, and thereby acquiring profit in their own manner. Different though our means may be, yet we have identical ends.’ (Histories, p 224)

In this passage from Herodotus’ Histories, Darius, a member of the royal guard and son of a Persian governor in Egypt, is justifying his plan to use trickery to enter the royal palace. He and six other Persians are planning the overthrow of Smerdis, a Magian who had taken the throne by deception after the death of Cambyses, son of Cyrus, king of Persia. Evidently, Darius takes the trouble to justify his plan of lying to the guards to gain entry because he knows his compatriots believe lying is wrong.

Darius is saying two very different things here. First, he suggests that there are some lies that are not only morally justified, but morally imperative. We’ve all heard the famous test case for when lying might be the right thing to do. Say you’re hiding a Jewish family from the Nazis under your floorboards, and they come up to your door and ask point blank if there are any Jews in your home. Other than remaining silent, which will likely be taken as a ‘yes’ and result in the Nazis storming the house and capturing the family, the only other options are to say ‘no’ and even to tell more elaborate lies which will convince the Nazis to move on. So even those who are generally committed to truth might allow that there are circumstances in which lying might not only be not wrong, but right, and furthermore, the only right thing to do, so long as it’s the only way to save the Jewish family from suffering and death. Darius is claiming that sort of thing here, but in his case, the vital purpose is to restore the Persian throne to its people, which had been stolen through deception in the first place and to whom it justly belongs. If he stopped here, I think many of us might agree he makes a fair point, even if we disagree with his assessment that there’s such a thing as a noble lie.

But he seems to doubt that his audience will accept will accept that this occasion justifies lying, so he goes on to say something far more radical. Darius claims that in fact, truth and lies are just two different ways of getting what you want anyway, and if that’s the case, the only reason you should choose truth over lies, or vice versa, is that it’s more effective. In this view, truth and lies are simply two means to an end, so the justification for their use is purely a matter of tactics. All we need to do, then, is figure out whether the end, the goal, is a worthy one, and what we say and in order to accomplish that end should be judged accordingly. Truth and lies are just as good, or just as bad, depending on the circumstances.

So what do you think? What do you think Darius gets right, if anything, and where do you think he goes wrong, if he does at all? Are truth and lies simply judged according to the intention of the speaker? According to how well they track available evidence? Are there different kinds of truth and lies, for example, ‘contingent’ versus ‘ultimate’ truth, and does that make a difference in Darius’ case, the case of saving the Jewish family, and other cases?

By the way, as Herodotus’ translator Tom Holland points out in his note to this passage, ‘Here Darius is made to speak like  a Greek rhetorician rather than a future Persian Great King, for whom any form of lying was officially anathema’.

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Sources and inspiration:

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Tom Holland, New York: Viking, 2013

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