Public truth

I undertake the training rule to refrain from false speech.

With world events in turmoil, there are a number of aspects of speaking truthfully (and not) that are on public display. I want to bring them up not to condemn public officials, but to point out that everything has a context. In my mind, there are very few truly evil people in the world. Most of us have enough good and enough evil in us that the situation we find ourselves in will draw out one or the other.

The main example I’m thinking of right now is the public talk surrounding the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan. The Japanese inclination to politeness and keeping surfaces calm has a dark side, which showed itself in the statements by public officials in the early days of the disaster. Everything bad was publicly underestimated; officials tried to keep a lid on several bits of very alarming news. After a week or two, nuclear scientists from outside Japan broke rank and said that the scope of the disaster was unprecedented, giving details of spent fuel rods in danger of melting down.

Tens of thousands of lives were lost in the initial earthquakes and the tsunami that followed. All the bodies have yet to be recovered (many may never be found), and many of the grieving are still living, weeks later, in unheated public halls.

Exaggerations on both sides began, and still continue. Don’t eat the food; the radiation levels in food are negligible. The water is cooling the spent rods; the water has boiled off of the spent rods and they are bare to the air. The only thing that is certain is that an accurate report of events will only be written months after the reactors are shut down (or re-started) and the dead are buried. And yet, we want NEWS, so the hype and speculation builds and recedes like the tide.

When apocalyptic-scale floods hit Queensland, Australia, it seemed to me that the public officials who spoke directly to everyone on TV, many times per day, did a pretty excellent job of saying what was happening where, what was expected next, and what each person should do about it (e.g. evacuate, check on your neighbors, stay calm, stay off the phones unless it’s an emergency, or come to this location to help). It was amazing. The context is that Australians wouldn’t put up with fudging the facts, whereas in some other cultures, it’s expected.

I’m not saying that the truth is relative and you should say what’s expected of you – quite the opposite. Sometimes you have to give unwelcome news, but it’s best to be as honest and direct about it as possible, including a dose of humility. “We don’t know” should be heard more often when events are in motion.

The basic premise of all the Buddha’s instructions is that, as much as possible, we align our intention with the goal of helping rather than harming. To that end, he offered three questions we can ask ourselves before we speak: (1) is what we are intending to say true?, (2) is it helpful?, and (3) is it the right time?

More on these next time.

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