Uncomfortable Truths and Expedient Lies – Welcome to 1984!

Vaclav Havel. Source: ireport.cz

I am fond of the thinking and writing of Václav Havel. He was a Czech statesman, writer and former dissident, who served as the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 and then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. Here is part of his address at the time he was named President of Czechoslovakia:

“For forty years, you have heard on this day from the mouths of my predecessors, in a number of variations, the same thing: how our country is flourishing, how many more millions of tons of steel we have produced, how we are happy, how we believe in our government. I assume you have not named me to this office so that I, too, should lie to you”.

He goes on to speak of the “uncomfortable truth versus the expedient lie”. He was trying to tell the truth, which seemed almost violent and shocking in a nation accustomed to lies.

I don’t think that the “expedient lies” spoken by his predecessors are so foreign to us – whether in Eastern Europe or most other country in the twentieth-first century. I’m afraid that I would paint corporations and institutions with the same brush. It is human to try to put reality in the best possible light, even to the point of painting over the real picture.

None of us is a stranger to expedient lies. We live in a time when there is plenty of conversation about fake news, personal information is shared all over social media, when video and photographic documentation can be manufactured or altered, and where we grow uncertain as to whether statements being offered are actually correct.

Contemporary culture often calls to mind ideas and language from Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, basically suggesting that the 1949 novel has plenty to offer our present world. No wonder that 1984 has seen a surge in new sales.

Jean Seaton is Director of the Orwell Foundation. She prepared a piece for the BBC in May of this year, claiming that Orwell opened our eyes to how regimes work. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180507-why-orwells-1984-could-be-about-now

Seaton writes of the horrors found in Orwell and how helpful they are for understanding our critical look at the world that we have inherited … or, dare I say, the world that we have created for ourselves. The real enemy of the regime is reality.

“Tyrannies attempt to make understanding the real world impossible: seeking to replace it with phantoms and lies.” She goes on, “The terror in 1984 is the annihilation of the self and the destruction of the capacity to recognise the real world. There is no fashionable or casual relativism in Orwell’s work: he understands how hard it is to get things right.

However, this story pins down the terror of a world where people have fewer and fewer words to use and whose thinking is distorted by ideologies.” Seaton writes of the surging sales of 1984, not just in parts of the world where tyrannies rule, but also in the USA, as “people search for a way of getting to grips with the reality of the Trump administration.” She ends her piece by describing the novel as “a handbook for difficult times. Knowledge is strength and we are all being tested.”

Havel, Orwell and so many others offer helpful ways for our critical analysis of our culture. Can we hear this, or have we been brainwashed by Orwell’s thought police?

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 08:38h, 12 September Reply

    Thank you Philip!

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 07:18h, 13 September Reply

    I agree entirely (and as a fan of Havel and his “living in truth”, I thank you). In my experience, the modern bedrock of communicators (politicians, executives and their communications experts) is convincing, not informing. We must not have facts themselves, only interpretations, ‘spin’. In the mid-80s, in my public servant days, I was once summoned to the prime minister’s office to help the communications staff formulate an answer to a technical question. After listening to their attempts at spin, I said “Why not just tell the truth?” and proved how this would be a trouble-free solution. They were astonished, but followed my advice, and it worked.

  • Philip Shano
    Posted at 11:19h, 14 September Reply

    Thanks Robert. Good points. Thank you for contributing from your experience.

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