Truth: a delicate matter of give and take


Every activist and essayist must deal with a singular phenomenon when addressing the public: just how “truthful” one should be.

I’m not talking about a choice between lying or “truthing”; I’m talking about just how much truth one should inject into the message. Because, sadly, there’s only so much truth a reader can take all at once.

I call it a matter of “Truth Octane.” Too much truth and your audience switches off, becoming reflexive instead of reflective. Too little and you get platitudinous warm-fuzzy clouds of fog, and no conclusions drawn.

Consider some activism with a high Truth Octane: Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” irrefutably linking the George W. Bush administration to oil interests, and demonstrating a profit motive behind the Iraq war; Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” conclusively arguing that global warming is man-made and damaging; Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Or even war photojournalism showing suffering, carnage, and death, bringing “the awful truth” into our living rooms.

All are definitive attempts to bring obscured information to light. But again — as the nuance of “the awful truth” implies — too high a Truth Octane and people reject it (Bush got re-elected; Gore had been spinning his wheels until recently, etc.). It’s not just because geopolitics, the environment and war are complicated topics. It works like this:

When advocates come on too strong with their claims, people naturally express a healthy doubt. After all, readers haven’t thought through everything yet to the point that they can agree completely. However, opponents capitalize on that doubt, say “the subject is controversial,” “the presenter is partisan” or “the viewpoint is not fair or balanced,” and dilute down the Octane.

The easiest example to illustrate this with is photojournalism. Shocking images of death and destruction have a very high Truth Octane — so high, the Vietnam War demonstrated, that they can change minds about an entire war. So, even though people intrinsically know that war involves killing and mutilation, it gets censored. People just don’t want to see it, especially if their government is in any way implicated. It would mean people confronting their own paradigms, realizing their support for the war may have been a mistake. So we acquiesce in the censorship to escape those qualms.

But consider a less extreme example. Whenever I point out issues of racial discrimination to the media, even the sharpest reporter dulls his analytical scalpel: “Of course we know the issue is one of race. But our editor and readership might not. So we’ll have to render it as discrimination by nationality or appearance (gaiken).” Or worse yet, portray it as a “cultural misunderstanding” — which means it is not even discrimination anymore. Again, we don’t want to challenge the common paradigm: “Racial discrimination happens in other countries, not Japan.” It’s too much to take.

So how does an activist deal with a high Truth Octane? One way is to dilute it yourself by offering caveats and disclaimers, such as “Discrimination is everywhere, Japan is not unique,” or “I’m not bashing Japan.” That is, if you don’t mind wasting column space on platitudes, and debasing your own argument.

Another way is to use satire; show insight through various contrasts, ironies, metaphors, and parables. Consider examples such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” some of the best episodes of “South Park” or “The Daily Show” — even the recent parodies of American political figures on “Saturday Night Live.” Comedy allows the Truth Octane to enter the psyche unadulterated, aided by the spoonful of sugar that is laughter.

Alas, in Japan political satire is in relatively short supply, especially on broadcast media. This is, after all, a country where sarcasm and irony are rarely seen as forms of humor. That means one less tool for activists to employ. You have to be entertaining while biting, a rare skill.

What can be done? Raise Truth Octane in small doses, and bring people along slowly. History indicates that the most foresighted people, from revolutionary scientists to activists you find on the faces of coins, persisted for years with their assertions and were subject to skepticism, rebuke, even the threat of violence for challenging the status quo.

In the end many prevailed, as they weaned increasing numbers of people onto a stronger Truth Octane. Finally there was a tipping point, then a society-wide paradigm shift. Old ideas that were once taken for granted (such as slavery, lack of universal suffrage, and anti-miscegenation laws) were relegated to the dustbin of history.

That’s how it starts — by speaking truth to power and to the public. How “much” truth you speak is completely a matter of timing. But those who can master their Truth Octane effectively can change the world.

Debito Arudou is a coauthor of the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants.” Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp.