Handling the Truth

“You can’t handle the truth!” The famous scene from the movie A Few Good Men rises to a crescendo with Lt. Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) maneuvering Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) to confess his role in a murderous crime. Kaffee draws the famous exclamation from the enraged officer in response to a very important petition: “I want the truth.”

Can we say the same?

Truth is an interesting word in our advanced societies of 2010. We speak as if everything we say is true, but we also deny that truth exists. Why the contradiction? One simple explanation is that uncertainty frees us from commitment and responsibility. If truth exists, we must live by it, we must behave accordingly and, ultimately, we are held accountable by someone greater than ourselves. We should not be surprised, however, to find that we deny truth and then act and speak as if everything is good and true.

This delusion is one of the great deceptions of the 21st century. If you are a rational human being, it is not something that can sit in your stomach without upsetting it.

Since we live in an “evolved” and scientific age, we need to look for causes and solutions. The first and greatest level of responsibility for this confusion is in the area of leadership. Leadership is traditionally defined as the capacity to influence others. What sphere of activity exerts the most extensive and global influence on humanity in our day? A case could be made for the news and entertainment media.

The fundamental problem with leadership in the media is that many do not know the purpose of the media. Leaders in this industry seem to forget, or perhaps never accepted, that communication of information and ideas — the true purpose of the media — must always be at the service of the common good. It must contribute to the integral development of the human person.

A major break occurs when we disassociate the purpose of communication from the common good as well as the virtue of justice. As defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1906), the common good is “the sum of all conditions of social life that permit groups as well as single members to achieve their proper perfection more fully and more rapidly.”

We can also recall that the virtue of justice is to give others their due. Whether through agenda, bias or unbalanced reporting (giving only one side of a story) — not to mention sensationalism, titillation and undue advertiser influence — the media often deceives us. It can emphasize certain information while downplaying or ignoring clarifying details as a way to impose a mode of thought that directly influences our view on things. Stated another way, it can give facts without telling the truth.

The responsibility for correcting this unfortunate scenario lies not only with leaders in the media industry, but also with each of us: We choose to buy the newspaper, tune in to the TV station or visit the website. Sometimes we’re passive consumers of whatever’s on rather than active seekers of the truth. This can cause us to view the things of God through the eyes of the popular culture rather than the other way around.

One thing is certain: The truth exists. And as Catholics we know that, at its core, the truth is not a thing but a Person. “I am the way and the truth,” he told us, “and the life.”

Now what “anchorman” was it who made that simple statement of fact?

Brother Nathaniel Haslam, LC, is executive leadership coach of the Swiss School of Management in Rome (SSM-EDU.net).