Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, speaks as  New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and Block Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe gesture during the debate in Ottawa.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, speaks as New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and Block Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe gesture during the debate in Ottawa.

April 25, 2011

With campaign jets soaring over the land and campaign buses rolling down highways, it's sometimes easy for Canadians to be cynical about the honesty of politicians.

But truth in politics still matters to Canadians, and politicians recognize it, said Prof. Richard Feist, dean of philosophy at Ottawa's Saint Paul University.

"The incumbent party certainly does not say something like, 'Well, so what if we were defeated on non-confidence, or not providing (information).'" said Feist. "They want to talk as if 'No, we were defeated on the budget.'"

Feist runs the masters in public ethics program at Saint Paul, training civil servants in the philosophy of honesty. Truth, who tells the truth and whether citizens can recognize it, is important in how we run our politics and how we run our country, he said.

"There's a general sort of mistrust and acceptance of a certain kind of, shall we say not-truthfulness," Feist said. "But a deeper more existential obsession or desire for truth still is there."


Whether it's in politics, journalism, economics or the professions, everything that keeps society functioning requires people to tell the truth, said Al-Noor Nathoo, executive director of the Alberta Health Ethics Network.

"Most of the major crises that happen in government and the corporate sector - whether it be Enron, the sponsorship scandal or the Bev Oda affair - it in some way traces its roots back to a lack of honesty, to people not telling the whole truth," said Nathoo.

The challenge is cultivating an instinct for distinguishing truth from partial truths, said lawyer Mark Freiman, a contributor to the Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto's Forum on Ethics.

"One of the great conceptual advances of the 21st century was made by Stephen Colbert, and his identification of 'truthiness,'" said Freiman. "Truthiness has a much better chance of succeeding than does truth."

Truthiness, according to late-night political satirist Colbert, is stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true rather than the facts.

There's a difference between truth and just any assemblage of facts, said Freiman. Throwing together facts in a way favourable to our self-interest - stock-in-trade for politicians, corporate public relations, institutions and pressure groups - can easily cross the line between truth and truthiness.

"We do try to massage reality so it corresponds with our own interests," said Freiman.

If citizens doubt their ability to achieve an objective view of reality, or begin to substitute clichés for critical thinking, they will be susceptible to truthiness, he said.

"There is an increasing divide between our discourse and our life as we live it," he said. "We think in clichés and we impose a clichéd order on the world, which makes it more difficult to see the real world and more difficult for us to discern the truth."

It may be fashionable to talk about the impossibility of objectivity, but if journalists abandon the effort to investigate and write objectively, citizens lose their principal tool for discovering the truth, said Michael Camp, director of the journalism department at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

On the Internet, in blogs and social media postings, objectivity gets short shrift - and so does truth, he said.

"Social media can be a breeding ground for fanaticism and for reinforcing ideas you already have in your head, rather than exposing yourself to things you might disagree with or different points of view. You can be in an echo chamber of like-minded people," said Camp. "In that environment, extremism can be a problem."

All four parties vying for seats in Canada's federal election May 2 have highly developed social media campaigns.

While absolute objectivity may be beyond the ability of any humble journalist, a professional at the computer keyboard is capable of news without an agenda that includes both sides, if not more than both sides, of an issue, said Camp.

It's easy to blame social media, said Freiman.

"The technology that you have for communication isn't neutral, and does favour certain ways of seeing and certain ways of understanding," he said. "But at the end of the day, it's human beings who think and understand. It's not their computers that understand and think."

Catholics should probably draw some sort of conclusion from the fact that both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II have written encyclicals with the word truth in the title (The Splendour of Truth from John Paul and Charity in Truth from Benedict), said Dominican Father Francois Mifsud, who will complete his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Toronto this year.

"Truth for us as Christians is not an abstract reality. It is a concrete reality. There is an intrinsic link between truth and action," Mifsud said.

If we have trouble figuring out where truth lies, it may be because we live in an individualistic culture where truth can be crushed by self-interest, he said.


"One of the difficulties we are finding as Christians is that we are immersed in this (competitive, individualistic) culture, with these kind of neo-liberal concepts, where in the end what matters is the success of the market and the success of the market depends on the success of the individual," he said.

"In the end, that's why the Church talks of common good when it comes to politics. Because truth comes to us as a relationship."

Even the Church struggles with the question of truth, said Mifsud. We are often caught between a relativism that claims people can only know their own version of the truth and fundamentalism that claims there's no more truth than the truths we already possess.

"Popes, especially Pope Benedict XVI, are insisting that there is a truth. At the same time they show us that we have to relate to the truth, that we are constantly moving towards this truth."

Truth, ultimately, is Jesus Christ. But as long as the apocalypse is still ahead of us we are not so much in possession of the truth as we are pilgrims moving towards the truth.