Cat’s cradles

Implicit and explicit permission to say things that are true, plainly, has been a hallmark of Western Civ. This is not to say that we have never failed. But it was a position seldom knowingly forsaken. To cry “Fire!” in a cinema, when it is actually on fire, is the non-exception that vindicates the rule. I wrote “actually” and did not write “abstractly” or “arguably.” Perhaps one was mistaken, and the cinema only appeared to be on fire; but a sincere persuasion, supported by evidence, can be forgiven. It is no mere “human right.” It is a moral duty. As all such, it must be acted upon.

Some things that are true go unmentioned, because it is unnecessary to mention them. They are matters of etiquette, not of morals. Contemporary tabloid journalism (the only kind we have) takes pleasure in (and derives profit from) “the public’s right to know.” If a man, who trades on a good reputation, is in fact a blackguard, his public ought to know. But before they are told, so much as a rumour, the reporter had better get his facts straight.

This used to be understood. There was a time, earlier in my life, when libels could still be tried with an attempt at impartiality. Because I was a hack journalist in those days, I was obliged to study the law of libel. Among the first things one learnt, was that in the British tradition of common law, the truth is always a defence. Defamation absolutely required a falsehood, and so an untruth had to be established.

I make no defence of American law, in which (in certain states), malice must be cumbersomely proved, in addition to falsehood. But in the known world, where cases were tried, a judge could award damages of one peppercorn, without tampering with principle. We had a culture in which the possibility of distinguishing between demonstrable truth, and demonstrable falsehood, was accepted — by everyone not demonstrably mad. Yes it was malicious, yes it was false, but a statement might be so obviously “rhetorical,” that any attempt to suppress it would impinge on free speech. Cases could be dismissed, or a litigant punished, for bringing a silly charge.

No sane conception of freedom can be entirely libertarian. Libel laws should be enforced, but in the end they will not be if they are vague or fluctuating. As other laws, they should not be made unpredictably complicated: you are guilty or you are innocent (or if you are Scottish, probably guilty but “unproved”). All this comes from a world that has been, in the last couple of generations, overthrown. In every Western country of which I am aware, judges are now at liberty to alter laws, in defiance of legislation. Miscarriages of justice become inevitable, thereby.

As a “reactionary,” I assert that the truth is important; and that it depends upon maintaining legal consequences for those who spread consequential lies. Without this, the freedom to live and breathe must “progressively” evaporate. We come to the present situation in which rival parties cultivate their respective “narratives,” in which truth and falsehood are jumbled together. We soon lose the ability even to guess at the truth of anything. In the end there must be violence, when two “narratives” clash, and only naked physical force decides between them.

The interesting thing about “political correctness” is that it compels people to tell obvious lies, and provides arbitrary punishments for those who refuse. By increments it makes telling any truth impossible, for every statement is caught up in a cat’s cradle of contributing falsehoods, against which there can be no legal remedies.