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15 Feb 2010

Wikileaks and Truth – As I mentioned in my last entry (which was posted about three weeks ago now), my morning ritual these days consists of breakfast with the BBC and CNN. I haven’t commented on the latest news, in particular the situation in Egypt, partly because I’ve been feeling a bit sluggish when it comes to writing recreationally these days, but also because I don’t think I could really add anything useful to the conversation. At best I would be parroting what the talking heads have been saying for the past three weeks.

“What Wikileaks is really about is not Truth, or even truth”

Another big news item these days, though (at least it was last Friday, when I first started writing this essay, shortly before Mubarak suddenly stepped down), is Julian Assange’s attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden, mainly because he fears he will then be extradited to the United States, where some are calling for the death penalty. I’m a bit fuzzy on the legal reasoning behind that, actually. He’s not a US citizen so he can’t be tried for treason; my best guess would be that they want to try him as a terrorist, which I guess could result in the death penalty. This is just conjecture on my part; I don’t know the details, and to be honest I don’t really care (otherwise I would have done the research).

But it’s hard to avoid talk of Julian Assange and Wikileaks if you watch the news every morning. The Sunday before last I happened to turn on the Beeb for a moment and caught the tail end of last month’s Doha debates. The motion before the house was: “This House believes the world is better off with Wikileaks.” I didn’t catch any of the debate, just one comment from the audience and then the very brief closing statements from each participant before the House vote. There were four participants, two who argued for the motion and two who argued against it. One of the “for” debaters said in closing: “This is about truth and control, and we have to take back the truth from our governments and give it to the people” (the part after the comma is paraphrased, as I don’t remember exactly how he put it.” It was interesting to note that both he and the other “for” debater both used the word “truth,” while the “against” debaters studiously avoided this term, instead choosing to talk of “transparency” (their closing statements were, in a nutshell, that we need more transparency, but Wikileaks is not the way to do it).

The House then voted, and thanks to the wonders of computers the results were immediately displayed on a screen: 74% for and 26% against. Like I said, I didn’t see the actual debate, but I have to wonder how many people actually changed their mind and didn’t just go in with a chiseled-in-stone opinion. Wikileaks tends to be very polarizing, and it would surprise me if a significant number of people changed their minds after listening to the debate. That makes me wonder what the point of it was, or at least what the point of having the vote was. Whatever the case, it was clear that the majority of people there thought the world is better off with Wikileaks.

What do I think? Well, believe it or not, but I’m probably one of the few people who are on the fence about this whole thing, although if I were to be completely frank I probably lean toward the “against” side. I won’t get into why I think this way just yet—like I just said, people have their ideas about Wikileaks, and nothing I say is likely going to change what anyone thinks. I am, however, going to say something about Wikileaks. I don’t necessarily want to convince you of the virtues or evils of Wikileaks, but I do have a humble request. Can we please stop using the word “truth” when talking about Wikileaks?

It was no accident that both “for” debaters used this word in their closing statements, and that both “against” debaters avoided it like the plague. “Truth” is a very complicated word that expressed a very complicated idea. To put it another way, its semantic range is extremely broad. On the one hand, truth can simply refer to facts. At the other end, of the spectrum, Truth (notice the capitalization) rises high above mere facts and touches the principles of the universe—what makes the world go ’round, so to speak.

I’ve always enjoyed the film A Few Good Men. If you’ve seen it yourself, you probably already know where I’m going with this (and if you haven’t and want to avoid spoilers, skip the next couple of paragraphs). The famous courtroom scene at the end of the film revolves around a confrontation between idealistic Navy lawyer Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and realistic Marine colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson; fun fact: Jessep was a lieutenant colonel in the original play on which the movie is based). Kaffee is pressing Jessep to confess to ordering the beating of a marine that resulted in that marine’s death. At the climax of this confrontation the following exchange takes place.

Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to them.

Jessep: You want answers?!

Kaffee: I want the truth!

Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!

The speech that comes next is among my favorite film speeches ever, but it would be going off on a tangent to quote it. The point here is that when Kaffee and Jessep use the word “truth,” they are talking about two entirely different things. Kaffee uses it to mean “what actually happened”—that is, who ordered the beating of the marine, if anyone. But Jessep uses the term on a much higher level to mean “the way things are in this world”—that is, while we would all like to think that certain things are black and white, tough tasks like defending a nation often require making morally questionable choices for the greater good. I’m not going to comment on that line of thinking because it’s a very slippery concept, but this exchange serves as a vivid example of the difference between the semantic poles of the term “truth.”

There are two Korean words that are generally translated as “truth” in English: and . I’m using the Chinese characters as opposed to Hangul to emphasize the difference between these two words. You’ll notice that the first character in both words is the same—this character is pronounced “jin” and means “true,” “real,” “sincere,” or “genuine.” The second character in each word, though, is different. The first is pronounced “shil” and means “fruit” or “result.” The second is pronounced “ri” or “li” (when the two characters are joined together here they are pronounced “jilli”) and has many meanings, but most applicable here are “way,” “principle,” or “reason” (as in “listen to reason”). So, to parse these terms literally, jinshil means “the fruits of truth,” while jilli means “the way or principle of truth.” More colloquially, the former means “facts” while the latter means “truth” as a higher concept. The motto of my alma mater here in Korea, Seoul National University, was once the Latin phrase “veritas lux mea,” or “Truth is my light.” In recent years the Latin was abandoned and the term now appears in Korean. The word used to translate “veritas” is “jilli,” and it would make no sense (and sound very awkward) to render it as “jinshil.”

English, unfortunately, does not have such a neat distinction between the semantic poles of the concept of truth. Thus whenever the word is used in ambiguous situations, people will take from it what they are already inclined to believe about the situation. This is precisely why the con debaters did not use the term—and precisely why the pro debaters did. I haven’t seen a transcript of the debate, and even in my quotation above I wrote “truth” with a lowercase “t,” but you could almost hear the capital letters when he said it: “This is about Truth and Control.” The thing is, Wikileaks is not about Truth. Use the term “facts” if you like, or words like “transparency,” but please can we stop pretending that this is all about truth?

What Wikileaks is really about is not Truth, or even truth—it’s about power. What do we usually equate with power (well, besides corruption)? Fill in the blank: “__________ is power.” I’m guessing that most of you will say “knowledge.” That’s a more accurate description of the currency Wikileaks deals in. We are not dealing with the control of truth here, we are dealing with the control of knowledge (and thus power), and Wikileaks is arguing that governments should not have a monopoly on it. Now, I don’t want to dwell too much on whether or not the world is better off with Wikileaks, but I will say this: truth (or Truth) may be inherently good, but knowledge most certainly is not.

People say “the truth hurts,” and it can—but it doesn’t harm. It’s kind of like how going to the doctor and getting a shot hurts; it may be physically painful, but you needed it. As Christ famously said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Knowledge, on the other hand, can be wearisome, as explained in one of my favorite Bible verses: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). I can tell you from personal experience that Solomon knew what he was talking about. Coming back to contemporary sayings, we have: “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

I could go on, but now we’re in danger of getting into a discussion of whether Wikileaks is a good thing or not. I really don’t want to go down that road, because it is littered with pitfalls and other obstacles. To give my opinion in brief, though, knowledge without context is not wisdom, and it certainly isn’t truth. Had I been at the Doha debates, I would have voted against the motion, but I can understand why people might think differently. I just wish that people would stop talking about “truth” when discussing Wikileaks. Once people start bandying about “truth,” it quickly becomes “Truth,” and before you know it we have a crusade or a witch hunt on our hands.

I’m going to end today’s entry here. I could probably say more, or at least say what I want to say a little more clearly, but like I said above, I started this entry last Friday. It’s now late Tuesday night (almost Wednesday), and this is the first time I’ve had the mental energy and the opportunity to write something coherent. Unfortunately, I do not see this state of affairs changing for at least another month and a half, which means it is likely that this is the last entry of substance you will see for quite some time. I will try to post brief notes every now and then, but I can make no promises.

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