by David Dobson
The words are familiar. We have all heard them many times. Anyone providing testimony has been asked to swear or affirm that they will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And, we all agree. Yes, we will. So help us God.
So, does the narrative we want to believe actually match reality? Comedian, Stephen Colbert, jokes about “truthiness” and every cable news outlet airs spin doctors 24/7. Do we always view the truth as objective? Do we, in fact, live in a time where there is less premium on telling the truth than there used to be? Likewise, is there a sufficient personal or social penalty or negative consequence for not telling the truth?
Oklahoma law defines perjury as follows: “Whoever, in a trial, hearing, investigation, deposition, certification or declaration, in which the making or subscribing of a statement is required or authorized by law, makes or subscribes a statement under oath, affirmation or other legally binding assertion that the statement is true, when in fact the witness or declarant does not believe that the statement is true or knows that it is not true or intends thereby to avoid or obstruct the ascertainment of the truth, is guilty of perjury. It shall be a defense to the charge of perjury as defined in this section that the statement is true.” 21 O.S. § 491. Perjury is a felony, punishable by imprisonment. 21 O.S. § 500.
It has been my experience that people generally fall into three groups: (1) those who naturally tend to tell the truth; (2) those who naturally tend to fudge the truth; and (3) those who have limited ability to distinguish the true from the false. Perhaps surprisingly, I believe a significant subset of the population falls into the third group. Not through mental deficiency, but rather through the filter they apply to their own reality, people tend to project a varnished view of reality. People want to paint themselves (and their story) in the best light and often (perhaps subconsciously) revise details to fit their narrative. For instance, if I ask a witness whether a traffic light was red, yellow or green, a witness whose narrative places someone else at fault, might insist that the light was green because they would never run a yellow or red light. They “believe” their light was green...even if it was not. Under Oklahoma law, that witness is not guilty of perjury, even if it can be demonstrated that the light was red when they drove through the intersection, because they do not believe that the statement is true or know that it is not true, or intend to obstruct the ascertainment of the truth. Proving that a person believed or knew a fact to be false is difficult at best when delving into subjective (and often elastic) memories. Witnesses are often not good historians. Revisionist history is common...either by design or by rationalized or subconscious “misremembering”.
I also suspect that many people do not fear legal consequence from a failure to tell the truth. Until the 17th century, under English common law, there was no legal remedy for perjury. Rather, it was widely accepted that the vengeance of God would sufficiently deter anyone from making a false statement. In an age in which a mere 19% of Americans believe they can trust the government (Pew Research Center, 2015), I suggest that swearing or affirming to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is sometimes treated less as an imperative and more as an ideal.
My view of truth-telling is not entirely jaded. I continue to believe that the majority of Americans want to tell the truth and try to tell the truth. However, I also believe that “truthiness” is more prevalent than ever in a society which, too often, trades in spin, suspicion and sleight of hand.
And that’s the truth.
For more information, please contact David Dobson at 272-9241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Posted on Mon, April 25, 2016
by Andrews Davis