Stephen Colbert’s act is a sham, and it is a brilliant one. He executes the act so well that it took an entire segment of America months to figure out it was parody. Colbert’s greatest contribution to American politics is a word he himself coined, “truthiness.”
It reminds us that lying is an art form. Remember Bill Clinton slyly questioning the right interpretation of what the word “is” is? The word doesn’t just say politicians are liars, that is not new. It hints that there is a way of speaking to others that is not just dishonest, it shifts the idea about what truth telling is. It suggests that truth telling is also an art form.
The default position of my childhood upbringing is that one is either telling the truth or he or she is not. When telling a lie I have a great deal of opportunity to create and explore in order to be as effective, entertaining, or insulting as I want to be. Unless one’s homework is to design a chew toy “my dog ate it,” is not only boring but insulting to any seasoned teacher. “My house was bombarded by a herd of penguins,” is much more interesting but less believable. The sweet spot is a delicate balance of between likely and unique so as to be believable But ‘good’ lying takes a great deal of practice just like playing a violin or baking a soufflé. Truth telling also requires requires practice. “What is going on over there?” “Well, my heart rate is at a steady rate of 130 beats per minute, the sun is still rising from the east, and my right ear is ringing” This is true, but at what point does it become the truth? “This morning I shot somebody,” or “this morning I shot someone who was attacking a small child.” These are all very different stories even though all of them are true. Some of them are more important to tell.
While a lot of undergraduate ethics classes like to debate the extent to which one can justify telling white lies, very little is put into practice to help people learn how to tell stories, to weave narratives that really give insight as to what is going on. Truth telling is not just about intent, it is also about ability and skill. It is the responsibility of the Church to be a school of learning to tell the truth. It is discovering how our story must be told and re-told century after century, moment after moment. The trick is to master the art of seeing the truth as it happens in political dynamics, health diagnoses, psychological dynamics, the unfolding of history and love. And Stephen Colbert in the execution of his well timed farce is asking us to be better artists.