All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1999

The Hazards of Truth-Telling

Speaking Freely Can Produce Greatness, but at What Cost?

Language is a priceless gift we inherit from people who came before us and bequeath to those who come after us. Language is a human product, but it is not made by any particular person or group. Because the meaning of what is said depends both on the speaker and on the listener, language is a special kind of patrimony. We receive it in trust, as it were. We use it. And we pass it on when we die. Do we leave language better or worse than we have received it? This choice is part of our destiny as language-using beings. Our contact with language—like our contact with persons—is rarely neutral: either we use language well and improve it, or we use it badly and disimprove it. What is our criterion, you may ask, for making this judgment? Our criterion is our sense of what is right and what is wrong.

I believe that plain speaking and truth-telling are good and improve language, and that equivocating and prevaricating are bad and debauch language. Many people say they agree with this judgment, but they do not mean it, and for good reasons. It is dangerous to speak plainly and to tell the truth, not just in far-off totalitarian societies but in the United States today.

This brings me to remark on one of the great paradoxes of education in our society. We ceaselessly exhort young men and women to think for themselves. However, once people think for themselves, their thoughts—and hence what they say and what they write, and how they speak and how they write—are likely to differ from what passes as politically correct. “To write in plain, vigorous language,” wrote George Orwell, “one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.” This paradox seems to be an intrinsic part of our ambivalence about daring to face the truth. The lives of many persons we now revere illustrate the sad or even tragic consequences of truth-telling.

For example, Socrates liked to go for walks with his pupils who were eager to hear his reflections about the perennial moral dilemmas of life. The Athenian senate considered his behavior subversive—a corruption of youth, a charge not unlike that now leveled against tobacco companies—and sentenced Socrates to death. He chose to kill himself, instead, an option then accepted as honorable and legal, now rejected as mentally disordered and illegal.

John Huss (c. 1370–1415) was a Bohemian priest. Influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, he expressed doubts about the dogma of transubstantiation and opposed the sale of indulgences. Charged with heresy, he was burned at the stake.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was not only a brilliant astronomer, but also a gifted popularizer, in Italian, of the Copernican theory of the solar system. For this, he was denounced to the Inquisition. Led by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), the church’s chief theologian, the Vatican declared Copernicanism “false and erroneous” and placed Copernicus’s writings on the Index. Bellarmine—by all accounts a decent man—asked Galileo to neither “hold nor defend” the heliocentric theory, a request Galileo honored. After Bellarmine died, he was sainted.

Punished for Doing Good

The life of the truth-teller punished for his good deeds whose story has touched me the most deeply is that of the Hungarian physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818–1865). Semmelweis’s crime was twofold. He discovered the cause of puerperal fever, which, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, killed poor women who delivered their babies in teaching hospitals rather than in their homes by the tens of thousands. That was bad enough. What made it worse was that he also discovered—before it was discovered that bacteria cause diseases—that, by washing their hands in a disinfecting solution, physicians could prevent the disease. Unable to reconcile himself to the rejection of his simple remedy and the continuing wholesale medical killing of parturient women, Semmelweis’s behavior became increasingly “abnormal.” He was incarcerated in an insane asylum and soon thereafter died. The cause of his death remains a matter of controversy among medical historians. Today, the medical school in Budapest bears his name.

A less familiar but no less instructive example of the hazards of truth-telling is the experience of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894), father of the famous Supreme Court justice of the same name (1841–1935). Trained as a physician, Holmes was professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard from 1847 until his retirement in 1882. In 1843, he produced his most enduring medical work, an essay titled The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, in which he maintained that the disease was transmitted from patient to patient by the obstetrician. This proposition, like Semmelweis’s, met vigorous opposition from leading American obstetricians. However, unlike Semmelweis, Holmes was unruffled by entrenched professional ignorance and added to his achievements by becoming a celebrated author.

Three of France’s most famous men of letters—Voltaire (1694–1778), Victor Hugo (1802–1885), and Émile Zola (1840–1902)—had to leave their homeland to write freely. Zola’s encounter with the official deniers of truth is the most dramatic. At an early stage in the proceedings, he decided that Captain Alfred Dreyfus was innocent. In 1898, he published his famous open letter—which began with the words “J’accuse”—denouncing the French General Staff of having framed Dreyfus. The publication of this piece led to his being prosecuted for libel and convicted of the charge. He fled to England.

Twain’s Advice

What, then, are young men and young women to do when they heed the advice to think for themselves and arrive at thoughts that differ from what passes as politically correct? One of their choices is to follow Mark Twain’s advice. He wrote: “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”

Had Mark Twain heeded his own advice, he would not have been the great writer he was. He spoke freely, albeit some of his most heretical thoughts were published only posthumously. And he followed his conscience, often choosing to express himself cautiously and humorously, rather than recklessly or polemically.

“The truth,” said Jesus, “shall set you free.” Jesus did not say it will make you popular, or rich, or happy. He said it will set you free—and that it will do. And while freedom—true, inner freedom, what people used to call serenity—may not win you fame or fortune, it will enable you to look yourself in the mirror and to sleep at night.

In short, be courageous, but be careful.

  • Dr. Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) was a Psychiatrist, academic, and champion of individual rights. He devoted much of his life to campaigning against many aspects of conventional psychiatry, in particular involuntary psychiatric treatment and commitment.