Truth in the Information Age: Havel Addresses U-M AudienceSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Mr. President, distinguished guests, your university was founded in the same year in which my country witnessed the discovery of the alleged medieval manuscripts of patriotic epics which purported to attest the ancient roots of our nation‘s culture; the wealth of its history; and the greatness of its mythmaking creativity. Their appearance gave a boost to our self-awareness and self-confidence as a nation at a time when we were deprived of freedom and they were designed to contribute toward our emancipation.
Professor Masaryk, before becoming the first Czechoslovak president, collected evidence proving that these manuscripts although superbly written, and obviously inspired by good intention, were fakes. There ensued a so-called “Battle for the Manuscripts” — a period of major importance in Czech history. The minority who insisted that the papers had been forged were decried by majority opinion as traitors to the nation and accused that, by questioning the most precious relics of the Czech people, they undermined the nation‘s self-confidence, and thus, jeopardized the entire self-liberation effort. Rejection of the manuscripts‘ authenticity entailed a great personal risk and a complete loss of confidence in the eyes of the patriotic public.
Masaryk, who was already engaged in politics at that time, would not yield and did not succumb to the temptation to appear complaisant to the crowds. Undeterred by the risk of losing prestige, reputation and popularity, he stood by his conviction. He found it unacceptable, as a matter of principle, that awareness of national identity, or the struggle for his people‘s legitimate rights, first within the formation of the Austro-Hungarian state and later with the aim of restoring Czech statehood should be based on a lie or fraud. To him, the only valid and viable cornerstone for his nation‘s new existence was truth.
But what is truth?
Do we now live in the age of an information revolution when hundreds of thousands, or millions of pieces of information crisscross the globe every second at a frantic speed, spanning our planet with an all-embracing coat of communication? This is undoubtedly a marvelous achievement to which I have no objection whatsoever. However, it seems to me — especially after this global breakthrough in the field of information — that it is of paramount importance to understand the fine difference between information and truth. I am neither the first, nor the last, person in my country to point this out, although I may be the first Czech who has been honored to do so on such an important occasion before this university, and who has had an opportunity to personally explain his thoughts on this point to Bill Gates!
So, where is the difference between information and truth?
To put it briefly and simply, I believe that truth is also information, but at the same time, it is something greater. Truth, like any other information, is information which has been clearly proved, or affirmed or verified within a certain system of coordinates or paradigms, or which is simply convincing; but it is more than that: it is information avouched by a human being with his or her whole existence, with his or her reputation and name, with his or her honor.
I do not know how many of the millions of information details which float around our planet meet this criterion. It was certainly true of the information that our famous national manuscripts were forgeries — information which was not only proved scientifically, but also vouched for by a great man who stood by that information with his entire being and did not hesitate to fight for it — against all — and to risk almost everything in the process. The same man later emerged as one of the most eminent personages amongst the creators of our modern history.
Masaryk‘s unswerving adherence to truth — regardless of the cost — eventually bore historic fruit. His emphasis on truth was embraced as one of the underlying ideals of our modern state, and Masaryk himself won universal respect as the liberator of our nation and, as the first Czechoslovak President, became an object of veneration.
But none of those were a certainty. Masaryk could have been completely obliterated and forgotten simply because he went against the trend of his time. In any event, the nation would have eventually recognized that the manuscripts were fakes. As far as my contemporaries are concerned, I suspect that the majority do not care in the least whether those epics were authentic or forged; most of them may not even know of their existence. Nevertheless, Masaryk‘s attitude demonstrates that the genuine commitment to truth means standing firm no matter whether it yields returns or not; whether it meets with universal recognition or universal condemnation; whether a fight for the truth leads to success or to absolute scorn and to obscurity. President Kennedy dwelt upon this subject in his book Profiles in Courage — a work portraying the fate of people who were not afraid to stand up alone against all and to risk political defeat because they were certain of the truth and obeyed their conscience.
Why am I speaking about this here and now? Graduates of your university will soon become leading figures in various spheres of American public life. I would wish for them, as well as for myself, that they manage to remain faithful to truth in this information age and that they work in this spirit; in the hope, perhaps a foolish hope, that they will make the world a better place.
Masaryk‘s hope may have appeared foolish as well. But was it really? Is it foolish to let ourselves be guided by conscience to insist on the truth even when it is out of favor and, thus, to affirm that truth is genuine truth in the deepest sense? What is foolish actually?