Victims want “the truth” not “their truth” to prevail

Victims want “the truth” not “their truth” to prevail

Oprah Winfrey and Recy Taylor

Victims want “the truth” not “their truth” to prevail

During Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes, she used the word “truth” five times.

Most of the attention has been on her use of the phrase “speaking your truth” but it was only two sentences earlier that Oprah said, “We also know it's the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.”

In contrast to Socrates who was explicit that he knew nothing at all, Oprah has made “What I know for sure” somewhat of a trademark expression of hers. She employed this expression at the Golden Globes saying, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”

But “your truth” and the “absolute truth” are, importantly, not the same.

Oprah told the gut-wrenching story of Recy Taylor who, in 1944, was a young wife and mother living in Alabama. On her way home from church one day, she was kidnapped and raped by six armed men who left her blindfolded on the side of the road. Oprah reports that these men threatened to kill Taylor if she ever told anyone, but she did; and civil rights champion Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case. Despite their striving after justice, however, the men who raped Taylor were never prosecuted for their crimes.

Oprah, likely with the best of intentions, strove to affirm Recy’s “truth”. But a victim doesn’t naturally appeal to “my truth” but to “the truth.” It’s the same “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth” that led Recy Taylor herself to say, “Many ladies got raped. The peoples there — they seemed like they wasn’t concerned about what happened to me, and they didn’t try and do nothing about it. I can’t help but tell the truth of what they done to me.”

Pitting one person’s “truth” against another’s “truth” leads to an insurmountable impasse unless the fundamental criterion is the truth, the absolute truth of what actually happened.

“Truth” is not simply someone’s side of the story and nothing shows this so clearly as considering the perpetrators​,​ whose “truth” (which ​is​, in fact, an array of ​lies) cannot under any circumstances be reconciled with the absolute, objective truth of the injustice they committed against their victims. 

Furthermore, Oprah telling the story of Recy Taylor should affirm clearly to us that, even when a victim cannot recall all the facts of the matter or remember all of the relevant details, the truth does not depend on his or her recollection, but on the reality of what happened.

Recy Taylor told the county sheriff that she could not identify the perpetrators. According to “her truth” these men were nameless and faceless, and so could not be held accountable. But that doesn’t change the truth that certain men in particular assaulted her and are responsible for it, if not before a jury of their peers than before the Lord of Hosts and His heavenly court. Sometimes even a survivor’s truth, through no fault of his or her own, is not the whole truth.

I’m reminded of a brilliant scene in the 2016 film Denial based on the true story of Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt who was sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving. Anthony Julius, the lead on Lipstadt’s legal team, is insistent that they will not call any survivors as witnesses; their sole defense will be the truth.

Julius insists on this condition because, many years after the fact, survivors are bound to get some of the details wrong. And, a survivor’s ​real ​​interest lies ​not in “speaking his or her truth” but rather with that “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth.”

In the film, Julius explains to Lipstadt:

Yes. And put survivors on the stand and [Holocaust denier] Irving will humiliate them. Remember the Zundel trial. Remember the Exodus trial. The survivors got torn apart. Because survivors don’t remember. Not every detail. They get something wrong - they say a door was on the left, when actually it was on the right - and wham! Irving’s in. “You see! They’re liars, you can’t trust anything they say... There are survivors who believe they were examined by Dr. Mengele. They never even met Mengele, he was at another camp altogether. But they met a doctor and today they believe it was him. Do you think Irving is going to respect them? You want that, do you? Holocaust survivors mocked and humiliated?

Here we have a compelling and instructive example of why “speaking your truth” is not always the most powerful tool. The most powerful tool we have is reality, the truth itself. And this is why it will always be the truth, not your truth or mine, that sets us free. 

 


Amanda Achtman studied political science in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta in Canada. She recently completed an MA in John Paul II Philosophical Studies at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland and has participated in programs hosted by: the Acton Institute, the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, the Hildebrand Project, and the Philos Project.