“The first casualty of war is truth”, a statement attributed to U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson, an isolationist senator from California who served from 1917 to 1945 (ironically, there is some dispute about whether he actually uttered that). But there is no disputing the truth of the statement whose application extends beyond the traditional conflicts where countries formally declare war on one another. I submit that the maxim applies in any situation where two parties are warring with one another, whether politically, ideologically or any other way.
If John Rae were with us today, he would attest to this truth. Think back to that geography lesson you had in elementary school or perhaps junior high. There was an era in the age of exploration when every explorer who could was searching for the fabled “Northwest Passage”. Much of this exploration occurred in the 19th century with the British sending multiple expeditions into the Davis Strait, through Baffin Bay in hopes of popping out on the western end in the Beaufort Sea just north of Alaska. The urgency was economic: it would shorten the journey to the Far East if such a passage existed. John Rae was the explorer who discovered that it did, and his accomplishments are chronicled in Ken McGoogan’s “Fatal Passage” (an excellent summary is also found in chapter 11 of Martin Sandler’s “Resolute”). But Rae was denied his place in history due to a character assassination that skewed the truth.
Rae’s credentials as an Arctic explorer were impressive. He surveyed 1,765 miles of uncharted territory, hiked 6,555 miles on snowshoes and navigated 6,700 miles in small boats. His methods were also different. Instead of outfitting an expedition with large sailing ships and provisions and attempting the journey only by water, he went the minimalist route. He lived in the Arctic and learned the ways of the indigenous peoples, treating them as equals. He traveled as they did, lived as they did and adopted their survival methods. This approach allowed him to surpass the accomplishments of the other 19th century Arctic explorers, among them was Sir John Franklin.
While Rae was an efficient, effective explorer who worked in relative obscurity, Franklin was the opposite. In 1845, Franklin led the best-equipped, best-funded and most heralded expedition in the history of Arctic exploration, commanding two ships outfitted with state-of-the-art provisions. The 128 men in Franklin’s crew set off to find the Northwest Passage and then disappeared. Search efforts spanning 40 years ensued, but only a few artifacts, graves and clues were found that hinted at the final fate of the Franklin expedition. John Rae discovered many of the disturbing clues about Franklin expedition.
During his Arctic travels, Rae asked any of the native people he encountered for information about the expedition. He collected stories and artifacts – several silver forks bearing the initials of officers in the crew, one of Franklin’s medals and many smaller items such as coins – that led him to conclude in a report to the British Admiralty in 1854 that the expedition suffered “a fate as terrible as the imagination can conceive”. Rae’s report went on to piece together the clues he gathered and make this assessment: “From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our countrymen had been driven to the last dread resource – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence.”
This sensational report of cannibalism did not play well in Victorian England. Franklin’s widow, the influential and well-connected Lady Jane Franklin, was not about to let her husband’s memory be tarnished in such a way, so she engineered a smear campaign against Rae. With help from powerful friends, like Charles Dickens, she attacked the message and the messenger. Lady Franklin’s spin tactics worked and John Rae, despite his impressive accomplishments, would go to his grave as the only major 19th century British explorer not to receive a knighthood.
So what is the truth about communicating the truth?
- Prepare to have your motives questioned. I think there is always a motive for communicating the truth. But whether motives are pure or impure, do they change the content of the truth? When conveying truth, we must acknowledge that its reception and ultimately its acceptance must pass through the filter of someone’s perception of our motives. It is naïve to think that the motives of truth purveyors don’t influence how it is perceived.
- Perception is reality. While truth certainly matters, what matters as much is how it is perceived. This fact is why so much effort should go into conveying truth in a way that minimizes the possibility for faulty perceptions to form. Because people don’t respond to the truth as much as they respond to their perception of the truth, even when their perception is wrong.
- Be thoughtful. If Rae made a mistake, it was failing to understand the impact his report would have, probably the result of having lived for so long disconnected from British society. He could have used some mentoring when it came to helping the truth gain acceptance. When the truth doesn’t bode well for its audience, we should prepare for its rejection and understand that a hostile audience doesn’t usually distinguish between the message and the messenger.
Here’s the question I’m left with when pondering John Rae’s story: is it more important to be right or to be heard? Before you instinctively respond with “to be right”, consider the implications of not being heard. If we’re really interested in truth, don’t we have to try to achieve both?