I mull the case over in my head, and consider whether it tells me anything about the nature of truth and the value of free speech in protecting it. I conclude that a system where what is patently true is inexpressible by law or by threat of litigation creates two versions of reality: the one that’s spoken and the one that hides away inside our heads.
Speaking and publishing—engaging in any kind of human discourse—are valuable ways of refining our ideas and collectivising our views of the world.
Take this as an example: we come to a high stool in a bar beer on Beach Road to meet up with a couple of pals and share a few bottles of cold beverage. We exchange views on numerous topics—the number of tourists, the road-works on our soi, the value of the baht, and so on—throwing in snippets we’ve seen on TV or read in the paper or on a website. Having come to the bar with a particular set of notions in our heads—some confused, some only partly formed—we leave, tottering slightly, perhaps—with a more developed collection of ideas. We may not have agreed with each other; we may not have been interested in everything that was discussed, but our ideas have been—variously—reinforced, rejected or enhanced. It all adds to the collective wisdom of our species.
Remember that next time you see a group of blokes drinking beer in a bar—they’re adding to the collective wisdom of the species.
But I digress.
What if we were prevented from raising some topics even though everything we say about them is true? What if our newspapers and websites carried a censored, sanitised version of the truth simply because someone might say they’re upset, or get litigious, if they published the full facts?
The danger is that the two versions of reality I referred to above will have different chances of survival. The one that’s supported by a censored press will become stronger than the version we carry in our heads and people will begin to believe it. Isolated from contact with other people’s thoughts, the interior version (which, you will recall, is the true version) will wither and die. The truth that remains—the sanitised one we are allowed to talk about— will be a kind of lie.
You’d think I’d learn from all this cogitation, but I don’t.
This week Mrs Pobaan and I are enjoying dinner at a modest Thai restaurant. Eating out is one of the joys of living in this country—it is possible to enjoy great food and drink without having to pawn the family silver.
The conversation, and the Singha beer, is flowing freely. I can’t actually remember the swathe of subjects that our discussion covers, but I do know that, at the time, it seems reasonable for me to state that Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist.
Call me mad. But that’s what I say. Really.
A silence descends on the table like a freezing fog.
The chatter continues at surrounding tables, but it seems far-off, as if the restaurant has experienced its own mini Big Bang and the diners are all spinning away to the far reaches of the universe to escape the black hole I have created.
We are left at the centre, two people sitting at a table, the air between us bitter with frost.
‘Of course he was a Buddhist,’ Mrs Pobaan says at last. She looks very hurt and upset at what I’ve said.
I don’t want to prolong this pain, but something tells me that it’s important to pursue the truth, and also to show that it’s not a challenge to her faith; just a matter of fact.
‘What I mean is that he was born a Hindu. That’s what most people were in India at that time,’ I explain. ‘He wouldn’t have called himself a Buddhist because they didn’t start formalising Buddhism until after he died. Although what we now call Buddhism was basically his idea, he wouldn’t have done the things that we see Buddhists doing today—praying to images of Buddha, for example. A Buddhist is a follower of Buddha and you can’t follow yourself.’
I realise I’m wallowing around a bit here. I’m just trying to show that the origins of my wife’s religion are a matter of historical (or, at least, traditional) record and don’t detract from what she and her co-religionists practise today. ‘Jesus wasn’t a Christian,’ I say weakly, trying to show that it was OK for the founders of religions to have been something else first. ‘He was a Jew. Christianity didn’t even start for a couple of generations after he died. And Mohammad was a...’
It’s no good. She’s inconsolable. I have voiced something which, though as true as we can make it, somehow doesn’t fit with Mrs Pobaan’s idea of how things should be. For her, things are different and, rather than acknowledge that different views exist and can be argued with, she is deeply hurt by the expression of any view that contradicts her orthodoxy.
After a couple of days she forgives me and there’s a thaw in relations, but she still says I shouldn’t have said what I said. In fact, I shouldn’t have been allowed to say it.
Even though it’s true.