The truth, the whole truth and nothing but: Lawyers and concepts of truth and honesty

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Marcel Strigberger

Marcel Strigberger.

“You can’t handle the truth!” This is the iconic line from the 1992 military courtroom film, A Few Good Men. Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) bellowed these words to Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) during Kafee’s intense cross examination. Given the current pandemic, I find myself—like many of, us no doubt—spending a good amount of time watching old movies.

After hearing the line anew, I started thinking about the concepts of truth and honesty. It occurred to me that this is a subject of interest to many of us, especially in the justice system. In fact, there is a myriad of expressions surrounding these concepts, as there are for the flip side, dishonesty.

For starters, children use a cute phrase when they feel they have been deceived. I recall once promising to take my then-young son Gabriel to a hockey game. Unfortunately, something urgent came up near a trial date, and I had to cancel. Gabriel was very understanding. He exclaimed, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

Although I did not share the boy’s assessment of my integrity, Gabriel’s comment got me contemplating the topic of honesty. Perhaps adults should be as explicit and candid as children when they feel that someone is not telling the truth. It would be refreshing, for example, for a judge to comment in his or her reasons, “I totally reject the defendant’s evidence. Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

It would certainly get the defendant to look at his pants.

And if his pants were indeed consumed by fire, he might now be in a position to tell the naked truth.

People do not like to be called out for being dishonest. Scarcely does a Wild West movie exist without that saloon poker scene in which some Johnny Ringo pulls four aces. This does not sit well with some Colorado Kid, who happens to be holding an ace as well. And when the Kid simply clears his throat, Ringo says, “You callin’ me a liar?” If the Kid then even blinks, he will be out on the street pronto, just a quick gunfight away from a trip to Boot Hill. (European version: Gaming room in Paris. The outraged Count Montiago slaps the face of the insulting Baron de Grenoble with his glove and asks him to meet up at dawn, with their respective seconds, for a duel. Weapons to be chosen then.)

It is not surprising that people are uncomfortable with the concept of dishonesty, and they similarly use a myriad of expressions to fervently convince others that they are honest.

One such remark is “I swear on a stack of bibles.”

Swearing on one bible is a very solemn occasion. If you do not tell the truth after swearing on even a single bible, then you are destined to be banished to a hotter climate in the netherworld. But which nefarious place can you possibly be sentenced to if you lie after swearing on a stack of bibles? The Bates Motel?

Then there is the guy who swears up and down. When I hear this witness affirming his honesty, I imagine him in front of a judge and jury, taking a bible into his hands and uttering the oath while doing five deep squats. Now, who can discredit this individual?

And we have the philosopher. When challenged, he’ll say, “Why would I lie?”

Maybe because he can’t handle the truth. Not even a grain of truth.

Let us not forget the people who are so convinced of their honesty that they invite disaster to be visited upon themselves if they are lying. They say, “Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Some are more specific: “May I be struck by a bolt of lightning.”

I believe that these people must be taken seriously. To date, I have yet to be in a courtroom and see a bolt of lightning head straight for the witness box.

They are bolder than the chickens who direct the consequences of their dishonesty to others. I am talking about the witness who says, “I swear on my children.”

Others are really bold and even weird with someone else’s children or even pets, reacting with surprise if they are called out for some indiscretion. They’ll say, “It’s true” or “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”

I generally suspect these people’s integrity. They likely engage in monkey business.

Some folks view honesty from different elevations. They may be on the level. Others may be even more honest, on a higher level, being aboveboard. I actually respect these people, as they likely put their cards on the table.

Then we have the sports-minded people: “He is as straight as an arrow.”

This one sometimes makes me uneasy. If arrows were as straight as some of these straight shooters claim they are, imagine if I were William Tell’s son; there is no way I would stand there with that apple on my head.

Speaking of little boys, let us not forget the son of all big liars, Pinocchio. I would say the invention of the century would be a fairy that could stand near a party in the witness box and ensure that his nose grows whenever he lies. It would certainly speed up court trials. It might even put many lawyers out of a job. But that is OK. I mean it. Scout’s honor.

Interestly, it has just come to my attention that in the U.S., there is actually an Honesty Day. It’s April 30. “That’s the honest truth.” I read about it on the bible of popular information, Wikipedia (single bible only). The purpose of the day is to encourage honesty and straightforward communication in politics, relationships, consumer relations and historical education.

April 30 was selected rather than April 1, which would not have been the best choice. The date was also chosen because it coincides with the first inauguration of George Washington. To keep myself honest, I fact-checked this date with the paragon of accuracy, Siri. To tell the whole truth, Siri referred me to Wikipedia.)

I suppose George Washington’s link to honesty must be that incident where he comes clean to his dad and confesses that he chopped down that cherry tree. Some of us here in Canada are familiar with the momentous event. I am not so sure these days that our own politicians would go out on a limb like that. (No pun intended, though he did not go out on it; he just chopped it all down.)

And I haven’t even mentioned Honest Abe.

Wikipedia also notes a survey of the most honest occupations. Lawyers? Good guess. But wrong. It’s nurses. Who knew? Even with Wiki’s endorsement, I doubt most lawyers when they have a nurse cross-examine on the stand; they will tell the judge, “We have Florence Nightingale here. It’s OK. No questions.”

Certainly, nurses may score high on the integrity list. But speaking of nurses, that brings me full circle back to Jack Nicholson again. I am reminded of his role as R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His run-in with Nurse Ratched spooks me. She may have been honest, but I would think twice about crossing her, as I would not care to come down with an unexpected lobotomy.

I trust I have covered the area of honesty, fully and fairly. If I missed something, then I confess. Mea culpa.

Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his writing and speaking passions. Read more of Strigberger’s work at

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