Missy Higgins once sang that “lies will lock you up, with truth the only key.” She’s not often given credit as a wise sage, but anybody who has ever been stuck trying to cover the tracks of lies they have told can tell you the relevance of this line.
Someone with slightly different viewpoint, but who I’m sure also appreciates the lyric, is Chelsea Manning. Five years ago today, the Private First Class in the US Army then known as Bradley Manning was arrested after leaking to the public thousands of classified documents. It would be several years, including nine months of harrowing solitary confinement, before Chelsea was eventually charged and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Chelsea had found herself trapped in a web of lies. Stationed in Iraq as an intelligence analyst, it was her job to collect information but she found that the army wasn’t interested in information that didn’t say what they wanted to hear. Struggling already with the truth about her gender identity in a less than supportive atmosphere, Chelsea was presented with a choice. Either go along with the lies, or risk telling the truth – whatever the consequences might be.
In an internet chat that would later be used as evidence against her, Chelsea confided: “If you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time and you saw incredible things, awful things, things that belonged in the public domain… what would you do? … I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are. Because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
The truth can be hard, and nobody knows this as well as Chelsea Manning, who still has 30 years in a military prison left to serve. In those same chat logs she said: “I’m not so much scared of getting caught and facing consequences at this point… I prefer a painful truth over any blissful fantasy.” In the time she has been imprisoned, she has maintained that she does not regret the consequences.
Though in chains, Chelsea is more free today than she would have been had she gone along with the lies and deception of the US war in Iraq, covering up atrocities in a war based on fictional “weapons of mass destruction”. Thanks to Chelsea’s sacrifice, we are all more free – able to know the truth about that war and also able to see the reality of what happens to those who dare to speak uncomfortable truths in our supposedly free and democratic society.
Untruths are so common for most of us that we don’t even think about it. We are lied to every day by advertising’s false promises, we have come to accept that our government lies to us, we even portray ourselves in idealised versions on social media. But at least for one day, it’s worth remembering the liberating potential of telling the truth.
Using Chelsea Manning as an inspiration, and to continue her legacy, take time today to tell the truth. Tell the truth to your friends and loved ones. Tell the truth to your workmates and boss. Tell the truth to those in power and the truth about the society we are living in.
George Orwell said many years ago, though it is as true as ever today, that “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”