Neither poetic nor profound, these dozen words still capture the exasperation of trying to reach a person whose view of the world cannot accommodate the truth.
Sometimes a perfect response will stick for a lifetime. A person captures in a few words all of the intangibles that seem to be in play when an encounter ends with an impasse. So it was with a former British Prime Minister who spent his share of time facing questions from the opposition in the weekly parliamentary ritual known as Question Time. Questions to the Prime Minister give members of the opposing party a chance to query the leader of the government they would like to replace. Policies are challenged. Priorities are questioned. That’s the parliamentary system, making the Wednesday session with questions the high point of Britain’s political week. The meeting of the two party leaders–fueled by an impatient Prime Minister in waiting—is often better than what is running in any given week on Broadway.
And so it was when Prime Minister James Callaghan rose to answer questions from his opposite just two swords length away, each standing in front of separate little podiums known in the House of Commons as Dispatch Boxes. It was 1976 and the beginning of his three stormy years as leader of the government. His interrogator at the time was the formidable Margaret Thatcher, who would eventually win the general election when Labour party unity collapsed a few years later. But in 1976 his Government was ready for all comers.
Callaghan uttered a simple phrase of exasperation that I have never forgotten. Neither poetic nor profound on it own, somehow its dozen words managed to capture the angst that comes when trying to reach people who have locked themselves into a belief that cannot accommodate what you have said.
Better than most, Callaghan understood the impossibility of moving a rock that has no intention of being budged. I have a hunch his response had long been a part of his rhetorical repertoire.
After an exasperating exchange over the state of the economy where he was challenged on some basic numbers, these perfect words were spoken in a tone of regret and gentle rebuke.
“I can tell you the truth,” he said, “but I can’t make you accept it.”
It’s a perfect comeback to other members of the species who cannot free themselves to acknowledge the facts on the ground.
Several reasons make the response apt. It affirms the speaker’s belief that some statements cannot be negotiated away as mere opinion. At the same time it judges the intransigence of the listener more in regret than in anger. And that’s the right note to strike when others in the room need to be reminded that an interlocutor is incapable of dealing with the obvious.
Perhaps the closest American parallel is in the famous courtroom showdown is in A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner’s 1992 legal drama. Young military attorneys press a career commander played by Jack Nicholson to reveal more of what he knows about the death of a Marine at the Guantanamo base in Cuba. “I want the truth Colonial Jessup!” demands the young and callow lawyer. After a few beats the older man works up a full head of steam, and he rages back with the line that defines the film: “You can’t handle the truth!” Jessup has heard all he can stand from the young Lieutenant whose military experience has been confined to a few months in the Judge Advocate General Corps. “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.”
The whole scene with its line about handling the truth is a great movie moment. But Callaghan’s rebuke is the more elegant of the two. It can be said in a whisper and be just as effective. It bites more completely with its tone of dismay for the inability of the receiver to accept the world as it is. If Colonel Jessup’s comment is a chainsaw in full throttle, Callaghan’s words more quietly cut through resistance like an industrial laser.