But First It Will Piss You Off

Using emotionally powerful language for your own purposes is a time-honored practice. Especially for humor. Humor sets one meaning against another in a playful context [1] and one of the meanings may be an allusion to a well-known phrase. I saw a book titled Power over People; it was about overhead power lines. In a context where conservative Christianity is pervasive, slight alterations to biblical language serve to set one meaning against another. I was delighted to learn recently that the word the King James Version translates as “dust” would better be translated “clod (of dirt).” The whole idea of Adam as the First Clod brings designations like First Lady or, recently, First Gentleman, into a hilarious focus.

Of course, for humor purposes, it helps if the phrase being played with is not deeply meaningful to anyone. For humor purposes, familiar, but not emotionally rich, is the perfect combination. [2] But some uses, like the one I have in mind for today, have, in the past, meant something to distinct communities of believers. The phrase is “the truth will set you free.”

There was a time where the meaning, not just the cadence, of that text was powerful. Let’s start there. This text comes from John 8:31 where Jesus says, in Raymond E. Brown’s translation [3] “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” So, by being disciples of Jesus, you will come to know “the truth”—the specific meaning of the expression is not made clear in this passage—and you will be released from your current condition of slavery. Being a disciple enables you to “live in” the word that Jesus is (See John 1:1) and by living in that word you may come to know the truth. It is knowing the truth that will set you free, but it is discipleship that will enable you to know the word and live in it.

The text is complicated and obscure. Also powerful. And easily perverted to other uses. Raymond Brown, in his commentary on this passage, says, “The hackneyed use of this phrase in political oratory in appealing for national or personal liberty is a distortion of the purely religious value of both truth and freedom in this passage.” I think “hackneyed” is an unnecessary slur, but it isn’t wrong. Let’s rescue the kernel of this sentence for today’s use: “The use of this phrase…in appealing for…personal liberty is a distortion of the …value of both truth and freedom in this passage.”

Let’s consider that point to have been made. Now let’s start somewhere else. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles) serves as Ted Lasso’s counselor on the series named for him. She offers this quip to Ted at a crucial moment. The meaning is completely apparent given the context. Dr. Fieldstone says, “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” There are so many good things about this formulation, none of them, of course, related in even the most remote way to the words of Jesus.

And as I got to poking around a little in that phrase, I discovered that it is the title of a book by Gloria Steinem. That places it in the context of Second Wave feminism, where “truth” and “free” have much clearer meanings. It is also clear, in this context, why someone would be pissed off upon learning “the truth.”

This is exactly the meaning Morpheus has in mind when he tells Neo in The Matrix, “The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.” Neo very sensibly asks, “What truth?” And Morpheus responds, “that you are a slave” and goes on to offer him his freedom. [4] It is easy to see why Neo would be pissed off by learning that he was a slave, but the meaning of that word requires the possibility of freedom and the freedom offered is only freedom from. Free from the Matrix, Neo can make genuine choices, good ones and bad ones, and experience the consequences.

What truth?

And that is also what Steinem means. Women have been enslaved and when they learn that, they will be appropriately angry. After the anger, the opportunity to be set free, to live freely, will offer itself, along with the choices that have good or bad consequences.

And that’s why I like the combination of “will set you free;” immediately undercut by “but first it will piss you off.” But the idea that it will piss you off, so clearly understandable in the contexts I offered, is not at all clear outside those contexts.

There is nothing about the truth—taken generally—that will piss anyone off. Every illusion is a slavery of a kind and truths that dispel them set us free from the bondage they exert. Everyone who has grown out of untrue or outmoded beliefs has the experience that the truth will set them free (from that bondage) but it will not piss them off. It is a glorious and wonderful realization.

Everyone would agree, I think, that depending on what the truth is, it will strike you as scary or infuriating or exciting and wonderful. Nevertheless, there is a strong tendency for “the truth,” that expression, to mean something much worse that you had thought. Pick up a book entitled, “The Real Truth about America.” What do you think it will say? [5] A speaker who leads off by saying, “Tonight, I’m going to tell you the truth” has some awful message to reveal. The audience presumptive has been living in comfortable illusion, therefore “the truth” will be bleak and irksome.

I’m not really sure just why we do that. Have we always done that? Do we think we live in comfortable illusion and that therefore the truth must by the kind of thing that will make us angry? Why would that be?

[1] Thanks to Max Eastman’s The Enjoyment of Laughter
[2] Wayne and Schuster in devising a baseball game using as many allusions to Shakespeare as they can has the coach assigning positions: “with you three guarding your accustomed bags, Stan the first, Bill the second, and Richard the Third.” Yup. Richard the Third.
[3] Yale Anchor Bible Commentary
[4] New doesn’t need to abide in the word. He just needs to take the red pill.
[5] I just checked Amazon. They don’t have a book by that title. Yet

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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