“I want the truth,” demanded the zealous, perhaps conceited, Tom Cruise in the 1992 military courtroom drama, “A Few Good Men.” Jack Nicholson famously shouted back, “You can’t handle the truth.” Nicholson went on to lecture the much younger and more idealistic Cruise on the hard realities of protecting these United States from our very dangerous foreign enemies. Naturally, the crusading Cruise was unaffected and went on to win his point and the film’s female star, Demi Moore. In 120 minutes, our moral precepts were challenged and vindicated. We left the theater smugly secure that we’d make a good ethical choice even if it were to directly put us, our homes and families into harm’s way.
Maybe it was the result of Nicolson’s Academy Award-nominated performance, but his pushback also stuck with moviegoers. How much terrible are we willing to overlook to gain the advantage of superior competence? Do we tolerate more in Guantanamo Bay than we would in our own living rooms? It is easier to overlook that which we choose not to see. Still, there seems to be an intentional disconnect between our stated desire to associate with moral, right-minded folks and how we tend to live in the real world.
We vote for politicians who may not be the paragons of moral virtue we might hope them to be. We sing along with performers often accused, and too often convicted, of significant crimes. We spend our free time with our families watching sports stars whose own dedication to family values is notoriously in question. If the charming, then young Cruise had been in the Nicholson role and vice versa, would the outcome have been the same? It feels good to claim moral superiority and also to win. But is it ever OK to intentionally not know the truth?