The Attraction of Truthtelling

From the newspaper “The Day Book.” (Chicago, Ill.), 11 March 1913. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

I am modestly interested in the history of cycling, and sometimes browse old digitized newspapers, looking for stories and ads related to that subject. Recently I was trying to sort out the early attitudes and laws related to riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.

What I also found was the cartoon character, Everett True.

I had never heard of Everett True. He was sufficiently well known about a hundred years ago to merit a short Wikipedia article ( that explains that he was the hero of a two-panel strip comic strip that was published from 1905 until 1927 — apparently it was quite popular at least during some of that time. Wikipedia explains it usual approach: The first panel of each strip generally had someone inconveniencing or annoying True. In the second panel he would then make an ill-tempered outburst. In early cartoons this was usually an uninhibited rant which expressed what other people wanted to say, but were too polite to.

Everett True is an example of a comic book character whose name means something — in this case, they didn’t make it very difficult to figure out; that is, it isn’t very difficult to get “truth always” i.e. truthteller out of “Ever[ett] True.”

In the above example, the truthtelling statement is, “You belong on the street, not on the sidewalk!!!” In what seems to have been typical Everett True style, he uses physical violence to make his point.

From the newspaper “The Day Book.” (Chicago, Ill.), 21 July 1915. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Here is a somewhat later Everett True example in which the same truthtelling opportunity is revisted, but this time for variation (I guess) the same bicycle-on-sidewalk situation transpires without words. (It was probably necessary to repeat situations with some frequency since there are only so many annoying things in life to tell truths about.)

It appears that the appeal of Everett True was not just that he spoke out on (or left unsaid, but still made clear) what was wrong in what he observed around him, but that he also acted swiftly to punish those whose transgressions he observed. The truthtelling of Everett True then is a two step process — first, state what others have not said, second, physical action to derail the malefactor from that action.

Truthtelling like this can be attractive, apparently — otherwise why was this cartoon a success? But the more I think about it, the more complicated it seems it can be. A little mushing around with Google suggests the different kinds of ethical issues that can arise with truthtelling in certain professional settings, such as when a doctor explains a diagnosis to a patient and her family. And what is the ethics of not saying anything instead of telling the truth?? And of course in personal relationships . . .

Everett was in all other ways not a typical person — Wikipedia explains that his attire, with the striped pants, tailcoat jacket, and bowler, was not conventional for his time — he is the only person in the comic that looks like him. And of course he is very large. How is his physically unconventional appearance associated with his unconventional behavior?

Everett was so popular, and his behavior was sufficiently well known that short movies featuring Everett True were made. The one existing example available online seems drawn out by comparison to the two panel strip, but is still the same idea.

What is most striking about Everett True is that his shtick was to tell truths that were comments on everyday situations that everyone else would withhold their opinions on. His appeal depended on saying what others would not. This raises the question, well, why didn’t others say these things, if they are so obvious? Presumably the social customs of the time inhibited others, but not Everett. And of course presumably some people were inhibited by the realization that not everyone agreed.

Because that’s the rub with truthtelling — it assumes that everyone agrees what that is. Which they don’t, of course. I would suggest that the most well known example of “commercial truthtelling” in my lifetime (rather than the early 20th century of Everett True) was the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, about the causes of global warming. In a slightly sly way, this assumed in advance agreement on what the truth of matter is (which it quickly became clear was not the case — there was no such agreement).

Truthtelling in a public forum then seems to be a way of attracting attention. What happens next?