When I put this syllabus together last summer, I had no idea that truth would be such a topical subject, but as it turns out, truth and lies are much on people’s minds at the moment – check out this ad from the New York Times, aired during TV coverage of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony.
(And almost immediately parodied by Stephen Colbert – with a font change rather annoying to the pedants amongst us.)
The Courage to be Truthful to Others
My students and I took this cheap-and-cheerful quiz to find out how truthful we are, which gave rise to a discussion about when we draw the line between good manners, white lies, and dishonesty.
One of our readings, a lecture by Michel Foucault called The Courage of Truth, introduced us to the concept of parrhêsia: telling the whole truth, hiding nothing of the truth, telling the truth without hiding it behind anything, while being aware that speaking this truth will carry consequences. This is certainly a high standard of truth – and it is always and everywhere desirable?
For example, what would have happened if the Gies family had told the truth while they were concealing the Frank family from the Nazi regime? Does an unjust regime justify the telling of lies? We thought so.
In an interesting article here, Gerald Dworkin posits a number of situations in which he believes lying would be justified. I found it difficult to contradict his view – see what you think.
It seems there is a spectrum of situations, and a spectrum of lies, and certain combinations would seem to justify making statements that are less than fully honest. A critical factor seems to be whether the lie is self-serving, or is told with the sincere intention of protecting the innocent (although paradoxically a lie told to incriminate the guilty does not seem justifiable).
So far we’ve been talking about factual truth, which has an objective quality. In the class we also covered personal truth, which is subjective but real nonetheless, and discussed the possibility that we might be less than courageous in expressing our feelings or revealing ourselves to others.
Of course, the way we choose to express our feelings is relevant – it can be done in a constructive way, or a destructive way. We practiced Non Violent (or Compassionate) Communication, which goes as follows:
- Observation: factual description of event, keeping it clean and emotion-free
- Feelings: what emotions we experienced, or are experiencing as a result of the event
- Needs: what emotions we would prefer
- Request: what action the other person could do to help satisfy our needs, making it a genuine request, not a demand, i.e. with no attachment to their response – they are free to say yes, no, or make a counter-offer.
It might seem a bit clunky, but can be helpful in delicate interpersonal situations. Probably not so effective in diplomatic contexts (“I’m feeling really upset that you invaded Poland”).
And for those courageously committed to rigorous truth-telling, see Brad Blanton’s Radical Honesty.
Lying to Ourselves
We tend to be aware of it when we lie to others (or at least you will be after reading this blog post!). But we don’t always notice that we are lying to ourselves. For better or sometimes for worse, it is a rare person who sees the world as it really is. We all have our blind spots, and we will edit, distort and delete reality to fit to what we have already decided about the world – and ourselves.
Here is how I picture it. There is a vast realm of information in the Universe. When you think of all the things that there are to be known, even just on our planet, it is mind-boggling – far more than one individual could hope to assimilate in one lifetime. Physiology, psychology, botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, history, geography, oceanography, mathematics, technology, astronomy, architecture, literature, music, art…. The list is endless.
Then there is a larger sliver of what we know we don’t know. I know that Mandarin Chinese is a language, but I have no idea how to speak it. I know that molecular biology exists, but what I know about it could be written on the back of a postage stamp. I know that my digestion works, but I’m extremely vague as to how. And so on.
And there is what we don’t know we don’t know – the vast bulk of the information available to be known in the whole Universe (and possibly other Universes too – who knows?). This is such an exciting area to imagine. Wow! So much stuff we don’t even know we don’t know! So much stuff still to discover!
Occasionally something from this magical, mysterious realm will break through into our everyday reality, disrupting our notion of what we thought was possible. For example, if I saw someone successfully practicing telekinesis, moving an object purely through the power of thought, that would blow me away. It would disrupt everything I thought I knew about the laws of physics (admittedly not very much) and make me ponder – if that can really happen, what else that I thought impossible could actually be possible?
I call this a disruptive moment, when we become aware of something happening beyond the veil of what we thought we knew to be real. To experience such a moment can be scary, but I prefer to tell myself that it is fascinating. It cracks open a whole new domain of possibility to realise that we humans are not even close to knowing everything that there is to be known.
There is another area that we need to consider, and be wary of – what we think we know. Into this area fall many religious beliefs, dogma, superstition, gossip, rumour, opinions, and a whole load of scientific findings that we think are facts, but only because they haven’t been disproved yet.
This is a dangerous area, because when we think we know something, it can blind us to an alternative that may be more true than the thing we think we know. We tend to be uncomfortable with ambiguity, so we don’t like holding the possibility that this and that could be true. We prefer to decide between this or that, reducing our options to a certainty that may or may not be grounded in fact. When we are sure of one thing, we close our eyes to its opposite.
We used to be sure the world was flat, and that the Sun went around the Earth. Heaven and hell used to be as real to Christian people as their daily lives. I used to be certain that money would buy happiness. We’re not always right. We don’t always choose the right story, and when we’re “sure” of one story, we don’t even consider that our truth may not be true.
Every time we plump for one option and exclude opposing options, we put a plank between ourselves and the truth. The more incorrect beliefs, stories, and assumptions we have, the more planks we lay down, until the truth is all but obscured. The planks make us feel safe, because we have created a comforting cocoon of certainty in our lives. We are not troubled by disruptive moments from the realm of the unknown, because we are sure that we know what we know and that it is correct. We have wilfully blinded ourselves to the potential discomfort of not-knowingness.
This phenomenon is all the more powerful when an entire culture has blinded itself to the truth. We are all complicit in the reassuring lie, and any person who draws attention to the lie risks being ridiculed or cast out (see Margaret Heffernan’s illuminating TED Talk on the dangers of wilful blindness). So we see entire swaths of humanity conspiring in denial that climate change is real, or that overpopulation is unsustainable, or that we can never win the war on hunger.
But if we really want to know the truth, we need to take the planks away. We need to be open to the disruptive moments that reveal an erroneous story. They are bright rays of light that suddenly shine out from the dark domain of what we don’t know we don’t know, piercing the planks and striking our perception. It takes courage to embrace the disruptive moments rather than nailing down another plank of ignorance to block the ray of light, but it is vital to find that courage if we want to see reality as it is, not as we would like it to be.
So don’t get too attached to your reality. Be open to those disruptive moments, when a different reality breaks through. Don’t ignore them because they don’t fit with what you think you know to be real. Expand your awareness. Be open to other people’s “truths”, because they might be closer to the reality than yours are. Keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.
Have the courage to reject the reassuring lie, and seek the truth.
As usual, Vic and I have a chat about the topic of the week in our podcast.
And reminder that the slideshow is here.
True to Ourselves: an interesting additional perspective on truth. Last night I was on a panel discussion at a Leaders & Daughters event for EgonZehnder, and one of the speakers, Lucy Kellaway, a self-confessed “sarky journalist” for the Financial Times, made a challenging point. In response to another panellist suggesting that we should be our authentic selves at work, she said, “Which self? I have about 150 selves!” And went on to say we can’t be authentic at work, because that’s not how it works.
What do you think? Are you your authentic self at work? If not, why not, and would you prefer to be?
Yale News: There was a nice article in the Yale News this week about my courage class at Yale. Check it out here. With thanks to Susan Gonzalez.