Thursday, April 02, 2009

When I Tell The Truth

Is it possible to be too honest? A friend posed this question to me and I had to say yes. I didn't know if he was too honest, but often times when people are said to be "too honest" it means they're just rude, crass, or lack tact when criticizing. This was not true in his case. So I was thinking he could have the nasty little habit of shattering people's illusions. I've had friends like this (I had fallen into the category at one time), people who can't help but correct other people's factual errors. We're so invested in intellectual honesty that we get into trouble. What is it that makes us want others to see the world as it is? Being intellectually honest means correcting common errors in logic, fact, or mistaken beliefs. Often others want to hear the truth, but after I tell them they may reject it. If they reject it why does it upset me? The truth is true regardless of my acceptance of it. So why would it be offensive if someone else didn't accept it? Of course not everything is objectively true or false and in situations like those it can threaten our very sense of self. I've learned how not to be "too honest" and it has made my life unexpectedly better.

We can be absolutely right and people may still disagree with us. If I say sound travels faster than light there is no debate. I am wrong. There is an absolute truth. Light travels faster than sound. Anyone who has witnessed a thunderstorm knows this to be true (not to mention a host of scientific investigation into the basic laws of physics). But if I believe that sound travels faster than light why would it matter if I refused to believe you if you told me otherwise? Does it harm you in any way because I don't believe such an obvious truth? Sometimes it can feel that way. When someone doesn't agree with us we sometimes see it as a threat to our self identity. It's said that love is so powerful because your beloved sees you for who you are and accepts you flaws and all. If someone sees you for who you are and rejects you it can seem like annihilation as many a failed relationship can attest to. Babies play peek-a-boo because they need to know the world still exists when they close their eyes, that there is an external objective reality. They confirm this through the gaze of another. We need our worldview to be validated by others, and often it is. We surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and we enjoy their company. And that's just concerning what is objectively true, but what about more subjective aspects of our worldview, like the opinions we base off those facts?

The best opinions are based on objectively true facts and sound arguments about those facts. Sometimes, however, we hold the opinion first and find the facts later. I learned there is a part of our mind dedicated to defending our worldview. I call it the inner lawyer. I told someone this and they said "So he lies to us?" no the lawyer doesn't lie he spins. He presents the best possible case. He uses the facts to serve his client. Maximising the positive, minimising the negative, our inner lawyer works to defend our worldview. When you hire a lawyer sometimes you ask him for advice, such as when you're buying a house or signing a contract. You genuinely want to know all your options. Other times you get arrested, maybe you're guilty maybe you're not, but when you call your lawyer you're not going to want to calmly weigh your options, you scream at him "do something!" In this metaphor you aren't facing jail time you're facing irrelevance. You want a defense of your self-image. Someone disagrees with you. Someone who threatens your worldview. Your inner lawyer goes to work defending your beliefs and coming up with facts and arguments to defend it. It's good to recognize this inner lawyer in yourself, but it is even more important you realize that the people you try to convince of your way of thinking have their own inner lawyers.

People believe some stupid things. In the last presidential election I remember Barack Obama being called everything from a terrorist to a communist. I have many good relationships with Republicans who for no other reason than their ideology hate Barack Obama. We'd be having a discussion about something completely unrelated to politics, then out will come a comparison of Obama to Hitler. Offended as hell, but understanding the concept of the inner lawyer I would say in response "Both Hitler and Obama are very good speakers" and leave it at that. I could have torn their argument to shreds (during the election when I was a volunteer for the Obama campaign I often did so when speaking with voters), but I realize that they have an inner lawyer and they will defend their worldview despite a lack of truth to support it. I so wanted to bust their bubble, but what good would that have done? They will still hate him. It would only have caused an argument, hurt some feelings, and left us both off feeling worse than we did before. Still I have to admit the comments about Obama often upset me and I respectfully ask them to keep it to themselves. I wonder, do they think they are being too truthful?

One of my favorite quotes is by William Blake "When I tell the truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do." When I worked to defend Obama's record against malicious attacks from conservatives it was a good idea to speak my mind, but now that he's the President it's better to let sleeping lawyers lie. It's always going to feel good to be proven right, but at what cost? Would you rather be right or happy? Not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but sometimes you have to choose peace over conflict. Save your energy for fighting battles that matter. Just because you know the truth it doesn't diminish you if someone doesn't accept it. Be convinced enough in your own worldview so that no one can threaten it, or let go of having a worldview altogether.
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