Whatever the truth is in its truthness – perhaps an attunement to the ground on which the revealing of a concealing manifests as the disclosing of an unfolding (sorry, just channelling my inner Heidegger) – there is an inevitable socio-political aspect to truth. One of my favourite examples of this, which I have mentioned on this blog before, is a study done where they invited test subjects into a room to complete a number of very easy tasks. The subjects came into the room with about twenty others who they were led to believe were also subjects in the experiment but who were in fact paid actors whose job it was to give an incorrect answer to a very simple question “which line is the shortest” in relation to three lines that had been drawn on the board at the front of the room. The lengths of the lines were such that nobody with functional eyesight could fail to see that the one on top was longest and the one at the bottom was the shortest. The correct answer was thus C. The trick was that the paid actors would all be called on first to give their answer while the test subject went last. Put yourself in the test subject’s shoes. You’re in a room full of strangers who all answer that Line B is the shortest even though you know for sure that the correct answer is Line C. Nineteen people go before you and answer B. Your turn comes around and you are asked to answer verbally for all to hear. Do you speak the truth and say Line C or do you just copy the others and say Line B is the shortest? It turns out that a majority of people will copy others rather than speak the truth.
Now you might argue that this is a trivial experiment in which the test subject doesn’t have any skin in the game and is just giving the easiest answer. But that’s the whole point. The extent to which truth is spoken is not just a function of truth. Other factors play a role. This is an uncontroversial statement. People lie when it suits their interests just as they stay silent or follow the group when it suits their interests too. But it gives rise to a field of study which I have seen called the Epidemiology of Truth: the study in how the truth, or lack thereof, spreads through society. One of the factors governing the spread of truth or lies is socio-political and that is what the line length experiment reveals.
This is no mere academic indulgence, however. It is of real-world importance. I recall an example from my working life where the truth should have mattered. I was working on a project where tens of millions of dollars were being spent by a corporation. Several high-ranking managers in the organisation were directly involved in the project. On most projects I have worked on, the high-level managers show up at the beginning to give a pep talk and aren’t seen again until the party at the end. This was the first time in my career I had worked in the same room with such people.
There’s always a period at the start of a new project where things don’t make a lot of sense because you lack the context for understanding. In my experience, it takes about two to four weeks for the fog of confusion to lift. Thus, it was at about the fourth week of this project where I first suspected that one particular high-level manager we were working with was a complete moron. It took me a further month or so to confirm my hypothesis. This particular person would speak nonsense. Not complete nonsense, mind you. It was clear the words coming out of their mouth were elements of more or less grammatical sentences of the English language. Scam artists use this trick all the time. They make the language sound legit but at the end of it you don’t understand what was said and this is where it gets interesting because your decision on where to look for the cause of the misunderstanding is partly determined by the socio-political context. In the context in which I was in, there was a senior manager of a large and successful corporation. That is to say, a powerful person. Somebody who could, if they had wanted, have me fired. Humans are social animals and we arrange ourselves into dominance hierarchies. This happens by default. There is also a meritocracy assumption that we bring to the table. We assume that the people at the top of dominance hierarchies got there by merit. Therefore, we assume a senior manager in a successful company is not a complete moron and when we receive evidence that they are a complete moron we discount that evidence in favour of some other explanation. The most common explanation is “I don’t understand”. In other words, the problem lies with me.
Consider an alternative situation. You could transcribe the exact words of the senior manager and have them read out by a shabbily dressed drunk on the street or an ultra-sleazy used car salesman. In those cases, you wouldn’t assume that “I didn’t understand”. You would assume the drunk was drunk and that the used car salesman was trying to baffle you with nonsense as a sales tactic. Same words, different socio-political context. With the drunk or the salesman, you just walk away. What do you do when you have to work with the senior manager? Again, socio-politics determines the course of action. Let’s say you’re in a meeting and the senior manager is talking nonsense. One thing you can do is ask for clarification perhaps using language that you do understand to try and lead the meeting away from the coral reefs of hogwash and towards the calm seas of meaningful discourse. You ask a question. The answer makes no sense. Can you ask again for clarification? Maybe you can get away with a second attempt. But three times and you’re out of luck. Three times and it is you who is starting to sound like the problem. Why? Because nobody else in the meeting is asking questions. Like the test subject in the room calling Line B the shortest, they just go with the flow. Most people elect to call Line B the shortest and most people in meetings do not ask questions even if they have no idea what is going on. The dominance hierarchy dictates this when dealing with a senior manager. Politeness dictates it when dealing with a colleague. Either way, there are barriers in the way to speaking the truth.
These socio-political issues tie in with individual psychology. At a certain age, young children will believe whatever they are told by somebody higher in the dominance hierarchy than they are i.e. any adult. This normally starts to change in the teenage years when children first start to realise that their parents and teachers are not right about everything which can often turn into the idea that because they are not right about everything they must be wrong about everything. Young people might be disillusioned about their parents but as they join the workforce they still hold the meritocracy assumption. I remember getting a summer job as a teenager in a small manufacturing company. On my first morning, the boss was busy so he told me to go and help another worker, who we’ll call Bill. Bill was a middle-aged man who seemed to know what he was doing. I went over and started to copy him. That was alright until after lunch when the boss came over to check up on me and noticed that we had been doing it wrong all morning. Turned out that Bill didn’t know what he was doing either. It was the blind leading the blind. I remember being very surprised that such a thing could happen but it happens all the time. Of course, nobody is perfect; even the boss. At some point in your career you get enough experience and enough self-confidence to contradict the boss. That works well in functional organisations and it’s the sign of a well-run company when the boss not only allows themselves to be contradicted but wants to be contradicted as long as the contradiction is done with good intention and as long as the truth is revealed by doing so. In my experience, this is almost always the case in smaller companies and almost never the case in larger ones. To return to the senior manager moron from earlier, you did not contradict this person. They had that combination of narcissism and stupidity that is very dangerous for those lower in the pecking order; the kind of person who cannot be reasoned with. The more informal the pecking order, as in smaller groups, the less this kind of person is a problem.
The interesting thing is that many people who work in such large organisations are not even aware that their manager is dumber than a second coat of paint. The reason comes back to the default assumption about dominance hierarchies being meritocracies. That is an assumption we must learn to overcome just as we must learn that our parents are not infallible. But many do not overcome it. For many people, those higher in the pecking order are right and, when there is a miscommunication, it is their fault. They say “I don’t understand” and not “The boss doesn’t understand”. The primary antidote to this is to work in a technical field where things must be made to work. In such fields, bad ideas lead to bad outcomes. The same is not true in corporations where tens of millions of dollars can be spent on some big complex project which achieves no result but nobody knows or cares because it’s not their money. Complexity protects the managers in such corporations. There are too many moving parts to know what the true cause of failure is and most of the time failure is simply swept under the rug and forgotten about. What made the project I was working on interesting was that it was small and self-contained enough to realise who the problem was. It was the senior manager.
The low-level jobs in such corporations are usually bullshit jobs where you spend most of your time trying to deal with the failings of the organisation structure itself. Such failings are almost always communication problems caused by the fact that somebody didn’t tell somebody else what needed to be done which then caused somebody else to screw up. In bullshit jobs, the problem is rarely if ever a technical problem and therefore something with an objective solution. It’s almost always a people-problem and thus a political problem. The cool thing about technical problems is that you can talk about them objectively without anybody getting upset. The same is not true of people-problems. This is one of the reasons that bullshit jobs are psychologically traumatic.
The other cool thing about technical problems is that you realise that nobody has a monopoly on truth and that in order for technical problems to be solved at all there must be an absence of our ingrained dominance hierarchy assumption that just because somebody is higher in the pecking order they must be right. For this reason, the more experienced people at the top of technical dominance hierarchies are usually very humble and happy to be corrected when they are in error. Outside of technical domains, dominance hierarchies become an end in themselves and those who fight their way to the top are often not the best at all. In fact, a combination of narcissism and stupidity can often be a bonus in such situations since it keeps potential rivals and subordinates off balance and once nonsense has been accepted for any length of time it becomes a political impossibility to overturn it. Easier to let the fool rise through the ranks c.f. The Peter Principle and The Dilbert Principle.
What all this boils down to is that truth by itself is not enough. One must encourage the conditions in which truth can prosper. At the societal level, all else being equal, a society of smaller organisations where people work in technical jobs producing things that “work” would be far more likely to be able to deal with truth than a society of large corporations filled with bullshit jobs. The former would feature people who are aware that nobody has a monopoly on truth and that true meritocracies are ones in which it is acknowledged that anybody can contribute to the truth as long as they have the right intentions and good will. The latter would feature people who think truth is whatever those in power say it is and that the cool thing about climbing the ranks is so that you get to be the one to say how it is for a little while. I’ll leave it to the reader to answer the question which of these best describes our society at the moment.