The Socio-Politics of Truth

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.

36 thoughts on “The Socio-Politics of Truth”

  1. So, I assume that in our current context, Anthony Fauci would be the idiot senior manager, right? I don’t know how he got to where he is, but it can’t have been due to merit.

  2. That’s what Kary Mullis thought of him and Kary Mullis was exactly what I think of when I think of a leader in a technical domain. Certainly here in Australia, every single one of the chief health officers reminds me exactly of that idiot senior manager I mention in this post. I think you’d have to be an idiot to do that job. Otherwise, how could you sleep at night?

  3. One day society will think about meritocracy the same way we currently think about the divine right of kings – a load of hogwash that is a convenient fiction to describe a world that does not obey simple rational rules.

  4. Daniel – yes. But as they are both myths whose function is to justify the pre-existing social order, all that will happen is another myth will replace them. Interesting question is what social order will give rise to that myth?

  5. The first person that popped into my head while reading this was Anthony Fauci, only to find that Irena had already noted this.

    I just read a thought-provoking essay that ties into so many aspects of the whole strange and perverted Covid-19 narrative, health freedom, and more. I hope you will allow the link to be published here.

    Who are the “antivax” people? by Fluorin Flueras

  6. HomoSapiens – that’s a damn long list. I’d be interested to see one for “Who are the vaxxers”. I suspect it would be quite short.

  7. Simon,
    Yes, it is a long list, and like your 37-part Coronapocalypse series, made me think about much more than I expected.

    At the very end of Fluorin Flueres’ essay is this:

    “Who are the vaxxers?
    People who believe that the governments are concerned about their well-being, that the corporate media is telling the truth and that the Pharma is providing health.

    People who just go along with the vaccination regime because they try to avoid having problems and they don’t want to lose rights, friends, opportunities, holidays…

    People who feel that they don’t have a choice, it’s vaccines vs losing their jobs and livelihoods, for them and their families. “

  8. HomoSapiens – I think there’s one missing: “People who are possessed and for whom the vaccine functions as a talisman upon which to project the contents of their psyche.”

  9. > Interesting question is what social order will give rise to that myth?

    Indeed. Writing my initial comment there was a second paragraph where I tried to find an answer to that exact question and then gave up. Other than ‘merit’ I could only up with with the divine right of kings or variations thereof (divine grace in this instance is almost the same thing as merit actually, because only the meritorious receive grace). I suspect I do not know enough about history to know what (if any) other options are possible.

    One way to look at it is Greer’s notion that our religion is Progress and the god is Man. In that sense, then merit is simply the grace of Man as a direct replacement for a nobility at the grace of God. So, the answer to your question is it depends on what replaces Progress – the mythic narrative of the ruling class will simply reflect the ‘grace’ of that new religion. I still have no idea what that will be however.

  10. Definitely worthy of more exploration. I wonder whether there was a “divine right of emperors” in China or India and what myths justified the social order in hunter gatherer societies.

  11. Simon,
    Yes, the saviour talisman to cling to at all costs which will abolish fear of ultimate death and give hope for a return to normal… whatever that is going forward.

    The many quotes by Ivan Illich provided by Fluorin Flueres are particularly interesting in the context of Covid. I read Illich’s “Medical Nemesis – The Expropriation of Health (1975)” over 30 years ago and need to revisit.

    I received “The Plague Story” and “The Devouring Mother” from the UK Book Depository in today’s mail. Delivery was fairly quick to Atlanta, GA and communication was good throughout. And, the price was significantly less than Bonzo Bezos offered.

    I look forward to re-reading in physical book form, where I better retain what I have read vs. onscreen where content sometimes becomes a blur.


  12. HomoSapiens – glad to hear it. These days I buy almost exclusively from Book Depository. They are significantly cheaper and somehow deliver faster than the online bookstores in Australia. Yes, a lot of Illich’s chickens are coming home to roost these days.

  13. (Off topic) For those unaware – Book Depository is an Amazon subsidiary, so unfortunately still Bezos.

  14. > I wonder whether there was a “divine right of emperors” in China or India and what myths justified the social order in hunter gatherer societies.

    For China it was the Mandate of Heaven which is effectively the same thing. India is so culturally and religiously diverse that it appears the mandate shifted around considerably through time, sometimes more referential to gods, and at others the vedas. Wikipedia has reasonable articles on both, but I couldn’t find anything much on alternatives. Still not sure if that is because there are none, or I’m not approaching the question in the right way.

  15. Daniel – oh, no. Is there no way to escape the billionaires? Will have to look around for some analysis of myths across social structures. Sounds like an obvious topic for anthropology. I think we forget how unusual the meritocracy ideal really is. It probably only started with the bourgeois in the mid-1800s and really kicked into gear in the post-war period.

  16. Isn’t meritocracy just a modern version of the original idea of aristocracy (rule of the best)? At least that’s my understanding of Platos philosopher king. If this is the case history might give us an idea how it will evolve.

  17. Roland – I think the major difference these days is the idea that anybody can rise to the top whereas Plato was a genetic determinist. But there is an interesting anthropological question that I don’t know the answer to which is do all cultures have a meritocracy assumption for their dominance hierarchy? Seems unlikely. And therefore our current cultural assumption is probably just part of where are in the cycle. I suspect right now a whole lot of people are realising that the people in power are definitely not the best.

  18. @Roland

    Re: meritocracy

    Aren’t we cycling back to genetic determinism, though? “I’m the best(TM), hence my kids must also be the best(TM), ‘coz [handwave-handwave-handwave] genetics.”

  19. @Simon

    I mean that our cultural understanding of merit is cycling back to hereditary determinism. So, back to aristocracy…

  20. Do you think? I haven’t seen much evidence of that here in Australia. Is it different in Europe? The whole “believe the experts” thing seems to suggest otherwise. After all, it doesn’t matter who an expert is, just that they’re an expert.

  21. I’m thinking about America, more than Europe. How do you acquire merit? For starters, by getting the right credentials (i.e. diploma from one of the fancy universities). How do you get accepted into one of the fancy universities? Well, you need tippity-top grades, and also a dozen or so extracurricular activities to list on your application. And how do you accomplish all that? By being sufficiently intelligent, by working yourself to the bone without asking too many questions, and by going to the kind of high school (private or rich public) that will offer you the opportunity to engage in all those activities. And how do you attend one of those schools? By having parents who are rich enough to send you there (you only get to go to a rich public school by living in a rich neighborhood). This way, you acquire “merit,” which is supposed to translate into a lot of money and influence (preferably via a job in the finance sector or some such). But this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re particularly good at what you do, and even if you are, the very activity/job you’re engaging in may be actively harmful for society as a whole.

  22. You don’t need genetic determinism to get from meritocracy to aristocracy. Just good old nepotism. Plenty of that here in Oz.
    Concentration of power in families is an inevitable feature of human societies.
    Just part of the cycle.

  23. I think it’s fairly obvious now that Victoria Police are the most violent and thuggish in Australia.
    Helen Dale wrote an article quite early on in this mess talking about that, I also recently watched an interview where she once again covered the topic.
    How much do you think this is a by-product of the so called ‘Gang Land Wars’ and from there does the above principal of not questioning the leadership, see this continuing into the police culture, where anyone who is deemed to be a ‘law breaker’ deserves the full, violent treatment?
    Even for the supposed ‘crime’ of not wearing the bloody face nappy.

    As a side note, I have come to the conclusion that this injection is not a vaccine. Not the way it has always been defined (before ‘modification’).
    The same goes for pandemic. Not enough deaths.
    Therefore in my opinion we have not been and are not in a global pandemic and there are not ‘vaxed and unvaxed’, but people who are participating in an experiment via injection and those who have declined. Shorthand, ‘injected and uninjected’.

    But that’s just my two cents worth.
    What does a mere (disagreeable) pleb like me know?

    Yes, I was the only one who would speak up and ask the uncomfortable questions in the production or OHS meeting! For a long time, even after you realise it’s futile. Then eventually I just stopped wasting my time and energy. Two things that have limits and can be directed elsewhere.

  24. Irena/Roland – so, where we are now in the cycle is that money buys a place in the meritocracy and therefore all places congregate in certain families who have the money to buy them. Because the number of places is shrinking , over time this will harden down to just a relatively small number of families who control everything. Once that occurs, the myth itself hardens into the idea that hereditary traits really do predict “merit” which seems to have been the situation for most of the history of civilisation. In fact, that default myth only seems to break down when something big changes the dynamic eg. war, plague, fossil fuels.

  25. Helen – thanks for that book reference. That sounds very familiar, doesn’t it. A core of branch covidian true believers, a majority who follow along and a minority who post on blogs like this 🙂

    As for speaking up at meetings, eventually you have to learn to choose your battles and also accept that a group, just like an individual, runs almost entirely on inertia and there’s only so much you can do to change it.

  26. Re: meritocracy

    During periods of fast growth, there are more prestigious positions/jobs than there are elite offspring to fill them. Hence, opportunities open up for the great unwashed: the most competent ones get promoted (meritocracy!) and join the ranks of the elite. But then during periods of decline, the opposite happens: there aren’t enough prestigious positions even for elite offspring, and so you get intense intra-elite competition, and the door simply gets shut for pretty much everyone else. Sure, the most competent “commoners” still occasionally get promoted, but it may be only a teeny-tiny-miniscule number of them.

  27. True. But I wonder what happens now that you have all those commoners who still have a taste for freedom and meritocracy who are fully aware they are getting shafted by the system. What do they do? Once upon a time, they could have been sent off to war but war involving troops doesn’t seem likely at the moment. At the risk of committing an “it’s different this time” fallacy, it does seem to me that the sheer number of people around at the moment who are still committed to meritocracy is different. Having said that, it seems that the younger generation is already being indoctrinated into a non-meritocratic ethic so maybe by the time things contract hard the population will have already been conditioned to accept old-fashioned servitude. You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy = you will be a serf and you will like it.

  28. @Simon

    Re: “commoners who still have a taste for freedom”

    There aren’t very many of those, as far as I can tell. They take away our most basic liberties, and most of the population thinks this don’t go far enough…

  29. Maybe they still exist in the US but seemingly not elsewhere in the West. Makes sense in hindsight. We’ve been in economic contraction for decades and anybody who’s seen the inside of corporate life knows it’s not a (real) meritocracy so the whole idea of meritocracy is not based in the real world experience of most people.

  30. I am by no means knowledgeable on the subject but I suspect investigating traditional societies’ kinship ties might be a good starting point for gaining understanding of an alternative form of social structures. Large civilisations tend to hierarchical forms that require someone “at the top”. But traditional cultures functioning at smaller scales can be more decentralised, with the person most “responsible” in a given situation determined by individuals’ kinship knowledge or obligations, which can extend well beyond family/blood ties to include kinship with specific animals, dieties, places, ceremonies, and more.

  31. A – agree, that sounds like a good way to go. I’d be surprised if anthropologists haven’t investigated this already. Will be on my list of things to do over the holidays to see if I can’t track down some Jungian anthropologists.

  32. Michael – that looks promising and I’ve been meaning to read some more Graeber. Thanks for the reference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *