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Truth and Honesty

We Once Took Great Pride in Telling The Truth

For much of our history as a nation, we took great pride in telling the truth.

We had an American culture that held truth telling, individual honesty, and personal integrity as an expectation and a source of pride.

We paid honor to people who were so honest that their word was their bond — and one of the most dangerous things you could do would be to accuse someone of lying, because people in many American communities would fight anyone who questioned their integrity and honor.

We told the truth to each other and we expected people to tell the truth to us.

Our leaders took great pride in their reputation for honesty and truth telling — and leaders could very easily lose significant levels of support if they were ever caught in a lie of any kind.

That was actually a good culture and set of expectations to have. It was easy to understand, and it created a context for communications that told us we could rely on what people told us as being at least their perception of what was true.

People were able to present the truth in the best possible light to make their own points and sell their own point of view — but the underlying expectation was that what they said was actually what they believed to be true. 

People who are making decisions about various political or functional issues could do so with the reliance that what they were hearing as information about a given issue was actually believed to be true by the person telling them the information.

We have slipped away from that set of expectations, and we have descended in many of our communications to a level where the truth might or might not be included in what is being said about any given topic. Invented facts and fake news are used with great comfort by too many — and the result is that it is much harder for us to make decisions and know what to believe.

The old culture had some obvious advantages.

We might want to return to some of those expectations, values, and behaviors.

We don’t need to spend a lot of time debating how we got to our new set of expectations, but we should make the collective decision now, at this point in our history, that invented facts and fake news are not the best ways for us to run our lives and interact with each other as either groups or individuals.

We should recognize where we are now, and we should make the conscious decision to collectively reinstate our old culture and our old expectations about telling the truth. We could do that if we actually decide it is a good thing to do and make both an individual decision and a collective decision to move in that direction.

We don’t need anyone’s approval to make that decision for our own lives.

We can simply decide that our personal sense of integrity and our individual level of self-respect will cause us to make telling the truth the right thing for us to do — and then simply do it for all of those inter group components of our lives.

We should make whatever decisions about saying truthful things that we feel are appropriate for each of us in our personal lives, but in our public lives, we should make the truth our only option.

We can make the decision to go down that path as individuals and we can each make the individual ethical decision not to say anything in our various political and public settings that we did not believe to be true. We would not need to commit ourselves to be perfect in our knowledge about any issue or topic, but we could commit ourselves to personally never deliberately say something that we knew was not true when we said it.

Telling the truth to each other creates a different level of understanding and trust — because we know that we can trust what people say to be what they believe to be true when they say it.

That allows us to debate facts on any issue without having a concern that the facts being discussed have been invented to win the argument rather than being a reflection of what people actually believe to be an accurate representation of the issue or matter.

We could literally call ourselves "Truth Tellers,” if we need a label for anything we do. Truth tellers could be people who agree to personally tell the truth and who agree to hold others accountable to be truthful as well.

As Truth Tellers, we could take clear steps to return to those traditional truth and honesty-based values, behaviors, and expectations for our interactions with each other.

Telling the truth actually has instinctive roots relative to our own groups. Telling the truth tends to be a source of pride, honor, and self-definition in many cultures — but the unfortunate reality is that those values of pure honesty in most settings tend only to apply to people within the culture, and only exist at their purest levels between cultures in times of Peace. They are not the values that exist between cultures in times of war.

When Sun Tzu wrote The Art of Wartwo thousand years ago, he was opposed to telling the truth. He basically said telling the truth was a bad and dangerous thing to do relative to your enemies. He very explicitly preached deceit and skillful deception, and his strategies very intentionally used multiple layers of giving misinformation to the world with the goal of defeating your enemy.

Sun Tzu made it very clear that he did not believe there were any relevant ethical standards that should be applied to truth telling in a time of war. In Us/Them situations, he recommended that leaders should have a sense of integrity relative to their own troops, but he advocated extreme duplicity relative to the rest of the world. War triggered intentional dishonesty for Sun Tzu.

In our own country today, we are not at war — but we have activated war like intergroup instincts for many of our people in a number of settings, and that has caused some people in some situations to feel entirely comfortable when lying, rather than using the truth as a standard or expectation for their communications or behaviors.

We now see situations where some people stand in front of cameras and say things that everyone knows are not true. That leads us to some very divisive thinking and behaviors. The people who feel a sense of Us at an instinct guided level with the speaker who is saying an untrue thing tend to accept, condone, and even sometimes celebrate grossly inaccurate statements when they are used intentionally as weapons in Us versus Them conflict.

That is not a good set of behaviors and values for our inter group communications. It might feel emotionally right in the heat of partisan conflict, but it is not a safe and solid pathway for us to go down as a country relative to all of those interactions.

That set of behaviors and those communication approaches will lead us down the path to a very damaged and dysfunctional future as communities and as a country. We should want our future as a country to be full of intergroup Peace so that our grandchildren are not damaged by the future we create for them.

We want our grandchildren to succeed and survive and even thrive. The likelihood of our grandchildren not being damaged is extremely low if we don’t change those intergroup behaviors, because we will be in a future where our worst Us/Them instincts will be activated in large numbers, and people will hate and damage others in many communities and settings with those values and emotions in their minds. 

If we don’t change some of those behaviors, we will have increasingly unsafe cities and communities where people from various groups will be damaged by those from other groups, simply because they are from the wrong group in dangerous interactions.

We have a number of situations today where we have protests, demonstrations, and group activities of various kinds that reflect the anger that exists now in those communities. That anger needs to be addressed — and we need to do the right things to minimize the inter group division and discrimination that exists in multiple settings to minimize the likelihood of that anger continuing to define us in those settings over time.

We need to move away from Us/Them thinking in our cities, and we need to create a sense of Us that reduces risk and conflict. That will not happen unless we decide to bring people together in various ways to make it happen. 

If we don’t have cities and communities, and even neighborhoods, where people feel a sense of being Us at important levels, then we will face an ugly and divided future where major portions of this beautiful country will be off limits to people based on which group they belong.

We need to build a sense of Us as a country and in each of our communities around our shared beliefs and values — and we need to interact with each other as an American Us instead of a Tribal Us at various levels. Being a conflicted tribal us can actually be a very emotionally seductive place for too many people to be, so we need to address those issues very directly and soon in each of those settings.

We are wired to be a Tribal Us. That wiring includes all people and it includes and affects behaviors between groups of people everywhere on the planet.

The world has more than two hundred ethnic wars going on today where people are killing others from different groups and feeling significant emotional satisfaction in that process. Our Us/Them instincts are very seductive — and people who feel they are fighting a Them in each setting often feel energized, enabled, emboldened, and even sometimes ennobled as group heroes by the fight for their group.

It is a very slippery slope to some very primal and ugly emotional gratification situations and behaviors in creating intergroup damage — and those of us who do not want to be a nation at war with itself need to rise above those emotions and restore us to a more enlightened set of values and behaviors.

We need to understand our full packages of instinctive inter group behaviors, and we need to act in ways that keep us from doing damage to each other.

Some of our most dangerous and even disgusting behaviors have deep instinctive roots and pathways. We usually use our cultures to steer us away from the worst levels of those instincts.

Bullying is an instinctive behavior, so our cultures all create rules and expectations that prevent the worst kinds of bullying. Some of our gender linked behaviors have very negative energy levels — and we know from actual sad experience in several countries, where the rape laws are not enforced by the culture, that more than half of the women in those settings are raped.

The rapists, themselves, tend to be much less than half of the male population in those settings, but the number of both women and men who are raped can be extremely high when we don’t enforce those laws.

We need to all understand those instincts and we all need to be very aware of how we very intentionally use our cultures very directly in every setting to offset our most dangerous and damaging instinctive behaviors.

Gender-related abuse is one set of instinctive behaviors we need our cultures to prevent.

We also have acquisition instincts that are generally kept in check by cultural rules about property ownership. People have strong and seductive instincts to acquire. All over the planet, we see that when those laws and rules are not being enforced in conflicted situations, various kinds of looting often occurs, and the property rules are ignored in favor of the situational and unrestricted immediate opportunities to acquire.

We need to understand our best instincts and our worst instincts — and we need to very intentionally guide ourselves into behaviors and settings where our best instincts prevail and make us successful, and safe.

We are all saints. We are all sinners. We need to set up settings where being saints is rewarded and where being sinners is not allowed.

We have the ability to rise to high and enlightened levels of interaction and behavior on multiple levels when we are in settings where the cultural guidances and legal expectations point us in those directions. 

We also have the ability to sink to very low and unenlightened levels of behavior and ethical compliance when those standards and enforcement mechanisms are not in play.

As a nation, we need to have all of our laws about bullying, property theft, and sex related abuse in place — and at this moment of our history we would be very well served if we also returned to an ethical expectation of basic honesty in what we say and do that offsets our instinctive tendency to lie to people we perceive to be Them.

We can rise to those ethical standards and expectations by understanding what we have just done, and by agreeing as a people and a nation that we have decided to return to an expectation of honesty.

We need our Truth Teller movement to be real, and we need to be willing to act and communicate those values. 

We need to insist that our news media tell the truth and then we each need to respond to the media in various direct and indirect ways when that doesn’t happen — because we each need to hold our own side accountable to honesty and ethics for that to happen as well as insisting that the other side not say things that are not true.

That is a complex set of behaviors.

We each need to use, watch, read, and select honest and ethical media, and we need to object and become outraged when our own media does us wrong. We need to clean our own house, and we need to expect our media to follow along with those expectations.

We also need to move to a higher level between groups and accept each other’s feedback and guidance toward our issues and concerns.

As The Art of InterGroup Peace points out in the final chapter, we need to have a set of shared values as a nation and as communities, and we need to commit to one another to make those values real, and use them as guidelines for our lives.

We need to form local groups whose roles are to help us all maintain the standard of truth telling. We need to teach those values to our children and we need to model them for our kids.

The key is to recognize that in order for any parts of this nation to do well in a threatening and even dangerous world, we need to move in directions that help us all do well, and we need to have a shared desire and interest that causes us all to celebrate when any of us do well.

The alternative to doing well together is to divide into warring factions and do damage to one another. We could easily fall to that set of bad outcomes — if we don’t recognize how dangerous those behaviors are and how damaging those outcomes will be.

Let’s start by returning to truth telling as a basic standard for our interactions. Let have that expectation be a guide and a tool for our interactions.

We will never be perfect — but we can be a lot better than we are becoming, and the time to change that direction for this particular issue and this particular behavior is now.