Truth, honesty and running a business on the internet

Heading out
I’ve fled to my heart’s home: I’m at the beach, watching the coal ships define the horizon.

I dig down into the cooler sand and widen the moat. The next wave should fill it, and then my sandcastle will be complete.

I lick the salt from my lips, and suddenly realise that the alchemist is sitting next to me. She plants a small flag in the castle and smiles.

Troubled? she says. I listen if you wish to speak.

“More sad than troubled, I think.” I say. “I’ve realised that I must let go of an old belief about how the world works.”

And what is that?

“I believed that there was Truth, and when it stood revealed everyone would recognise it. And accept it.”

This is not so?

“No, I don’t think it is. I suspect that truth, like beauty, lives only in the eye of the beholder.”

Is this about the recent scandal?

“Yes. But it’s also about politics, that book of Byzantine history and the friend-of-a-friend incident. It’s happening a lot right now.”

What do all of these events have in common?

“Everyone believes that they know the truth. But often, his truth and her truth couldn’t possibly exist in the same universe.”

Many incompatible beliefs exist in the same universe. Why are you exasperated?

“Because I keep seeing both groups operate with the ironclad certainty of righteousness. And so every truth crusader ends up kind of shitty.”

The truth creates righteousness?

“I think it goes, “I know the truth, and the truth is right. Why would I do anything to become less right? So shut up.””

Ah. So what do you believe in?

“I believe in science. And honesty.”

Why science?

“Science says, “Create a hypothesis. Test it. If it doesn’t hold up to testing, it’s incorrect. If it passes the tests, it’s correct. Until something changes.””

Ah. The idea that nothing is eternally true. The sun may not rise from the east tomorrow.

“Yes. And if it doesn’t, then lots of people will have to change their hypotheses.”

Science, then, is to you a constant testing of reality, and adaptation to its change?

“Yes. And while people can deny fact, it requires a wilful amount of deceit to do so.”

How is fact different from truth?

“Hmm. Because… fact has no interpretation. Water boils at 100C, but it doesn’t tell you if that’s good or bad.”

So truth involves moral judgement, and fact does not?

“I guess, yeah. I mean, at least in the way that most people use it. People say, “The truth is, she’s a graffiti artist. The truth is, he’s a scumbag.” Although they do sometimes use “the fact of the matter”, too. Fuck.”

Ah, language. The word “truth” is often used both to describe the grounded scientific reality you mention, but it also can be used to describe moral imperatives.

“Yes. YES! And since people are really unclear about which way they’re using it, things get fucked up. They might say they’re describing objective reality, but their own standards for judging the world sneak in. And so their truth is completely subjective.”

But they are as certain of it as if it was entirely objective.

Exactly. And so people say incorrect or semi-correct statements with all the force of certainty. And then someone else does it with their own “truth”. And then shit gets ugly.”

And thus, science.

“Yes. Science is supposed to be completely objective.”

Supposed to be?

“People are still… people. But it’s a self-correcting system.”

Ah. And what about honesty?

“Well, you see, science is a way for me to objectively assess reality. Honesty is about judging my subjective reality.”

Judging. So this is a moral stance?

“Yes. It’s me judging myself and whether I’ve acted in line with my own standards.”

And what are your standards of internal truth?

“I don’t know if I’ve ever codified them before. Hold on.” I go fetch some driftwood and draw on the sand, scratch out, draw again. “There.”

Hmm, I see. I especially like the third one. Are you planning to tell your readers about them?

“I don’t know if there’s much point. These are entirely subjective standards, and there’s no way for people who aren’t in my head to know whether I’m meeting most of them or not. I suspect it would just be flattering my own ego to tell them exactly what they are.”

That violates rule four, but is perfectly in line with rule five. I see.

“I could always invoke seven.”

That seems an adequate solution. Also, you no longer sound as sad.

“Well, I am. People are so cruel to each other, and it hurts to watch. And to be part of.”

But rule seven.

“I kinda hate rule seven at times.”

I understand. But the world is what it is, and we can at the deepest level change only ourselves.

“That’s depressing news from an alchemist.”

Them’s the breaks, kid.

“No sweet note to end this on?”

I’m afraid not.

So together the alchemist and I watch the ships define the horizon, as the salt on our cheeks tastes like tears.

The moral of the story

Actually, there are two points I want to make here.

We all need our own standards for truth, reality and how we behave as public people in a world where almost everything is documented.

When I was young, I lied pretty regularly. Mostly for self-aggrandisement, sometimes in order to avoid pain.

I am so damn glad I outgrew that habit before the internet took off.

The internet is a giant accountability machine.

It remembers everything.

We have all seen it happen – the employee who forgets that their boss is a Facebook friend (“Yeah, skydiving! So glad I lied to my boss about having the flu!”), the politician caught contradicting themselves, the whistleblower email…

This is the age of Wikileaks.

This is the age of citizen journalism.

This is an age where Mark Twain’s quote “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” makes even more sense. (Although maybe it should be “If you tell the truth, your Twitter won’t contradict your Google+.”)

You must decide in advance what you will talk about, what you will keep private, what levels of disclosure you’re okay with. Things like:

  • Is lying by omission acceptable?
  • Will you mention your kids by codename, real name, or never at all?
  • How much spin and varnish do you feel comfortable with?
  • Do you delete comments that disagree with you?
  • Do you actively mention people who disagree with you?
  • If you’re experiencing the problem you solve, do you tell people?

Decide now, before the pressure is on. We are outrageously bad at making moral decisions when we’re scared, hungry or seeking approval, unless we already made the decision in advance. (Not that we get it right all the time then, either. But the odds do improve dramatically.)

If you don’t create your rules in advance, then expect scandal. It will come.

*dramatic foreshadowing music*

Also, we have to be very clear on which of those standards apply only to ourselves.

When we say, “The truth is…” often we mean, “What I think the truth is…”

Your truth is valid. But it isn’t necessarily universal.

It’s irritating as hell to constantly caveat with, “Of course, this is just my opinion…” but it matters. Especially online, where your words stand alone, without tone, body language or sometimes even the context of the rest of your statement.

The more you consciously separate fact from your truth, the better. There really is a qualitative difference between, “Bill took three weeks to respond to my email. I regard that as atrocious customer service.” and, “Bill took three weeks to respond to my email. His customer service is atrocious.”

One gets refunds. The other starts flame-wars. (“Well, Bill replied to my email the same day and he was super-helpful. You’re wrong!”)

I had 130-ish comments to my last article about a seriously contentious topic, but that conversation stayed – mostly – respectful and on-topic. And that was largely due to conscious outlining of assumptions and separating fact from… everything else.

This isn’t the end, I think.

There are some more thoughts I’m going to need to tease out about how to mesh the definitive statements (“This is the best way to accomplish [x]”) that you need (?) to make as an authority in your field, with the nuance and honesty that respects your audience.

We will also see the continued fallout of this scandal, and the next one, and the one after that. I suspect that this is to some extent a generational issue, one that affects those that didn’t grow up with their every word being cached online forever.

Oh, and by the way… Rule Seven of my internal standards of honesty is this: “Assume that other people are smart enough to make their own decisions.”

Thus: if it would be valuable for you to know my other rules, feel free to ask.

I’d like to hear your thoughts, whether you’re caught up in the current scandal, or a different one, or you still bears the scars of one in the past. Is complete disclosure the only way to go? How do you separate truth from fact… and do you need to?

In the meantime, if you’d like to observe how I handle disclosure and honesty, you need to be subscribed to the new and improved Mo’Cash, Mo’Joy. All the truthiness that’s fit to print, ladies and gentlemen.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Nomad Tales

  • I’m glad you exist, friend.

  • Allison

    Gosh so much to say and all of it equally as wishy washy as I want it to be the definitive truth. To keep going day by day I follow some of the following rules
    – try not to be someone else (for someone else)
    – being yourself will always mean that some people will like you more than others…try not to get hung up on the ratio (man that’s hard for me sometimes)
    – try to tell the whole story, not just the bit that supports my view
    – that being candid and truthful is probably not as lucrative as being a bald face marketer but I can live with that
    – my dreams are not your dreams, no matter how much I wished we all wanted to run barefoot through buttercups (which would lead to sprained ankles, churned mud, bee stings and general chaos and destruction…thank goodness only a few people want to and so leave enough buttercups for me)
    – realise people are people and many people do not think about these things AT ALL or EVER

    My list has a lot of “try” rather than a definitive “do” because I am imperfect and I try to accept that others are too.

    cue Live and Let Die – Paul McCartney and Wings

    • Those are a beautiful list. And I like that you’re framing it as a guideline, not a judgey pass/fail.

      I am now guitar soloing to Live and Let Die. ūüôā

  • Evan

    Truth and fact both involve a commitment to accuracy.

    Science and real life are both founded on the need for dialogue with others.  In science falsifiability, in real life hospitality and much else.

    I’m not sure there is ‘completely subjective’ – even our dreams are influenced by our language and experiences. ¬†Neither ‘completely objective’ – what we look at is determined by our interests. ¬†Eg scientists look for objectivity.

    I do think it can be important to put in qualifications – though putting them in graceful prose can be more difficult.

    Here’s a contentious one: I do think that values are attributes of objects and relationships – even if they are only perceived by some individuals or none. ¬†Attributes of subatomic particles existed before Bohr even though Newton and the rest of the world didn’t perceive them.

    I think the bottom line is a willingness to say what we perceive and our judgements and our sensation to back our perception and our reasoning to back our judgements. ¬†It is quite possible that someone will reveal to me an object or a value that I hadn’t perceived before (it has happened to me – and possibly to the others reading this).

    • In my opinion, there was too much insightful philosophy in that comment to make it at all easy to reply to. ūüôā

      The “commitment to accuracy” is definitely important. Personally, I find that requires a consistent attempt to keep my ego out of debates, especially ones that don’t directly concern me.

      And I’ll chose less graceful prose, too.

      • Evan

        I fear my not so graceful prose is not a choice!

  • Love this Catherine!

    Science and the objectivity it requires is a good place to start but
    even then most people need a lesson in trial evidence and jounalism’s
    mantra of ‘check your sources’. Being clear and precise in your thinking
    and speaking leads to a better ability to separate ‘facts’ from your
    perceptions of them. Also, the more clearly stated facts you require
    from others the more you teach them to separate facts from their
    perceptions in other areas of their lives- or at the very least in
    dealing with you.

    Communication would be greatly improved if people just learned to mean
    what they say and say what they mean. This reminds me of a Robert A.
    Heinlein quote: “What are the facts? Again and again and again- what are
    the fatcs? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what
    ‘the stars foretell’, avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors thinl,
    never mid the unguessable ‘verdict of history’ – what are the facts,
    and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future;
    facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”

    • Heinlein is so damn quotable. Thanks for sharing that one.

      “Communication would be greatly improved if people just learned to mean
      what they say and say what they mean.” And while that wouldn’t save you from the occasional slander, controversy or brouhaha, it would get you pretty close to unshakeable integrity, online or off.

  • Recently I was in a terrible mood. ¬†you know that little nursery rhyme about the girl with the curl in the middle of her forhead? ¬†when she was good, she was very good indeed. ¬†but when she was bad she was horrid…

    That been me.  why?  because MY TRUTH! MY TRUTH!! MY TRUTH!!!!!!!!

    WAH!!! what’s the point of being soooooooo right, and soooooooooo good if I don’t get to make things happen my way, make people learn the right lessons and ‘get it’ and see what I see and act accordingly? IT’s NOT FAIR *accompanying foot stomp*.

    I toyed with the skirt hem of bitterness – and i tell you, she only *looks* like she’s smiling….

    Eventually, I realized i wasn’t feeling better in the way that was important to me. and THat the *point* of knowing all those things were the rewards in holding myself to those standards. ¬†And other people ‘getting it’ and learning their ¬†lessons, is not required for my sense of things being ok. ¬†

    It’s hard to let go of that. ¬†It’s ongoing. ¬†Finding the sexy and the fun in life reminded me of how I do surrender and where I am called to put my focus *especially* when someone in my sphere is violating my rules with their choices. ¬†I don’t get to step out of my own rules to teach them a lesson and then just hop back into my integrity after and dust my hands off for a job of moral justice well done. ¬†

    Again, i’m reminded that I *want* strength to be this feeling where I don’t quiver and my heart feels totally solid and I don’t doubt my footing. ¬†when, in reality, strength is the choice to stay open and present (and honest) even though my heart is quivering and i’m not sure of my footing – letting it all matter but not constraining or controlling it. ¬†

    I know I’m somewhat tangential to your two points – but the integrity bit you were fondling is immanent for me right now. ¬†Do I stay committed to my rules for who i am and how I do life even when they make me feel really vulnerable in the presence of someone or something who isn’t bound by those same rules at all?

    I would like to know your rules!

    • Do I stay committed to my rules for who i am and how I do life even when they make me feel really vulnerable in the presence of someone or something who isn’t bound by those same rules at all?

      That is a beautiful point. I’ve decided, at least for know, that I’m going to try and stick to my own standards no matter what. We shall see whether that works out.

      P.S. Will write out my rules when I have some spare time!

  • Bernard O’Leary

    Great post – you’re a fountain of wisdom.

  • Language and its interpretation are such key things that often overlooked. Yet; there’s little that can be done unless everyone gets clearer; which I guess is all I can do to change my life.. and ask others politely to clarify their meaning.. ¬† ¬†Perhaps one day the political correctness wave will at least lead some people to be more specific? It’s certainly somethign I need to remember more – to ask people of their meaning before jumping to conclusions [which is usually negative – “they hate me” when i’ve misunderstood]. ¬† Thanks for the reminder ūüôā

    • Thank you, Rose!

      Agreeing on terms is half the conversation, sometimes more.

  • Hrmmm… I’m glad you pointed out that science is “supposed” to be objective… and it is self-correcting, but sometimes only when the people holding the doors shut finally die. Eddington effectively prevented research into black holes for 50 years because of his belief in what was true and possible, even in the face of mathematical proof to the positive.

    The argument of belief vs. truth went on in earnest around comics I posted on my site here: http://lezleydavidson.com/2011/05/25/einstein/

    Having said that, I believe accepting that your truth is not universal is a true measure of being a mature member of our global collective, the opposite is remaining childish and inflexible.

    In regards to this particular conversation of scandal… I went ahead and downloaded all the goodies offered. Immediately.¬† I paid… but still felt like I was stealing someone’s livelihood. I’m excited that more will be offered for free. And I feel a little shitty that I’m personally benefiting off of another’s difficulties.

    • People are people. That’s the glory and the disaster of it.

  • Yvette

    I am sad also.¬† I see a very slippery slope in all of this.¬† I still need to believe in all the cliches like the truth shall set you free…in good vs. evil, good wins,¬† good things come to those who wait.¬† I need to believe this because they have carried me through some really dark times in my life.¬† But maybe it was my belief in them that carried me and not that they are necessarily true.¬† I feel so lost when I type this.¬† I keep hearing the words of the song,¬† “They read you Cinderella, and swore it would be true.”¬† I want it to be true, I want the fairytale for me and for all people.¬† How do I exist with a less static more dynamic sense of truth that ebbs and flows according to the situation and maintain my integrity and sense of honor.¬† It was much easier when I was a scientist…
    Thank you so much for this post.

    • Thank you, Yvette, for sharing your struggle and debate. It’s a tough one, and clearly I’m still teasing out my answers.

  • Wow. I really want to comment insightfully on this, but that’s all I have to say (though it did start the wheels turing on posts I want to do myself…)

    That and I am curious about what your rules are – not because I think they should apply to anyone else, but just because I’m curious.

    Andy

    • When I have some spare time I shall write them out, then. ūüôā

  • I have a background in science (ok, an embellishment – I did the first year of a science degree before switching to engineering. I still read up on it voraciously though), and am married to a scientist (completely true). ¬†These two things combined have shown me that¬†science is often more about proving you’re right and others are wrong than objectivity. ¬†Inevitable, as you say, because humans are involved.

    My dad once said to me that truth’s like a landscape, perceived very differently depending on where you stand in it. ¬†The older I get, the more I agree with him.

    On the subject of rules, it’s funny you mention this, because I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. ¬†I’ll make an effort to write them down at some point, but here’s the ones that come to mind as relevant:

    1. Ethics. ¬†I use the “could I tell someone whose opinion I really, deeply care about (in my case, parents, wife, child, and a couple of very close friends) what I’m doing, and still look them in the eye?” test.

    I’m not sure Immanuel Kant would approve of that standard of ethics, but then he’s not in the above list, so that’s ok.

    2. Avoid unnecessary drama at all costs. ¬†The whole Naomigate thing falls into this category for me. ¬†Knowing a number of the actors involved means I’m not always following to it to the letter.

    3. Avoid making promises you can’t keep (both to yourself and others). ¬†This one is really, really hard, and I strive to follow it. I don’t always succeed though, as it’s a really¬†insidious¬†habit.

    4. Almost no situation matters as much as you think it does right now.  

    5. Everyone else you are dealing with is a real person, not a thing.  Endeavour to treat them as such (especially online)

    I’m sure more will come to mind after I hit post ūüôā

    • I like your list a lot! It has a good deal of overlap with mine, I note with zero surprise.

  • Linda

    You seemed sad in this post. I think many people struggle to differentiate between “truth” and opinion. You chose a good example – water boils at 100* C. Whether someone knows that or not, water will still boil at 100* C. Truth is fact. Fact is truth. The rest is opinion.

    Liver tastes horrible to me. That’s not “my truth,” it’s my opinion. I prefer not to use terms like “my truth” or “your truth” because opinion is opinion, not truth.¬†

    Have you ever read Viktor Frank’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning? Excellent book. He believed there are just 2 races of people, decent and indecent – and that the last of human freedoms is the freedom to choose how to treat people regardless of circumstance.

    Cruelty is either a choice – or a natural predisposition – I’m not sure which. What I AM sure of is both truth and opinion can be said with kindness, or with cruelty. I AM sure that not all people are cruel. I prefer people who are not cruel. Sadly, I suspect they’re a minority, especially online.

    Collecting en masse emboldens the cruel. Doesn’t much matter whether it’s a public stoning in the middle east or a blog with 200 comments ridiculing someone’s appearance. Mob mentality welcomes the cruel and makes no allowance for those who are not. People who are cruel will mock and ridicule those who are not.

    And rule 7?¬† I’m not sure I agree. For example? Ask me to make a decision about anything under the hood of a car and I can’t. I don’t know enough. I think people are smart enough to make their own decisions ONLY if they have enough knowledge to do so.¬†

    Gah – sorry for the long ramble. ūüôā

    • RE: your car => You can decide to consult with someone more knowledgeable than yourself and then decide whether or not to take their advice.

      • Linda

        Yes – and if the person who is more knowledgeable than me has the same ethics, I¬†would likely¬†make a good decision. But if the person who has more knowledge also has a¬†secret motive to use my lack of knowledge to remove as much money as possible from my pocketbook… the decisions might not be as sound. Lack of knowledge makes us vulnerable and susceptible. Lots of that online.

        • There is, and I think to a certain extent that is WHY I invoke rule 7. Because I cannot save anyone, and I certainly don’t want to take advantage of them. So I manage my own behaviours, and let the other people manage theirs.

  • It’s interesting to see the subjectivity of truth laid out the way I’ve been trying to describe my worldview to other people for most of my life.¬† Again, you’ve accessed my brainwaves in my sleep.¬† Once I was old enough to genuinely start thinking about my own thinking (somewhere around 19), I realized that not everyone sees Truth the same way and that Fact is separate from it.¬† I’ve done my best to make sure I live and teach it since then.

    On a different hand, I felt a few things slot into place as I read, mostly in the vein of reassurance about the work I’m doing.¬† Headology is very-nearly-wholly based on the idea that your truth is all you control; to read your story/conversation reminded me of that.

    Thanks for the reminder.  And thanks for unveiling a Truth for all to see.

  • There’s that saying “There’s his side, her side, and the truth.” When I was a teen I was dangerously close to being a solipsist. Unfortunately, solipsism makes me a little crazy sometimes.

    So instead, I follow an ancient people’s viewpoint. There’s my path and there’s your path. There’s my truth, and there’s your truth. And then there’s the part where they overlap, which I call ‘the generally accepted truth’ which may also be considered ‘facts’.

    In your reality, the sky may be blue and in mine it may be green and we can both be right and that’s okay. Life isn’t the same for everyone and that’s part of the beauty of the thing (or the ugly part – one of those).

    Above all else, “To thine own self be true.”

    • Thanks Nathara. That sounds like a perspective that would save me a buttload of suffering.

  • Anonymous

    Catherine, you often tell such lovely tales here as illustrations that a thought I’ve had about the recent bru-ha-ha seems relevant. ¬†

    People often judge “the truth” not based on facts, but based on the story that forms around the facts, and how well that story fits the patterns of the world we know. If a story fits the ¬†archetypal patterns we recognize, we see it as truth. Those patterns? They’re what makes a story resonate for us. That’s what makes it “ring true”.

    Both lawyers and marketers weave carefully selected facts into stories. Both also omit facts that don’t support their chosen story. That’s their job. It’s how they approach the world. ¬†It’s how they process the world.

    In this scandal? A marketer and a lawyer each wove a story, wove their version of the truth.  They each used facts that supported their story. They each omitted facts.  Both stories were archetypal. Both stories had drama, and shocking tidbits.  Both stories fit established patterns. 

    So far, one story has gained traction, perhaps because more facts and chapters were added to the tale. One story lost traction, perhaps because the teller fell largely silent. 

    But neither story is “the truth”. Neither story is a lie.¬†They’re just stories, wrapped around facts, based on perceptions, and judged by how well they fit the patterns people expect to see in the world around them.

  • Kirststoop

    I’ve only just finished reading everything, and I mean EVERYTHING as it took me three days,¬†about the current scandal and was left feeling like a kid who just found out that Santa Claus isn’t real, or like when the magician tells you the secret to their magic trick. Then I came here and read your words Catherine, and it put it into a better perspective for me. I want to believe that people have ethics, truth and honesty. My head is still in a fog over HOW and IF I should be separating truth from fact about all this, cos this isn’t just about them. The wider implications frighten me.

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