Choose Truth over Comfort: Creating Shared Values in a Melting Pot
Driving by my local middle-school the other day I saw a new message on the marquee: “When having the choice between being right and kind, choose being kind.” I don’t altogether disagree. I am pro-kindness and anti-insult. There is little reason to tell someone they are dumb, even when objectively true. However, we must instill the ability to receive constructive criticism, the greatest tool for growth.
With truth intent matters. Speech should honestly be seeking constructive aims separate from personal ego. Truth does not excuse the superficial barrage of behind the back talk intended only to put others down: (in your best valley girl voice)“Can we talk about that wedding dress? I mean, what was she thinking?” It does not excuse dressing down an American hero with comments like, “I like people who weren’t captured.” Criticism must be rooted in an earnest desire for positive future adaptation. Still, that does not mean it will, or should, be comfortable.
There is a perversion of the “be kind” sentiment common in education and popular culture: the over-protection of feelings and shielding from reality. It is not kind to entrench learned helplessness by removing accountability and solving our children’s problems. It is not kind to create delusions by convincing kids they are the center of the world. It is not kind to remove the failure and adversity that create our greatest growth and understanding. A society that shuns all uncomfortable ideas will become mentally dull and incapable of solving complex issues.
At the end of the movie Miracle on 34th Street, attorney, Brian Bedford makes his final statement in defense for the man who believes he is Santa Claus. He asks, “Which is worse, a lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear?” While I am fine with telling your children Santa Claus exists, I truly detest this one statement in an otherwise wonderful movie. There is nothing more important than a society that strives for truth, especially when it is uncomfortable. We must build the capacity to take constructive criticism, seek failure, and engage in uncomfortable dialogues that promote growth and understanding. The intensely destructive tribalism of our day is only possible when dogmas are elevated above the earnest, ego-less pursuit of truth. Truth must be our brand. It is the common ground we can all unite around, regardless of experience, to grow greater empathy and collective maturity. Santa is the exception.
“In order to think you have to risk being offensive.” –Jordan Peterson
There is nothing more insidious than a culture that fears truth. It strips us of the opportunity to grow and dispel misunderstandings while, ironically, fostering an environment where angry insults and unkindness flourish. Yet today we are so immersed in mass marketer manipulation that we excuse intentional deception. You can’t trust politicians, the nutrition industry, big pharma, or seemingly any large institution. Even schools have marketing departments. They strive to shape perception while pushing graduation rates to heights unreflective of life preparedness. The self-esteem movement (that parents and schools bought hook, line, and sinker) did little more than create delusion, mental frailty, and entitlement.
We are divided by increased availability of personal entertainment and convenience that eliminate the need for social cohesion which were once requirements for survival. Karl Marx referred to the disconnection of factory worker to his work as the alienation of labor. Adam Smith warned of the “mental mutilation” that can occur from specialization of interests. We are now facing the mental and physical mutilation of mindless consumption. We’ve accepted the dogmas of consumerism while watching them devastate the human spirit.
American obesity now afflicts more than 1 out of every 3 and depression has risen starkly in all age groups- the biggest jumps being in those between 12 and 17. Populations generally define happiness as more net pleasure, oblivious to history’s incessant indications of the contrary. How much worse will this get as work is automated and we become even more entitled to effortless results? How will we tackle increasingly complex questions like when is it okay to use gene-editing and where to draw the line between security and freedom? We don’t have the luxury of pretending we can hide from difficult conversations and remain delusionally convinced that everyone who disagrees with us is wrong.
“Ego is about who is right. Truth is about what is right.” - Mike Maples Jr
We must stop celebrating the blatantly manipulative used car salesmen and restore the ethic of good faith efforts toward greater understanding. When group culture applies the appropriate disgust to manipulative simplifications and demands honest pursuits of truth over ego, comfort, feelings, and immediate gratification, we will have the ability to solve all problems.
Too often, we’d rather hear feel-good nonsense than confront hard truths. But, there isn’t a magic diet pill and often chronic anxiety is a consequence of habits, not a random and unfair affliction. Hard truths are essential and worth fighting for. In fact, the pursuit of truth over ego is the fundamental ingredient that must exist in a successful melting pot. Conversation is doomed from the offset if it is not entered by both parties with an earnest desire for truth accompanied by the humility to accept when we are wrong. Parents and the education system should teach this above all else. When cultural deception reigns, every group pursuit suffers. The only way to correct this trend is to rediscover and embrace the truths that bind all of us and serve as the brand that directs our efforts.
The Foundational Principles that Make Shared Values Possible
Principle 1: The Truth & Ignorance Paradoxes
The first step is to define our code. Appropriately fearful of dogmas, many have pulled away from clear values. Ironically, they’ve adopted the worst possible dogma: nothing is sacred and no values override personal want. In his book, The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse relays the work of a group of Notre Dame sociologists who found that 60% of interviewees said “morality is a personal choice entirely a matter of individual decision.” To a growing number, right and wrong is completely up to their feelings in the moment. Anything can be justified and most are too distracted to contemplate ethics at all.
What will bind us? If we share only proximity and legal codes, then we are doomed to isolation and superficiality in which mass humanity cannot thrive. What can we agree is more important than perpetually extending lives and perpetually chasing pleasure? What type of people do we want to be?
Religious, spiritual, agnostic, or atheist, humanity requires reverence and striving for truth to thrive. Science tells what is, not what to make of it. Regardless of beliefs, we can always decide whether we perceive the chaos as beautiful and meaningful, or an excuse to stop striving for truth. We are an infinitely small piece of an infinitely large universe. Does our increased understanding of the cosmos and the brevity of life enhance the greatness or decrease it? Does a bite from a larger pie lose taste, or is it just as sweet? Isn’t human life as valuable now as it was 1,000 years ago despite the population explosion? A larger scope only increases the depth of our unity and the need for universal bonds. The infinite complexity points toward magnificence and should reaffirm our most human of qualities: wonderfully fallible, yet wonderfully inquisitive and oriented towards growth. Regardless of religious beliefs, we must rediscover spirituality. We are addressing a crisis of the human spirit. This is only resolved through collaborative efforts for human truths.
Values are an exploration of truth, not acceptance of superficial dogma. They are not claims to know the truth because someone told us. As scientist Isaac Isamov explained in his brilliant “Relativity of Wrong” essays, "…when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
We know innately that it is better to offer tutelage and support to a kindergartner who wants to learn math than to punch him in the face. We know that it is better to correct a young lady with poor deadlift form than to encourage her to keep lifting in a way that will do immense long term damage to her back. We instinctively differentiate between many truths of right and wrong. As we get closer to truth, certainty is harder to come by, but that does not discredit the concept of truth. Author Mark Manson frames values as hypotheses. Values are our best estimations of the truth based on our vastly ignorant understandings. We continually refine our values as we grow and interpret new experiences.
Our ignorance is not an excuse for moral relativism, but a call for humility and constant growth. Truth, therefore is our primary goal which allows for integrity, the chief value. Our rites of passage must instill a desire to make a positive impact and define purpose through constant and thoughtful refinement.
But wait, if values are individually conceived, how can we create common values that lead to strong cultures? We must strive toward common truths like integrity. While we will reach mildly different perspectives, if guided by an earnest directive towards true integrity, we will unite a people in the same direction. We are shooting arrows at a target and we are all missing. Yet, because we are aiming at the same target we are all closer together than if we shot without aim.
Principle 2- Nuanced Dialogue
Conversely, dogma, is the belief that you have a cheat code to the bullseye. You’ve hit the target and everyone else can too if they just accept the same beliefs. We’ve all witnessed teachers, friends, and colleagues feel certain that they have the best method, bar none, because it is what they were taught and it led to anecdotal success. Whether preaching one tool or one guru, we’ve all witnessed the delusional dogmatists- ignorant of principles yet certain of means. Nothing is more damaging to individuals and cultures. It reflects a destructive inability to conceive of different life experiences or personalities. Dogma promotes laziness and unwillingness to think, while completely eliminating the possibility for constructive dialogue. Communities grow ever-stronger and more sophisticated in their understanding of truth when they work from mutual respect for dialogue.
“How can juvenile people be expected to self-govern or to navigate an advertisting-saturated market economy full of propaganda and untruths? –Ben Sasse
Ironically, as the magnitude of our issues has grown more complex, our cultural standard of dialogue has become increasingly simplified and manipulative. Never before in history is there more need for discourse aimed at solving challenging problems. Instead we see simplistic Tweets, cherry-picked sounds bites, and ego-driven comments concerned more with causing a reaction than approaching truth. News has become non-educational gossip, fuel for indignation and stimulation. We grow increasingly numb as our demand grows for more outrage and more bizarre stories.
Nuanced dialogue promotes a mentally active community that is always oriented towards growth. For people to truly thrive they must be inspired to challenge one another constructively with a mutual desire for the truths of our shared values. This will create deeper bonds and ensure the community avoids the traps of complacency. As Daniel Coyle clarifies in his book, The Culture Code, “One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged but at their core, their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high candor feedback - uncomfortable truth telling - when they confront the gap between where the group is and where it ought to be.”
Principle 3: Balance & Paradox
We often complain about those whose opinion is different from ours, but their presence is a wonderful indicator that the community has hope. We thrive on healthy dialogue geared towards similar core values. In the long run, restriction of dialogue and an environment that precludes honest discussion will assuredly bring violence. This speaks to the danger of campuses policing language and creating terms such as micro-aggressions. A marketplace of ideas, particularly one averse to dogma, will create balance, nuance, and wisdom over time. Answers will never be simple, as truth usually lies in paradox. In fact, the word paradox comes from the Latin “paradoxum,” which means a “statement seemingly absurd yet really true.” You have to hold what seem to be mutually contradictory ideas in your head to get a full picture of reality and the human condition. As Carl Jung put it, “only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.”
Moral relativism lies on one extreme, with dogmatic acceptance on the other. The best approach always avoids extremes. Answers are often paradoxical and heavily nuanced. We must instill a passionate pursuit of truth over conformity, for the sake of the group and the individual. We can only realize unity and wholeness by an inclination to explore and act honestly. In his short book, Self Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted that, “No law can be sacred to me, but that of my nature.” This models the proper approach. A person’s nature is their honest striving for truth which when brought to dialogue ensures a balance that collectively drives the community in the best direction. Nature is rooted in a bio-evolutionary lens that we must all revisit often. Who are we? What world did our biology expect? How does our biology thrive?
With these principles in mind, we can focus on identifying those values that unite and clarify purpose. With the lens of truth-seeking, anti-dogmatism, and appreciation of paradox, we can be truly united behind strong values that create strong, purposeful and fulfilled communities. It is a conversation that naturally extends from our human condition and the innate desire to live a meaningful life. Once we understand how to strive for truth and embrace dialogue, the rest takes care of itself. Again, values are just targets which we will never be perfect in understanding or approaching, but which are essential to any great culture of empowered people. Once we clarify our target values, we can begin the process of designing a physically and mentally challenging community bonding rite of passage that gives a generation the tools to thrive.
Every great company or culture is born of great vision. Clarity of brand vision serves to synchronize mass effort towards great work and eliminate wasted energy. In the notoriously tumultuous airline industry, Southwest has defied the odds and become the industry leader with over 45 straight profitable years. Their secret is their brand: the low-cost, big-personality airline. Every person at Southwest can make decisions based on this clear brand. They keep costs low by having only one size of aircraft, offering only point-to-point flights, not assigning seats, not offering a food menu, and generally not doing much of anything their competitors do other than transport humans safely. What sounds like an awful, convenience-deprived experience is made wonderful by the great pains they take to hire the right people. They want positive, playful people who will work hard, but have a lot of fun along the way. Their hiring process clearly defines the ideal worker archetype to assess interviewees with in-depth behavioral questions. The few successful applicants then attend a 4-week training program to learn and adopt Southwest’s values. Southwest allows for personality and individual interpretation, which are harnessed towards collective success because of their brand clarity.
“Our problem today is not just that we are failing to foster good character, but also that we are failing even to imagine together what success would look like.” –Ben Sasse
We need the ideal of truth to be the brand that directs education, politics, and all public discourse. Shared values (clarified via essential rites of passage) allow for the greater individual power and personality, while bonding people towards greater shared purpose and vision. Currently, humans cohabitate similar regions and follow similar law codes, yet we find ourselves increasingly alienated from one another or any positive group dynamic. This is not the rugged individuality we once admired, united by a common ethos of self-reliance, fortitude, and adventurous spirit. This is a fragile individualism that makes us more self-centered while, paradoxically, more likely to follow the masses toward mindless consumption. Our herd patterns increase ego, narcissism, and all that precludes collective thriving.
Individualism is not about creating an inflated sense of specialness. It is investing in the individual to help them reach self-actualization and instill a desire to, similarly, invest in other individuals. Constructive individualism is not about a phony sense of self-esteem, but, true confidence and self-worth that comes from training people so they have the tools to make their own way. This nuanced view of individualism is essential to create shared values.
We must be united by deeper principles and pulled towards more meaningful pursuits. The future knowledge economy could elevate human creativity more than ever, freeing us to create more community projects focused on human thriving. Our differences can make us even greater if we are willing to come together in humble pursuits of truth.
We live in a time of endless free blogs, podcasts, videos, and more. This makes meaningful content abundantly available and gives us the opportunity to support creators whose work we value.
We contribute a small monthly amount to the blogs and podcasts in which we find value. It gives us immense joy to support those who produce the content that we love.
In that spirit, we’ve created a Patreon account for you to support our work. We will always offer all of our articles for free and we feel honored simply by your interest. However, if you would like to help us devote more time and focus to this work, please consider becoming a patron on Patreon.
You can also show your support through membership. This is not only support, its a win-win. Membership gets you unlimited access to our entire course catalog.
If you do not wish to contribute financially, please subscribe below and share any content that you enjoy.
Thank you for your support, in whatever form it takes.