To speak the truth, get out of the way – [V1.8]

When the content is bad, the content-provider comes more clearly into view.

I recently read a lame tweet. Shocking, I know.

But despite my grief and confusion, I was able to learn something from this unwelcome experience. Perhaps my thoughts can be of use to others who are similarly afflicted.

For me, Reading Lame Shit has three phases:

  1. The person is telling me about something. 
  2. The person fails a check I’m running. 
  3. I start thinking about the speaker, instead of the thing they’re telling me about.

Let’s go deeper. In my specific case:

  1. The person is telling me about something. 
    The topic was ‘American corporate selfishness and the Chinese Communist Party.’ This got me thinking thoughts about America, corporations, selfishness, and Chinese communism. Great topics.
  2. The person fails a check I’m running. 
    The person started seeming compromised. They presented X as obvious, but then seemed like they were going to say X regardless of whether X was the case or not.
  3. I start thinking about the speaker, instead of the thing they’re telling me about.
    I stopped thinking about America, corporations, selfishness, and Chinese communism. I started thinking about my narrator – let’s call him Bob – Bob’s ideology, why Bob can’t see the flaw I’m seeing, what else Bob believes, whether Bob would be embarrassed to see himself as I see him, etcetera.

Step 3 seems odd and interesting to me. When the content is bad, the content-provider comes more clearly into view. Perhaps this is part of why we feel shame and embarrassment around public speaking – the fear that the flaws in our content will reveal our flaws as people.

But when I’m consuming your content, the way I think about it is this: I’m trying to understand the world. You might be able to help me do that. This is great. But if you show yourself an unreliable narrator, I can’t see reality in your reflection anymore. Maybe I can adjust for the distortion and glean something, but too often there’s barely a reflection at all, and all I can see is you. This doesn’t make you terrible, but it does mean I’m not doing that thing I’m trying to do. Or rather: I’m still here trying to understand the world, but I’m ending up studying the confusions of its narrators, not the things they’re trying to tell me about.

If the error is in mucking up the truth, perhaps the virtue which prevents it is getting out of the truth’s way

I’m reminded of a quote from The Over-Soul. Emerson describes a way in which the greatest artists show their limitations most clearly. The greater the work, the more it approximates Reality – next to which even masterpieces inevitably pale:

“The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all he has done. Shakspeare carries us to such a lofty strain of intelligent activity, as to suggest a wealth which beggars his own; and we then feel that the splendid works which he has created, and which in other hours we extol as a sort of self-existent poetry, take no stronger hold of real nature than the shadow of a passing traveller on the rock.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over-Soul

The great artist guides us towards “real nature”. The better he does his job, the more his works highlight their own flaws by comparison. Mediocre artists and truth tellers don’t know how to show us real nature – not yet. Success is a matter of both honesty and technique.

And so perhaps it would be better to think of creators of all types (artists, researchers, even technologists) as ‘revealers of natural forms’ much more often than we do. To bring in another voice on the topic, Keith Johnstone of Impro describes a worldview in which an artist is understood as a conduit, not a primary cause, of revealed truth:

“We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they wanted to see the God’s. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn’t have to ‘think up’ an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there…”

Keith Johnstone, Impro

Emerson and Johnstone display the relevant truths just fine, and so perhaps I should say no more. Instead I reiterate: If you want to convey the truth, get out of the way!

Addendum: Some people, apprehending the idea of ‘getting out of the way,’ decide to become plain reporters of simple facts. They learn to make clean statements, like propositions in a technical document, parseable in a literal fashion. Whatever they say, it sounds like they’re explaining how to build a dishwasher. I’m chiding a bit, but the truth is that this is great thing to be able to do, crucial in some fields and when seeking certain kinds of knowledge.

But the cost may be that such a person, seeing how easily people lose track of the truth when they become involved and emotionally compromised, may start to strip away any hint of the personal and the emotional in their work. This way of seeking objectivity can be stifling. In some technical areas, this might be required – but those who only use this approach to communication may also find themselves limited in their persuasiveness, interestingness, and ability to shape others. This isn’t meant to recommend any skimping on accuracy – only that we must to learn to communicate productively, with a full appreciation of what communication requires. For better or worse, most of us are not mathematical theory-checkers, and those who are too taken with literalness might do well to reflect on the human race and why it has such a love for things like music, metaphor, touch, and implication.

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