When Truth Is Offensive
But Am I Willing to Pay the Penalty for Saying What Is True But Politically Incorrect?
Do you always speak the truth, even when the truth is offensive to someone?
If you said “yes” to that question, you’re probably lying. Either that, or you live by yourself, are completely celibate, and have few friends, and everyone who knows you thinks you’re hopelessly antisocial.
I imagine some old curmudgeon who actually does tell everyone exactly what he thinks: someone tells him “Good morning!” and he just scowls and says, “It’s a terrible morning! And seeing your stupid smiling face this early just made it even worse!” Maybe someone like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
As Jesus said, “The Truth shall set you free.” And he’s right. You tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and it will set you free — free from being in a relationship, free from having a job, etc.
Most of us suppress our true thoughts and feelings at least sometimes. Maybe you bite your tongue when candor would be ill advised, or maybe you tell just a few white lies to keep the peace in your marriage or workplace. But where do you draw the line?
To Thine Own Self Be True
“To thine own self, be true,” says Pelonius in Hamlet. He probably wasn’t cautioning against exchanging harmless pleasantries or giving a lover a compliment that may not literally be quite true; nobody would really consider that an act of self-betrayal. On the other hand, agreeing with some purple-haired hermaphrodite that “trans women are women” — even though they’re plainly not the same thing at all — and remaining silent when a handful of insane ideologues call for good people’s lives to be destroyed for stating a biological fact, maybe that is an act of moral cowardice and self-betrayal.
Where do you draw the line? At what point does it become a duty not to pretend that you agree with those around you? When do you feel compelled to stand alongside another who is being attacked by a self-righteous mob for merely making a good-faith, reasonable statement?
In his excellent essay “The Power of the Powerless,1” Václav Havel gave an example of a greengrocer in the Soviet bloc putting a sign in the store window that said, “Workers of the world, unite!” He goes on to examine the shopkeeper’s motives for displaying the sign and what he was actually communicating by it. The true message was not some pro-communist wish for working-class solidarity, but rather a statement of obedience and fealty to the established order, something like: Hey, I’m a good citizen who supports the current thing; I don’t want any trouble; I am not a threat to the political system; you can count on me to uphold the status quo and participate in all the prescribed rituals of our society.2 If you change the sign and setting to a pro-BLM message in the window of a boutique shop in a gentrified neighborhood in New York City, it would convey precisely the same meaning.
Given that there can be real costs for failing to repeat the fashionable slogans when prompted, let alone for daring to openly contradict them, how do you live in truth and integrity . . . and continue to earn a living and maintain functional relationships with neighbors and coworkers?
A No-Offense Society Is a No-Knowledge Society
Peter Boghossian published an article on his substack Beyond Woke in which he posed the statement “a no-offense society is a no-knowledge society” to a group of Colorado State University (CSU) students and asked them whether they agreed with the statement and why. They all generally agreed and merely wrangled over semantics — the Left-leaning student organizations refused to participate, so no crazy SJWs were involved to make the case for censorship and cancellation.
I would revise the statement, perhaps to say “A no-offense society is a society doomed to wallow in ignorance.” It probably wouldn’t literally be a no-knowledge society; at the very least its residents would need to know what causes offense, so they would have to at least have that knowledge. But a society that values politeness more than Truth is a society that will actively suppress important information.
Why Does a No-Offense Society = a No-Knowledge Society?
There are at least two big reasons why a society that absolutely forbids saying anything offensive would be a society that is actively hostile to Truth and knowledge. First, liars get offended when their lies are challenged; consequently, a society that refuses to offend liars would not allow lies to be challenged in any meaningful way. And second, when people identify with certain claims about themselves and the world around them, especially when those claims are central to a particular narrative that bolsters their sense of personal significance, such people will be offended by any statement that contradicts a fundamental tenet of their chosen narrative; and rather than asking whether the offending statement could be true, the default for most people is to attack the messenger and suppress his message.
Truth Offends Crybullies
Liars get offended when their lies are challenged, and their level of offense swells astronomically when they are challenged publicly.
We’ve probably all had this experience: someone lied to you; you learned some fact that absolutely destroyed their credibility and exposed the lie; and when you confronted the liar with that evidence, rather than apologizing or admitting the truth, the liar doubled down on the lie and feigned righteous indignation, as if he, not you, was the properly aggrieved party. There’s something incredible about seeing a bald-faced liar defiantly yelling, “Are you calling me a liar?!”
One of the hallmarks of politics is that it attracts narcissists and sociopaths. And narcissists and sociopaths lie. Pathologically. And when they get called out on their lies, they get offended. And if nobody is willing to risk offending the narcissists and sociopaths, then their self-serving lies are never challenged publicly, which inevitably leads to some, perhaps even most, people believing their lies.
Truth Offends the “True Believers” of a False Narrative
One of the most bitter pills to swallow is the self-realization that you lie to yourself. Maybe you don’t consciously do it, but somewhere, deep down, you have known something to be true, yet you did not acknowledge that truth consciously. You may have even claimed to believe the opposite. As pop psychologists often say, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.”
Our capacity for cognitive dissonance is amazing. It’s like our brains are designed to protect us from facts that would devastate our sense of self. As Jay Rollins observed in his recent article Invisible Martians, it’s a worthwhile goal to eliminate cognitive dissonance as much as possible for the sake of one’s own mental efficiency, clarity, and consistency. But the only way to do that is through something like the scientific method: try to falsify your own beliefs by testing them and noting where you’re wrong, especially when your predictions turn out not to be true. For that to work, it is absolutely essential to write or otherwise record your beliefs and predictions before they are falsified, because unfortunately, one of the ways we lie to ourselves is by imagining our past statements and predictions were more accurate than they actually were. In other words, hindsight bias. It’s also helpful to have some good people who will hold you accountable and tell you what your blind spots are. Like the Proverb says, “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” A helpful concept I got from reading Bob Mayer’s (ex-Green Beret) book Who Dares Wins was this: look at the things you’ve said and done, and pretend to be a detective reviewing clues and forming a profile of a suspect: ask yourself, “What kind of person would do and say that?” Following that method, I have sometimes been brutally shocked by the reality staring back at me in the mirror.
We all suffer to some degree from cognitive dissonance and various cognitive biases (e.g., sunk-cost effect, availability bias, survivor bias, hindsight bias, etc.). But what happens when an influential group of powerful people demand that their blind spots be absolutely respected by the rest of society? What do you do when the emperor has no clothes, and the emperor and all his attendants demand that you and everyone else agree with them that the emperor is really regally dressed?
As previously mentioned, politics seems to attract an inordinate number or narcissists and sociopaths who will do anything, no matter how vile, and say anything, no matter how obviously false, if they think it will enhance their power and prestige. And one of the favorite tricks of such demagogues is to use harmful ideologies to manipulate the public into trusting and obeying them.
Bad ideologies are powerful tools. Often, they give their true believers a sense of identity, purpose, hope, and significance. Ideologies are usually rooted in some partial or historical truth, but those truths are then packaged with slick lies and twisted into something perverse by self-serving leaders, who use the honest but misguided convictions of their followers to promote an objective that violates their movement’s professed values. And because people’s capacity for cognitive dissonance is practically boundless, the followers frequently fail to notice the discrepancy between what their movement purports to be and what it actually is; and in those rare moments when the truth stares them in the face, they pretend not to see it.
In the Asch conformity experiment, subjects second-guessed what they plainly saw with their own eyes, merely because their peers claimed to see something different. In that experiment, it was just a harmless judgment about which of three lines was longest. But in other instances, where the stakes are higher and the “facts” in question have a real-world impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions, a silent majority that goes along to get along will enable sociopaths and their brainwashed disciples to bully entire countries into compliance with a suicidal agenda.3
The only defense we have to lies is an absolute commitment to the Truth, and since our knowledge of Truth is doomed to be limited and imperfect, we must maintain a free and open marketplace of ideas, where any question or claim that is made in good faith (no libel or fraud or other such speech that is intended to subvert the truth) is permitted.
Here is Jordan Peterson, in an interview that went viral and introduced him to a broader audience hungry for someone willing to speak the truth, explaining the necessary relationship between seeking Truth and running the risk of being offensive:
The embedded video above starts at the point where the interviewer asks Peterson why his right to free speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended. If you have time to watch the entire video, it is well worth watching from the beginning.
The easy part, for me, is stating the obvious: Truth is vastly more valuable than merely being inoffensive. Going along with a lie, merely to get along with those who are devoted to the lie, is an act of moral cowardice and self-betrayal. Of course, the hard part, at least for me, is actually living that out.
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The Power of the Powerless by is well worth reading and remains as relevant as ever. I will write more on this essay soon, possibly a series of articles. I read it for the first time recently, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever read. Ever. No exaggeration. I cannot recommend this essay highly enough.
Chris Bray does a fantastic job writing about the tension between an elite class that governs through symbolic rituals and the regular people who actually make everything work. His substack, Tell Me How this Ends, is full of great essays. Here’s a good one on the role of symbolic ritual in our memetic society:
Just witness what is happening in Sri Lanka, which has a near perfect ESG score of 98 out of 100, but which is now bankrupt and begging for food and fuel: https://spectator.org/sri-lanka-woke-green/. This is but one case where the doomsday cult of Wokeism, led by sociopaths and enabled by their NPC followers, is literally killing people.