Founding and Managing Partner
The Arbinger Institute
I recently attended a speech by Penn Gillette (of Penn and Teller fame). He said that “Every story teller is a liar.” Why? “Because,” he said, “as soon as you pick one thing to say and leave other things behind, you are lying.”
Penn’s point reminded me of words the brilliant author Fyodor Dostoyevsky put in the mouth of one of his characters: “All of my life I have been lying, even when I was telling the truth, because I wasn’t telling the truth for its own sake but only for my sake.”
The trouble with the news today is that it’s difficult to find anyone who simply reports the news “for its own sake” and who is honest and straightforward about biases they hold that determine which “facts” they share and which they don’t. Which means that the problem we face today is not simply that some news is fake. The problem we face is that almost all news has become fake. I don’t mean that no truth is ever shared in the news anymore but rather that the truths that are being shared (and those that are not) are motivated by something other than the facts themselves, which makes much of the news we consume motivated and therefore suspect.
Years ago, as a young lawyer, I drafted a legal brief that was particularly effective. So effective, in fact, that I convinced the judge to overlook facts that might have implicated my client. I remember smugly laughing to myself as opposing counsel tried in vain to get the judge to consider their points. The judge had been so swayed by the way I had wielded the facts that he had closed his mind to opposing views. He summarily threw out my opponent’s lawsuit. I and my client had won—early, and decisively.
Although we had won the case, I also knew that I’d pulled a fast one. “Ah, but it was my job to advocate and the judge’s job to sift through the merits,” I told myself. “I did my job; it’s not my fault that the judge failed at his.” “Besides, everything I said was true,” I continued arguing with myself (an admission, by the way, that something was amiss). “I just effectively kept the judge from considering other facts that might have done us harm. That’s what I was employed to do.”
From the perspective of the raw pursuit of victory or power, perhaps one could say that I did my job that day. But from the perspective of what the world most needs in this day and age, I was simply part of what has become a collective problem. I could have done my job in a way that didn’t dishonor the people on the other side of our dispute. And I could have respected the judge enough to lay the facts out as clearly and openly as I could and then argued for why my client was in the right. That, too, would have been doing my job—not just effectively, but also honestly and honorably. So long as we tell our stories the way I crafted that legal brief, we will be lying even when we are telling the truth and our news will always be fake.
I long to consume news and opinions and thoughts from those who are not in pursuit of their own agendas—people who are open, curious, and who do not delight in the failures of those with whom they disagree. I also long to live and work with such people. Even more, I yearn to be such a person myself.
To that end, I hope to live by three principles while telling my own stories and listening to the stories of others:
- Listen more charitably.
- Consider opposing views more fully.
- Honor the humanity of those who disapprove of me or my positions.
In the short term, all that may seem to matter in our personal and political contests is who wins and who loses. Over the longer term, however, the future of mankind will depend on whether truth wins. But something approaching truth can win only if all of us in the body politic—the story tellers and the story listeners—are willing to consider how we might be biased, motivated, and mistaken.
Especially when we are sure that we are right.