That’s attributed to the late Richard Rorty, an American philosopher of note from the mid-20th Century. He thought about the nature of truth a lot, and this quote is more than merely pithy, although it is that, too.
It’s not going to be good enough, anymore, depending on our friends to tell us what we can get away with. That is because, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, when we ask whether our own favored ideas are true, what we are really asking is may I still believe them? Is there any plausible line of reasoning that will allow me to hold on to my belief? Likewise, when asking whether a claim that another person has made is true, if we don’t want it to be true, then must I accept it as true? In other words, we don’t typically actually have a taste for actual proximate truth so much as we’d like to believe about ourselves, and the reason we have a blind spot about it is because we evolved to deceive ourselves, first. We don’t want to know the truth, and we don’t want to know that we don’t want to know the truth. It’s not an easy thing to get people to pay attention to, to say the least. Especially when we have evolved to not attend to it, specifically.
People have primary programming, and we only ever pretend that our social and professional roles are more than means through which to pursue that primary programming. We have little bits of narrative that we use to cover this, from legal impact, economic impact, but mostly for psycho-social and personal political reasons. When we say, for example, “All doctors go to medical school to help people,” that is a bald-faced lie. It might feel wrong to acknowledge it, or in such binary terms, but it is the case, nevertheless, and those feelings, themselves are what I am pointing to, as well as their propriety. What about the propriety of making such a facile and patently untrue declarative? That’s not okay, for me.
And how do these little white lies operate? They help us to tell a story about doctors, in this example, and one of many, many, completely untrue and evidentially-unsupportable hypotheses and notions that protect us from the truth, which is the thing we pay through the nose to be rid of, isn’t it? In this case, in fact students choose medicine because they think they can hack it and that the sacrifice will be rewarded with lucre and elevated social prestige. If pressed, we’d admit yes, of course, this is merely rational, and so it is.
But there is a little part of the monkey mind that believes in magic, and there is hocus pocus in the stories we tell ourselves about our healers, but also our law enforcement, state bureaucracies, and politicians, and our military, as well. Doctors are there because they want to help us. Cops are out there on the streets just to keep us safe. Joining the professional military doesn’t automatically make you government property, which can be used in the course of national security/defense, as defined for any experiment or purpose at all. Politicians are servants who sacrifice of themselves to represent your best interest in the halls of power. You getting the pattern, here? We tell these little lies, my friend, because we are insecure and cowardly, but it isn’t our fault. We are born this way.
And yet. We are also born shitting ourselves quite naturally, and yet we somehow find a way to overcome this naturalness in favor of good hygiene. Okay, we actually overcome it through the power of shame. Seems like we could attend to our natural proclivity to hide from unwanted awareness, and always go along to get along, and never truly exercise any executive judgment or understand ourselves at all. Seems like we could decide to stop using euphemisms, and pointedly so. To unblinkingly correct a peer when they say something that, apart from social currency, is a crock of shit. Seems like we could demand a higher level of cognitive hygiene, at the expense of the rather bourgeois and self-aggrandizing skills of flattery and social grace. And we will, but you know, first they ignore, then they laugh, then fight, then lose, and resent you forever.
Those of us who already live this way live outside of the protective bubbles of corporations that have HR departments. Those who live inside those bubbles are forced, through fear of political reprisal, to conform to intellectual solidarity. The only thing worth fighting for is your freedom, and your freedom is your executive judgment, period. You are the final authority in the whole world over what is good and bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. No one else on the planet has any more authority than you over what you believe about those things. You may just to defer to “what ever my peers believe” or what have you, but you had to do the deferring, since it is you who is the authority over yourself. That’s the truth that the HR department and the political bubble desperately needs you to forget. Those who live inside those corporate bubbles traded their freedom for money and/or status within their peer group. Just like Winston did in 1984, all they way up until he didn’t. No one wants the truth, and no one wants their freedom. And no one wants to know they don’t want the truth and don’t want their freedom. It’s a hard sell.