Sometimes the Truth Is Not Good Enough
For leaders, sincerity and transparency are no longer key to building trust.
Posted Feb 12, 2019
One could say that President Donald Trump is authentically false rather than falsely authentic. That would explain the strange appeal of Trump’s off-the-cuff rawness, and why his base doesn’t seem to bother about his, to put it mildly, loose relationship to the truth. Salena Zito observes in The Atlantic: “The press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” There is apparently a difference between truthfulness and authenticity.
As for truth, these are interesting times. On the one hand, we’re experiencing its renaissance. Investigative journalism is having a field day in the wake of presidential lies, fake news, and algorithmic manipulation, and subscriptions for the New York Times and Washington Post are soaring. Likewise, transparency, honesty, and authenticity are widely heralded as the hallmarks of leaders in the digital age who want to restore the eroding trust in the political class and business. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the writer Anand Giridharadas, who, each in their own way, have called out ugly truths and stirred up a debate about social inequality and higher taxes for the wealthy, are examples of the new heroes of the left. And even the often maligned Jeff Bezos earned much acclaim of late for choosing truth over personal benefit when he opted to publish alleged extortion and blackmailing attempts by the National Enquirer even at risk of exposing, well, himself. We respect those who call a spade a spade.
On the other hand, the concept of truth is being seriously tested. Social media and the empowerment of the amateur have fragmented it. What some welcome as the logical democratization of a pluralist society, others lament as the atomization of public discourse. More than ever before we face myriad truths, with myriad platforms to express and promote them. In addition, AI technologies now enable deep fake audio or video that can hack or hijack entire identities (a technology with such grave potential that even the Pentagon is joining the race).
We are human because we lie
Despite all the talk about algorithmic manipulation, it is important to remember that truth remains an inherently human domain. We are human because we lie. In fact, one study claims that in 25 percent of all social interactions, we don’t tell the truth. Psychologist Robert Feldman once found that the majority of people lie at least once in every casual conversation. And Trump produces an average of 8.3 lies a day. We have to accept that truth is always subjective. Paradoxically, we may only protect and preserve it if we accept that one singular objective truth does not exist.
This should not excuse liars and demagogues, but it might help us realize that their moral failure does not so much manifest itself in their bending the truth, but to what end they are bending it. The ultimate Orwellian dystopia is not a world where we’re lied to by the government, but one where we’re no longer allowed to lie. China’s social credit system gives us a clue as to what such data-driven surveillance society might look like. Lying can be an act of freedom, of dissent and dissidence. Lying is what artists do: they rebel against the world as it is and come up with a different one. Entrepreneurs do the same.
Clearly, our society can ill-afford a culture of lying as the new normal. At the same time, a society that insists on one singular truth and does not allow space for some kind of alternative reality is not desirable either. As we increasingly tend to look to data as the sole source and evidence of truth, it’s good to remind ourselves that the truth is too precious to be reduced to something precise.
Truth is like the sea: it can’t be owned
The movie director Orson Welles knows a thing or two about this. With his 1938 radio program, War of the Worlds, he caught off guard a panicked public that did not realize that the alien invasion the broadcast described was actually a work of fiction. In 1941, shortly after Welles had risen to fame with Citizen Kane, he was asked by the US government to travel to Brazil and produce a documentary, titled It’s All True, as a public diplomacy initiative during wartime.
In her beautifully crafted novel of the same title, the author Carmen Stephan zooms in on one of the episodes in the movie — “Four Men on a Raft” — which was supposed to tell the true story of four impoverished fishermen who sailed from Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil’s capital, in the open sea to present in person their grievances to President Getúlio Vargas. Their 61-day long boat ride-turned-campaign garnered national attention, and they eventually arrived as heroes in Rio. The president met with them and promised to improve the living conditions of their peers. For his movie rendition of the voyage, Welles asked the four fishermen to play themselves. But tragedy struck, and the leader of the four, a man nicknamed Jacaré, drowned during the filming. It’s All True remained unfinished.
In her book, Stephan focuses on the relationship between Welles and Jacaré, and how their fates intersected. We have forgotten the truth, she writes, because we have forgotten what binds us together and instead divided it into compartments of disparate knowledge. Welles failed the very moment he wanted to merely re-enact the truth instead of bringing it to life as fiction.
The work of artist Constance Hockaday charts similar territory. She stages boat rides and waterfront performances to connect us back to the water, which she views as essential to transcend the regime of the market society. Her projects include a “Boatel,” a floating hotel and arts space in New York; a peep-show-on-a-boat in the San Francisco bay that highlighted the loss of spaces for the city’s queer community; and the installation “All These Darlings and Now Us” that was described by the New York Times as a powerful “commentary on the forces of technification and gentrification roiling San Francisco.” The truth, for her, is like the sea: it can’t be owned.
We need new fictions to beat the algorithms
What does all this mean for leaders?
First, managers should give up the popular belief that radical transparency is the panacea for trustworthiness. The Australian trust researcher Rachel Botsman points out that more transparency does not equal more trust: “Transparency cultures and relationship are low-trust relationships. If we need transparency, we’ve given up on trust.” One could also argue that when everything happens in glaring sunlight, there is no responsibility, no secrets, no bad ideas. Democracy may die in the dark. Innovation, however, dies in radical transparency.
Second, if the truth is like water, all that leaders can do is dip their toes into it. Being honest is not enough, they must be exceptional storytellers, too. For most people, true is what feels true. Authentic leaders don’t always have to tell the truth. They don’t have to be transparent either. Rather, their authenticity emanates from the fact that they embody their own personal truth and by doing so manage to connect the rest of us with a more profound universal one.
Finally, Mark Zuckerberg may assure us that better AI is the most effective remedy for fake news. But we will not win against algorithms with better algorithms—we will only beat them by telling the better stories. To paraphrase the communication theorist and psychologist Paul Watzlawick: We cannot not manipulate. But we must learn to manipulate more effectively than the algorithmic manipulators.
Especially in times like these, we not only need facts, we need new fictions (in the milder marketing jargon also called "narratives"). They give us hope. Hope is not a strategy, the adage goes. Not true. For leaders, hope is their biggest asset. Because people trust those who give them the most of it.