The Need for Self-Vetting

A UC Berkeley scholar recently disclosed that she was not Native American after all. All her life she believed that she had some Native ancestry because she had been told so. Now she learned otherwise. Deeply apologetic, she acknowledged the hurt that such a claim causes indigenous people.

It is not only people who are knowingly lying who need to be vetted. We may believe something to be true about ourselves but not know it as a fact. Family lore is not always factual, nor is self-lore. Why make claims about oneself or one’s family if you don’t actually know them to be true, haven’t done the research to verify them? Many reasons. We want to believe it and vetting is hard work being two.

At a high school reunion, I wanted to share memories with a woman who had been in a one act play contest with me and another male actor. She told me I was mistaken, that she was not in that play and I must be confusing her with someone else. She seemed quite certain, which meant that my vivid memory would be inexplicably faculty.

I went and got the third actor and asked him in front of her who was in that play. He named her. She had been certain that I was wrong. But certainty, it turns out, is only a feeling. It is not an indicator that we are right. This is an important lesson on the short list of how to live. Don’t trust feelings of certainty. Vet anyway. My classmate could have said simply that she didn’t remember being in the play instead of asserting that she wasn’t.

Believing something and knowing it are not the same. To stick with what we have verified makes life a lot less interesting, but more ethical. No speculation, no conjecture, no just passing along what we have been told.

In some contexts, credibility is crucial. “I’ve never seen this document before.” “Well, you signed that you read it and agreed to follow it.” Why not simply, “I don’t remember reading this document. Let me check it out.”

This realization opens up a whole new practice of vetting ourselves, even the formative things we think we remember but may not be factual. The result may be a real trimming down of the self that we carry and present to ourselves and others. This includes stating our relationship to what we are saying. For example, “My mother told me that as a child I…, but I have no recollection of that myself.” Or, as some people do, “All I know is that is how I remember it.” That is the best we can do until we do what we can to vet it.


Sacrificing the Truth Like Fox News

photo credit Gaspar Uhas Unsplash

Fox news couldn’t tell the truth about the election without losing its viewers. Try telling the truth in Russia and not getting imprisoned. Try being a teacher in Florida or Texas and not getting fired. Try being a minister and not losing members. Try telling the truth about your employer and not getting shut out of future employment, or a former employee and not get sued. Try landing major contracts or even meeting sales goals. Try telling the truth to your children and not getting alienated. Try getting a date, or a second date. Try staying married. Try getting hired or getting into an elite college.

So, when we decide to tell the truth should we just climb upon the cross and be done with it? Is truth telling an act of self-sacrifice? Some like George Santos and Fox News believe we can’t be successful without being dishonest and that everyone does it. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but nearly always it is an act of courage.  There is also an art to it that can increase the chances of success.

We can tell the truth harshly or skillfully, as diplomats learn to do. Some of that is a soft startup, as relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman call it. You prepare the listener to hear what they don’t want to hear. There may be a way to do that with election results people don’t want to hear. How hard did Fox try? You do that because you care about people and you care about the truth. Also, according to research by Mary Gentile at the Darden School of Business, we are more likely to speak truth and values when we learn the means to do so, which addresses the courage aspect. It could also be that Fox News could learn to be a true and honest news organization and have a healthy audience if that is something they aspired to. If not, closing shop may be the honorable thing to do. Losing an election due to a less impressive resume may be as well.

It may be the case that telling the truth will always carry some risks we must be willing to bear. We owe a lot to those who do. Dishonesty need not prevail. Self-interest at the expense of the truth is an assault on society we should not tolerate.