Tag Archives: truth-telling

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Regaining a Consciousness of Character

                        My Dinner with Andre

Sometimes even a friend needs to hear that they need to have higher standards for judging the character of others.

Aristotle famously pointed out that who a person is can speak louder than what they say. He and other wide-ranging thinkers argued that one’s own personal credibility was precious: a character trait necessary to be a force for good in public discussion.  They used a phrase we barely hear today: the idea of the “virtuous person.”

We can’t say the impulse is dead. Novels, documentaries and films regularly put shallow and temporizing characters on display as negative models. Drama lets us see human frailty, keeping the idea of flawed, biased and unreliable sources visible. But the information overload that is now the norm often means that the character of a source is assessed last, if at all. To cite one instance, research shows that users of the internet for medical information are less likely to weigh the source than the “helpful” information, leaving many to bogus remedies promoted by companies whose interests are more marketing than medical.

The maw of fractured conversations we now witness across media platforms distracts us from considering the quality of sources. Narratives of dramatic events can easily draw us in to fascinating details before we have fully considered whether the core values of basic honesty and moral action have been met. Right now, for example, YouTube is full of stories about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that come from individual and private sources. These are usually hopeful but somewhat dubious assessments about Ukraine from individuals, rather than straight reporting from the field. We need to be alert to the likelihood that not every assertion is accurate, even if we want it to be.  People often get a free pass from us if their views and values align with our own.

In the Age of the Con, Who Can be Trusted?

As a culture, we seem increasingly slow to come to an awareness of another’s shortcuts around more rigorous investigation and fact-checking. Think of the claims that Elizabeth Theranos made for her rapid-result, all-in-one blood testing machines. We owe the initial awareness of her invention’s weaknesses to John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal. He was skeptical of the claims to investors made for the machine, and grew even more doubtful when some working at Theranos privately noted that the untested technology was capable of far less than advertised. Usually those working at a startup are as enthusiastic as the founders, hence, not very reliable if problems arise. Too much is at stake to communicate doubts. But the rare doubter within an organization who will talk may be more credible because they have placed truth higher than their own career. Like all of us, journalists must weigh the motives of a source when trying to sort out hopes from hard truths.

Personal credibility has recently received more attention in light of the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion for overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark court decision guaranteeing Americans a choice in whether to proceed with a pregnancy.  An apparent majority now seems intent on overturning the landmark 1973 ruling. Politico released the draft copy indicating that Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett had voted with Samuel Alito to toss out the precedent. This was in spite of the fact that Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett had given public testimony at their confirmation hearings declaring Roe to be “settled law.” Critics were angry that these justices had not honored their earlier views to leave this key precedent in place.  Can future court nominees be trusted to act on their stated beliefs?

We need to consider the veracity of those whose who want to shape our attitudes and actions. Sometimes a friend needs to be reminded that they are putting their trust in the hands of someone unworthy of it. Several simple questions about sources are a good place to start:

  • Is the source in a position to know the truth or make a reasonable judgment?
  • Have other serious people supported the source’s reliability?
  • Is a person’s enthusiasm for an idea unreasonably coloring their judgment?
  • Can a source coherently explain their reasoning and evidence for an assertion?

And there’s one more question I find reassuring when answered in the affirmative.

  • Does a source have enough honesty to acknowledge not knowing enough to answer?


backchannelDiplomats, mediators and leaders of all sorts make extensive use of backchannels.  They know that the expressive needs of individuals are sometimes at odds with the goal of finding face-saving solutions.

Imagine that you are at a party with five other close friends.  In the course of a conversation with the group, the host mentions that he is pleased to have found a new employee to work in his small business. The new hire who he identifies lives in the same small town, and is known to you and some of the other guests. You also know that others who have worked with the employee have reported that he is an unreliable worker, showing up late and sometimes making careless mistakes.  Should you say something to the host?

Do you:

  1. Tell the host immediately and in the midst of the gathering that they have probably made a mistake in extending the offer of a job?
  2. Say nothing?
  3. Follow-up privately with the host, mentioning the doubts that you have?

Most of us have been in this situation, where there is no perfect answer. The first option of saying something immediately in the presence of all is what many would see as an obligation of good friendship.  Friends save friends from making bad mistakes. The sooner, the better. In addition, an opinion aired within a group is more easily disputed or affirmed by others who are present: a kind of base-line value built into American patterns of more open communication.

Some, though probably not many, would say nothing, believing that both the host and the new worker deserve the advantage of a clean slate.  After all, the employee is being judged partly on hearsay, and in advance of the record they might establish in their new job.

And some would choose the last choice, what I call the backchannel option.  They might wait until later to tell the host privately that the new hire could be problematic. This option protects the host from the embarrassment of being asked to publicly disown the positive view they just stated.  And it allows a little more time to assess the reliability of the pessimistic view.

It’s often a good idea to opt for a backchannel, where a message can be focused and private.  On the solid premise that we need to carefully pick our moments, it can make sense to hold back in a group setting when we have the awkward task of telling someone that they have made a mistake.

Backchannels have many advantages, and at least one disadvantage. The disadvantage is that they deprive the truth-teller of their moment in the spotlight.  It can be hard to not parade our wisdom before a gathered group. Though this may seem like a selfish and frivolous concern, it’s good to remember that most of us are fulfilled and affirmed by the display of what we regard is a superior understanding of what’s really going on.  This kind of “showboating” is probably why the concept of “forbearance” had to be invented for the rest of us.

Aside from our expressive needs, the advantages of backchannels are even more consequential.  Communication out of the public eye is useful as a way to save the “face” of another. A person can be corrected or warned without carrying the additional burden of what can seem like an unnecessary humiliation.  Small potatoes, perhaps.  But in the actual situation described above, the enthusiastic employer was quite embarrassed by the less than positive response that came from his friends. He clearly felt a need to honor a commitment he had already made, obviously wishing he’d said nothing.  And it’s easy to see why. Unravel this small moment a little more and it’s apparent that a public conversation about a potential mistake could be construed as an implicit judgment about the host’s competence. With backchannels, most of this baggage doesn’t accumulate. There is a better chance to preserve the friendship that exists between the host and the doubters.

Diplomats, mediators and leaders of all sorts make extensive use of backchannels.  They know that the expressive needs of individuals in groups are sometimes at odds with the task of finding face-saving solutions. The challenge for all of us is to resist our first impulse to take ownership of a conversation on the quick hunch that we have superior insights.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu