36 - 12 RULES FOR LIFE: RULE 8 | TELL THE TRUTH
AN ANTIDOTE TO CHAOS
by Dr. Jordan B Peterson
Tell The Truth
Or, At Least, Don't Lie
This is the 8th edition of my reflections upon the phenomenal book “12 Rules For Life” by Dr. Jordan B Peterson, who is a professor at the University of Toronto, and a clinical psychologist.
Stream this episode through the player above. Read the notes and follow the basic transcription below.
(5:20) Book begins: Interlude
(9:33) Manipulate The World
(29:29) The Truth Instead
(34:45) Radical Honesty
(37:00) Is existence good?
(39:29) Why not lie?
(46:25) Closing reflections
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I had had a strange set of experiences a few years before embarking upon my clinical training. I found myself subject to some rather violent compulsions (none acted upon), and developed the conviction, in consequence, that I really knew rather little about who I was and what I was up to. So, I began paying much closer attention to what I was doing—and saying. The experience was disconcerting, to say the least.
I soon came to realize that almost everything I said was untrue. I was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what I thought was necessary. But I was a fake. Realizing this, I started to practice only saying things that the internal voice would not object to. I started to practice telling the truth—or, at least, not lying. I soon learned that such a skill came in very handy when I didn’t know what to do. What should you do, when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth.
Taking the easy way out or telling the truth—those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.
MANIPULATE THE WORLD
You can use words to manipulate the world into delivering what you want. This is what it means to “act politically.” This is spin. It’s the specialty of unscrupulous marketers, salesmen, advertisers, pickup artists, slogan-possessed utopians and psychopaths.
It’s the speech people engage in when they attempt to influence and manipulate others. It’s what university students do when they write an essay to please the professor, instead of articulating and clarifying their own ideas. It’s what everyone does when they want something, and decide to falsify themselves to please and flatter. It’s scheming and sloganeering and propaganda.
To conduct life like this is to become possessed by some ill-formed desire, and then to craft speech and action in a manner that appears likely, rationally, to bring about that end.
There are many fundamental problems with the life-lie, particularly when it is based on avoidance. Here’s one of them …
… A sin of commission occurs when you do something you know to be wrong. A sin of omission occurs when you let something bad happen when you could do something to stop it. The former is regarded, classically, as more serious than the latter—than avoidance. I’m not so sure.
Consider the person who insists that everything is right in her life.
She avoids conflict, and smiles, and does what she is asked to do. She finds a niche and hides in it. She does not question authority or put her own ideas forward, and does not complain when mistreated. She strives for invisibility, like a fish in the centre of a swarming school.
But a secret unrest gnaws at her heart. She is still suffering, because life is suffering. She is lonesome and isolated and unfulfilled. But her obedience and self-obliteration eliminate all the meaning from her life. She has become nothing but a slave, a tool for others to exploit. She does not get what she wants, or needs, because doing so would mean speaking her mind.
So, there is nothing of value in her existence to counter-balance life’s troubles. And that makes her sick.
Someone hiding is not someone vital. Vitality requires original contribution. Hiding also does not save the conforming and conventional from disease, insanity, death and taxes. And hiding from others also means suppressing and hiding the potentialities of the unrealized self. And that’s the problem.
If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it also means that. It means that so much of what you could be will never be forced by necessity to come forward. This is a biological truth, as well as a conceptual truth.
When you explore boldly, when you voluntarily confront the unknown, you gather information and build your renewed self out of that information.
That is the conceptual element. However, researchers have recently discovered that new genes in the central nervous system turn themselves on when an organism is placed (or places itself) in a new situation. These genes code for new proteins. These proteins are the building blocks for new structures in the brain.
This means that a lot of you is still nascent, in the most physical of senses, and will not be called forth by stasis. You have to say something, go somewhere and do things to get turned on. And, if not…you remain incomplete, and life is too hard for anyone incomplete.
If you say no to your boss, or your spouse, or your mother, when it needs to be said, then you transform yourself into someone who can say no when it needs to be said. If you say yes when no needs to be said, however, you transform yourself into someone who can only say yes, even when it is very clearly time to say no.
If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it will, inevitably. You will hide, but there will be no place left to hide. And then you will find yourself doing terrible things.
Willful blindness is the worst sort of lie. It’s subtle. It avails itself of easy rationalizations. Willful blindness is the refusal to know something that could be known. It’s refusal to admit that the knocking sound means someone is at the door.
The prideful, rational mind, comfortable with its certainty, enamored of its own brilliance, is easily tempted to ignore error, and to sweep dirt under the rug. Literary, existential philosophers, beginning with Søren Kierkegaard, conceived of this mode of Being as “inauthentic.” An inauthentic person continues to perceive and act in ways his own experience has demonstrated false. He does not speak with his own voice.
“Did what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my methods were wrong. I still have something to learn.” That is the voice of authenticity.
“Did what I want happen? No. Then the world is unfair. People are jealous, and too stupid to understand. It is the fault of something or someone else.” That is the voice of inauthenticity. It is not too far from there to “they should be stopped” or “they must be hurt” or “they must be destroyed.” Whenever you hear about something incomprehensibly brutal, such ideas have manifested themselves.
Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor who wrote the classic Man’s Search for Meaning, drew a similar social-psychological conclusion: deceitful, inauthentic individual existence is the precursor to social totalitarianism.
Sigmund Freud, for his part, analogously believed that “repression” contributed in a non-trivial manner to the development of mental illness (and the difference between repression of truth and a lie is a matter of degree, not kind).
Alfred Adler knew it was lies that bred sickness. C.G. Jung knew that moral problems plagued his patients, and that such problems were caused by untruth.
All these thinkers, all centrally concerned with pathology both individual and cultural, came to the same conclusion: lies warp the structure of Being. Untruth corrupts the soul and the state alike, and one form of corruption feeds the other.
The difficulties intrinsic to life itself are sufficient to weaken and overwhelm each of us, pushing us beyond our limits, breaking us at our weakest point. Any natural weakness or existential challenge, no matter how minor, can be magnified into a serious crisis with enough deceit in the individual, family or culture.
The honest human spirit may continually fail in its attempts to bring about Paradise on Earth. It may manage, however, to reduce the suffering attendant on existence to bearable levels. The tragedy of Being is the consequence of our limitations and the vulnerability defining human experience. It may even be the price we pay for Being itself—since existence must be limited, to be at all.
The totalitarian says, in essence, “You must rely on faith in what you already know.” But that is not what saves. What saves is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know. That is faith in the possibility of human transformation. That is faith in the sacrifice of the current self for the self that could be. The totalitarian denies the necessity for the individual to take ultimate responsibility for Being.
This is what totalitarian means: Everything that needs to be discovered has been discovered. Everything will unfold precisely as planned. All problems will vanish, forever, once the perfect system is accepted.
The idea that hell exists in some metaphysical manner is not only ancient, and pervasive; it’s true. Hell is eternal. It has always existed. It exists now. It’s the most barren, hopeless and malevolent subdivision of the underworld of chaos, where disappointed and resentful people forever dwell.
Those who have lied enough, in word and action, live there, in hell—now.
It is deceit that makes people miserable beyond what they can bear. It is deceit that fills human souls with resentment and vengefulness. It is deceit that produces the terrible suffering of mankind: the death camps of the Nazis; the torture chambers and genocides of Stalin and that even greater monster, Mao. It was deceit that killed hundreds of millions of people in the twentieth century. It was deceit that almost doomed civilization itself. It is deceit that still threatens us, most profoundly, today.
THE TRUTH INSTEAD
What happens if, instead, we decide to stop lying? What does this even mean? We are limited in our knowledge, after all. We must make decisions, here and now, even though the best means and the best goals can never be discerned with certainty.
An aim, an ambition, provides the structure necessary for action. An aim provides a destination, a point of contrast against the present, and a framework, within which all things can be evaluated. An aim defines progress and makes such progress exciting. An aim reduces anxiety, because if you have no aim everything can mean anything or nothing, and neither of those two options makes for a tranquil spirit. Thus, we have to think, and plan, in order to live at all.
How then to envision the future, and establish our direction, without falling prey to the temptation of totalitarian certainty?
Some reliance on tradition can help us establish our aims. It is reasonable to do what other people have always done, unless we have a very good reason not to. It is reasonable to become educated and work and find love and have a family. That is how culture maintains itself.
But it is necessary to aim at your target, however traditional, with your eyes wide open. You have a direction, but it might be wrong. You have a plan, but it might be ill-formed. You may have been led astray by your own ignorance—and, worse, by your own unrevealed corruption. You must make friends, therefore, with what you don’t know, instead of what you know.
It is our responsibility to see what is before our eyes, courageously, and to learn from it, even if it seems horrible—even if the horror of seeing it damages our consciousness, and half-blinds us. The act of seeing is particularly important when it challenges what we know and rely on, upsetting and destabilizing us. It is the act of seeing that informs the individual and updates the state. It was for this reason that Nietzsche said that a man’s worth was determined by how much truth he could tolerate.
You are by no means only what you already know. You are also all that which you could know, if you only would. Thus, you should never sacrifice what you could be for what you are. You should never give up the better that resides within for the security you already have—and certainly not when you have already caught a glimpse, an undeniable glimpse, of something beyond.
Set your ambitions, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity.
As Matthew 10:34 has it, citing Christ—emphasizing the role of the spoken Truth: “Think not that I have come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
As you continue to live in accordance with the truth, as it reveals itself to you, you will have to accept and deal with the conflicts that mode of Being will generate.
If you do so, you will continue to mature and become more responsible, in small ways (don’t underestimate their importance) and in large. You will ever more closely approach your newer and more wisely formulated goals, and become even wiser in their formulation, when you discover and rectify your inevitable errors.
Your conception of what is important will become more and more appropriate, as you incorporate the wisdom of your experience. You will quit wildly oscillating and walk ever more directly towards the good—a good you could never have comprehended if you had insisted despite all evidence that you were right, absolutely right, at the beginning.
Is existence good? You have to take a terrible risk to find out. Live in truth, or live in deceit, face the consequences, and draw your conclusions.
Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal—an ambition, and a purpose—to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves.
The meta-goal could be “live in truth.” This means, “Act diligently towards some well-articulated, defined and temporary end. Make your criteria for failure and success timely and clear, at least for yourself (and even better if others can understand what you are doing and evaluate it with you). While doing so, however, allow the world and your spirit to unfold as they will, while you act out and articulate the truth.”
This is both pragmatic ambition and the most courageous of faiths.
And why not lie? Why not twist and distort things to obtain a small gain, or to smooth things over, or to keep the peace, or to avoid hurt feelings? The reason is simple. Things fall apart.
Things fall apart: this is one of the great discoveries of humanity. And we speed the natural deterioration of great things through blindness, inaction and deceit. Without attention, culture degenerates and dies, and evil prevails.
What you see of a lie when you act it out (and most lies are acted out, rather than told) is very little of what it actually is. A lie is connected to everything else. It produces the same effect on the world that a single drop of sewage produces in even the largest crystal magnum of champagne. It is something best considered live and growing.
Lies corrupt the world. Worse, that is their intent. First, a little lie; then, several little lies to prop it up. After that, distorted thinking to avoid the shame that those lies produce, then a few more lies to cover up the consequences of the distorted thinking.
Then, most terribly, the transformation of those now necessary lies through practice into automatized, specialized, structural, neurologically instantiated “unconscious” belief and action. Then the sickening of experience itself as action predicated on falsehood fails to produce the results intended.
To tell the truth is to bring the most habitable reality into Being. Truth builds edifices that can stand a thousand years. Truth feeds and clothes the poor, and makes nations wealthy and safe. Truth reduces the terrible complexity of a man to the simplicity of his word, so that he can become a partner, rather than an enemy. Truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best use of the future’s possibilities. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness.
Truth will not come in the guise of opinions shared by others, as the truth is neither a collection of slogans nor an ideology. It will instead be personal. Your truth is something only you can tell, based as it is on the unique circumstances of your life. Apprehend your personal truth. Communicate it carefully, in an articulate manner, to yourself and others.
If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth. In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.