Wrestling Truth beyond Identity

Asking questions that elicit truthful answers, listening with skill, and allowing oneself to hear the truth of another person’s perspective … these are skills I studied, experimented with, and shared during my career in product planning at Altera Corporation. I documented many of the techniques that worked best in a book that’s due out in fall 2017 (“Align”, Dover Publishing).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a phenomenon that runs counter to these techniques. It hinders both truth telling and truth hearing. While I encountered it a bit during my career, it seemed a minor factor in decision making. It never occurred to me to tackle it. But now, as I read the news, talk with friends and family, and track social media discussions, I see this impediment everywhere.

The culprit: IDENTITY

Identity becomes a handicap to truth seeking when we make the mistake of yoking our identities to our arguments. This primes us to dislike others who take up opposite positions as they seem to be attacking us personally. In defending our identity/position blockset, we’re quick to judge our opponent as a duped idiot.  It entrenches us in our views, and can even make us unwilling to re-evaluate our premises (backfire effect).

Essentially, I’m contending that the more we tie our identity to our initial position on an issue, the more we blind ourselves to seeing the full truth of that issue. We put on blinders, if you will.

What blinders? Oh these? They help me stay focused on the truth.
I can see the truth just fine! Stop attacking me!

Erin Meyer, in her thought-provoking book, The Culture Map, sheds light on what’s going on here. She opens a window into cultures that seem to separate identity from argument without effort or thought.

Consider the French

In her work, Ms. Meyers has encountered loud, contentious arguments among French people – both in private and public forums. These debates felt like dog piles of personal attacks. However, once the topic moved on, the formerly fired-up French became amiable. Indeed, they often complimented each other for making insightful arguments.

For them, vigorous debate was an obvious method for truth seeking. In fact, they practiced in school. Ms. Meyers notes that they’re explicitly taught to disagree openly and from multiple vantage points:

“French students are taught to reason via thesis, antithesis, synthesis, first building up one side of the argument, then the opposite side of the argument, before coming to a conclusion.” – The Culture map, p. 201

In other words, to find the essence of a matter, the French train themselves to inspect from many perspectives, and then compare. This makes intuitive sense, does it not?

We Are Our Arguments(?)

By tying our identities to our initial positions, we render the French debate technique impossible. We stop ourselves before we begin. We remain stuck, anchored to our original opinion. After all, in this paradigm, to abandon our viewpoint is to denounce our very selves. That’s a painful step to take.

On top of that, our natural propensity toward confirmation biases bolsters our intransigence. Furthermore, our tribes paint each other as evil, overreaching, idiotic, misguided monsters with hidden, oppressive agendas. Once adopted, that narrative neutralizes any and all arguments emanating from the other team.

Especially unsettling, to me at least, is that often our initial positions are seeded by the tribe we’ve chosen to identify with. The effect is that we hand over enormous power to the thought leaders of that tribe. For further reading down this rabbit hole, consider cracking open Dark Money by Jane Meyers. Strap in, while it’s written well, the revelations make for a rough ride.

If you’re American, I imagine you recognize what I’m talking about. I used to believe that a legislature full of conservatives and progressives was a good thing. It guaranteed a debate of enlightened “reasoning via thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” But it no longer seems the case. I suspect that much of the dysfunction has to do with the degree to which we Americans, and tie identity to opinions.

Don’t think your identity is tied to your beliefs or your political party? How’d you feel when I mentioned a positive example of French thinking? Did you give it extra credence because the French are champions of progressive politics? Or did you chafe slightly at the thought of looking to the commie socialist French for wisdom? Neither? Good for you. But can you think of someone you know who might react in one of these polar ways? They’ve likely tied their identity to a tribe that has expressed opinions about the French. In my view, this is an impediment.

What Can We Do?

I think the answer is to detach your identity from both political positions and tribes. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Adopt Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance
  • Cultivate Unlimited Positive Regard
  • Argue the Other View
I know not my gender, race, tribe, class, position in society, bank account balance, neighborhood, tribe, nor identity.

I recently discussed this topic of identity with my high school classmate, Paul Mariz. He suggested looking into philosopher John Rawls, and Rawls’s concept of a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’  Essentially, Rawls suggests that the goal of policy makers is to craft competent and fair policies. To accomplish this, he suggests they start at an ‘original position’ behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’ In this initial state…

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

In other words, forget who you are. Imagine that, before entering society, you role the dice. Your gender, race, class, connections, and bank account balances could come up as anything. At that point, it’s easy to imagine any identity.

The other technique is to stop seeing tribes and start seeing people. Adam Savage, of Myth Busters fame recommends adopting the mindset of a psychiatrist. When they work with patients, they adopt “an unlimited amount of positive regard for the other person.” (t=9:50 on the ‘With Friends Like These’ podcast “If you’re worried about the future, look at the past”.)  While the ‘veil of ignorance’ removes your identity, cultivating positive regard for your opponent removes their identity from the debate.

Withe identities removed, it’s possible to focus on the veracity of premises, and the validity of viewpoints.

Time To Find the Truth

Lately I’ve had a hard time talking with many members of my family. While I get their viewpoints to a degree, I see their affiliation with a tribe, and imagine that they are, how’d I put it before? Oh yeah, “evil, overreaching, idiotic, misguided monsters with a hidden, oppressive agenda.”  Okay, that’s obviously not how I regard my family.

So I’m going to put my hypothesis to the test. I’ll skype with a family member who has opposing viewpoints to mine on some issue. I’ll let them choose the issue, but they have to agree to adopting the veil of ignorance and commit to cultivating unlimited positive regard for me. That should be easy for them!  After agreeing to a set of premises, we’ll argue each other’s sides. I’ll check back with my results.

What do you think?

Do you agree that tying identity to political positions impedes us? Are we joining tribes? Does membership put blinders on us?

What about the techniques I describe for removing identity from political discussions? Do you have any other suggestions?

Do you want to test this experiment with a person who holds opposing political views too? If so, please report back and tell how’d it go? What discoveries did you make?