Facts, Belonging, and the Emperor’s New Clothes

You know the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A king is duped into believing he’s dressed in the latest fashion, when in fact he’s wearing nothing at all. Everyone plays along until a little boy says: “That man is naked!” Truth is triumphant and mirth ensues, with the exception of the chagrined and trouser-less king.

What I find interesting about this story is the boy’s behavior. Is it heroic or anti-social? We spend our time as parents coaching kids NOT to say things like this. Here’s a related story: The Neighbor’s Big Nose. One day your neighbor (who, let’s be honest, really does have a big nose) walks by and your son says “That man has a big nose!” You quickly try to defuse the situation, but your son’s defense is strong. “I was telling the truth! His nose IS big!” Becoming a properly socialized adult is all about developing a fairly nuanced relationship with the truth.

What’s the difference between these stories? When is politeness more important than truth? To what extent is civic harmony destabilized by truth? When is belonging more important than facts? Of course, there IS a defensible difference between these stories, but the line that divides them is tricky enough to carve a jagged rift right through the middle of our society.

This is something that Max Fisher talks about in his New York Times article Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts. In short, humans (particularly fearful humans) don’t generally seek the truth. They seek social safety and comfort, and they will use twisted and motivated reasoning to achieve that comfort. The story of the boy and the emperor entertains us precisely because the scene it depicts is rare. That kid is lucky not to be in jail.

I recently read a book on the topic of truth-telling called The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef. She also has a nice TED talk on this topic. The big idea is that there are two kinds of people (there always are): those with soldier mindset and those with scout mindset. In a nutshell, a soldier is more interested in winning an argument than in finding the truth, whereas a scout, faced with a convincing argument, will update their opinion. We would all like to imagine ourselves as nimble scouts, but it’s shockingly easy for anger and pride to drive us into the rigid and defensive argumentation of a soldier.

It’s a good book. It provides lots of good anecdotes and workable strategies for behaving more like a scout. And her premise seems incontestable: you’ll be better served, and you’ll live a happier, more prosperous life, if you’re realistic and honest. But then you look around and you see how much guidance we get, explicit and otherwise, to the contrary. Fake it till you make it. Display confidence even when you know it is unwarranted. Be “loyal” to the colleague that you know to be abusive of his power.

Is self-deception ever good? Is it ever good to tell the small lie to defend the big truth? Of course, her answer to these questions is no, and I believe her. But we humans got social long before we got rational. It’s hard work being a scout.