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It would almost seem redundant to speak of clear communication and honesty in the same breath if we did not live in such an inherently dishonest culture. War is routinely waged on false pretexts – weapons of mass destruction that do not exist; enemies labeled terrorists who do nothing that we ourselves do not also do; incidents blamed on others that were in fact provoked or instigated by us. Corporations routinely hide the toxic legacies of their business practices; Wall Street bankers and investment brokers routinely fail to tell the whole truth about risky investments and mortgages; government agencies tasked with protecting the environment, the safety of our food supply, or consumer choices are routinely manned by those responsible for the need for protection in the first place. Lawyers, used car salesmen, politicians, media pundits, public relations consultants and various other varieties of prevaricators are paid well in our culture to hide, twist, bend, spin, or mutilate the truth. We live in a world where very little is as it is presented to be, and one must be perpetually vigilant to ask the right questions, and probe for the true story beneath the hype, the spin, and the outright lie.
Those who tell the truth in our culture are called whistle-blowers, suggesting that often the truth is only told after someone in power or authority gets caught lying. Whistle-blowers – like Edward Snowden, Karen Silkwood, or Julian Assange – are generally treated as criminals, terrorists, or worse – as though telling the truth for those who would prefer to conceal it were wrong, instead of concealing it in the first place. Within such a world, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act, rather than just a reasonable expectation that we might have of each other in a society built on clear communication.
Clear communication is in fact impossible unless both parties to any conversation are not only willing to tell the truth, but deeply committed to it. The truth, of course, is not something that can necessarily be revealed all at once. But if you and I both intend to tell the truth, our communication will help us discover it together. If I tell you what I think you would want to know if you were in my shoes and vice versa – each holding the well being of the other as our bottom line – then out of our communication will come the information necessary to expand, fertilize and plant our common ground with seeds that can bear fruit worth harvesting.
If such a sentiment seems out of step with the times, then I would suggest this to be a measure of how far we have drifted from the possibility not just of clear communication, but of working together to address the monumental global problems upon which our survival as a species depends. As scientists are beginning to discover, the most successful systems – whether they are ecosystems, business environments, or human civilizations – are those built on cooperative, mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationships. Without a culture of truth telling, there cannot be sufficient trust to support a cooperative system, and without a sufficient level of cooperation between us, we will ultimately destroy whatever common ground might otherwise sustain us.
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