Harry Smith

Hard Truths and What to Do About Them

How to tackle the biggest questions without falling foul of the pressure not to.

A hard truth is inconvenient. It is in opposition to what you would like to be true. That makes hard truths uncomfortable, challenging and easy to ignore. Hence why they call them “hard” truths. Though ignoring a hard truth doesn’t make it any less true.

Any inconsistency between the truth and your model of reality will sow chaos. The ability to see truth with clarity is much more than helpful, it is fundamental. A life that is harmonious is one which lives within the boundaries of reality. That isn’t to say you have to colour within someone elses lines. But that some of the lines carve much deeper into the stone than you might realise. And the hardest truths carve the deepest lines of all. Disharmony is the mismatch between truth and idealised truth. Success in life, in the broadest terms, is the extant to which your model of reality matches the truth.

The hard truth that unites us all is that of our death. And you see everyone ignoring this one all the time. They might be aware of it, how could you not be, but that isn’t the same as understanding it as true. If you think you have come to grips with your mortality and nothing changed, you didn’t go deep enough. How could it not change you in the most profound manner. And not once, but over and over. It is the hardest truth of all, hence the power in understanding it. Some people understand it earlier in life than others. And you can draw a clear line through the timeline of life of when that change first occours. Often somewhere in the mid-40’s.

We ignore hard truths everywhere because of the political and social forces of the day. It becomes fashionable to believe that a certain set of ideas are true. And herein lies the peril. What begins as a crusade towards a more equal future reduces the understood truth in a system. And the less a system understands the truth, the less it reflects reality. That new system might be more comfortable to your inclinations, but is no more effective. A system is only as effective as the extent to which it models reality.

Not everyone is the same. By which I mean that everyones capabilities are different. That’s already an uncomfortable idea to most. This means that some people do better than others. Adults and children alike. Which is even more uncomfortable to contemplate but no less true. Our solution to this uncomfort is to ignore the truth, and act as if everyone is equal in ability.

It’s usual overtone speaks to pushing forward those that have fallen behind. Which is a good, sound idea. Understand, it will only push forwards those whose circumstances restrict latent capability. For others, they are behind because they will always be behind. This is impossible to reconcile if you believe everyones capabilities are the same. So instead, what follows is to limit how far people can get ahead. Bringing the best down to achieve an average that never could exist otherwise.

This paticular tragedy of logic plays out all over the world in our education systems. We are abandoning ability based classes and advanced courses for excellent students. On the face of things, this equalises all students. In the same way demolishing the skyscrapers of New York City would equalise it to other cities. We ignore the incovenient truth that we aren’t all the same. The cost of this ignornace reduces the intelligence of our children. Make no mistake - the education system is also rife with systemic bias and privledge. These are artificial, unnecessary, man-made inequalities. To grapple with those inequalities, you must also grapple with those that are natural. Without that, there is no hope of dealing with either.

Hard truths are hard to communicate. We must state them with absolute precision. Or bad actors will warp them into dangerous vitriol. Good intentioned, truth seeking people can seem in opposition to morality. All it takes is to ignore the nuance of the truth, and extrapolate the negative traits they prefer. Diminishing them as sexist, rascist, homophobic, or otherwise. The real sexists, rascists and homophobes do the same. Twisting otherwise true but benign statements, to match their personal foul crusades. Creating fictional proof of their idealogy where there is none. So great can this risk be, that we avoid examining the truth all together. This breeds the fear to disagree. And it’s the fear to disagree that allows falsehoods to fester and grow in place of the truth.

Let’s, with great care, broach the topic of gender. It is beyond scientific doubt that men and women are not the same. Not only in the obvious physical differences, but in their brain psychology as well. Already alarm bells may be ringing - quell them for a time. The statement, which is so conterversial today, is true. Before jumping to conlusions, allow me to beat you there. There is no justification in the science to believe one sex is more intelligent than another. In fact, all things being equal it appears that women have the edge. But it does show that men and women are better at different tasks. For example, men are better at spatial reasoning and women are better judges of character.

This element of human nature shouldn’t be suprising. Consider the much longer history of man than the agricultural society of the last 10,000 years. Our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, has a clear difference in roles between the sexes. Evolutionary adaptation of sexed animals to their roles is ancient. Ancient as in “millions of years”, not ancient as in “egyptian pyramids”. At this point you may ask, “Well that’s all well and good but as our nature, but that doesn’t mean it has to be our nuture.” And you would be right. It’s in our nature to commit violence towards our competition. Something our nuture has on the most part ended. Because we recognise our nature, to kill, we let it inform our nuture, law and order.

And this is where oft we err in seeking gender equality in our workplaces. It is true that women and men should have the same oppurtunities at work. We should not close any job to anyone who desires it and demonstrates the skill to do it. This is different from current efforts to ensure a 50/50 ratio of men and women in many jobs. It is natural that even in the most egalatarian society, jobs will attract different ratios of the genders. Because of the different genders innate preferences for different types of work. The greatest equality comes from encouraging people to do what they excel at. So that they may be the most productive member of society they can. Enjoying a life rich of resources. Seek equality between peoples in wealth, status and respect. Not in arbitery, vanity metrics.

One of the hardest truths to realise is that people don’t like you. It will happen to everyone at one time or another. But it is of the greatest importance that people like you. When people don’t like you, it’s because of the flawed set of assumptions that you use to operate. The mental model of society that you use does not match that of its other participants. Because of that people exclude you, because you threaten their security. Do not understate the gravity of that statemnet. We are a social creature, and our systems depend on constructive cooperation. When people don’t like you, the world closes itself to you.

When you are in this place, it’s almost impossible to recognise. But when you see others, it’s obvious. They make constant social faux paus and people move away from them. They feel persecuted. They do not blame it on themselves, they blame it on others. Their interactions become accusational and defensive. It doesn’t even occour to them that they might be wrong. Which makes people like them even less. They adopt a pose of the world is wrong and they are right. And put great energy into trying to convince others and themselves that it’s true. One thing you can be sure of is that if you ever think everyone else is wrong - it’s you that is wrong.

If you think that it’s not important that people like you then you are doing yourself great harm. It’s not about being popular, being popular is a different thing. You need to be operating in a manner where people find you agreeable in general. If you don’t then they aren’t going to want to help you. They are going to prefer people that cooperate and communicate better than you do. And now your in a real problem because there’s a lot of those people. And the less people you have around you, the less desirable you are to others. And the whole time your getting more bitter and twisted. Accelerating your freefall down the social heirarchy.

A similar, but even harder truth, is to know ones true self. When we look in the mirror, we see the fun house distortion of what we would like to see. No one likes to consider themselves as ‘average’. But on the large part you are. You are of average intelligence, average ability and otherwise average in most regards. Before you can stop being average you have to understand how average you are. That’s the root cause of the ‘clever’ student who goes on to little achievement later on in life. Their false assumption of superior intellect replaces the desire to work hard. The misplaced confidence in their own intelligence clouds the reason for their failures. They blame failure on luck, timing or some other factor rather than the truth. Their lack of real ability. See yourself with honesty, and you will begin to improve.

Effective truth seeking is that which you seek out no matter the personal cost. To do so, you must avoid the persuasions of idealogues of all kinds. That is true for all idealogues - from fascists to environmentalists. A hard truth is hard to understand and easy to ignore because it is a intellectual challenge. We’ve discussed at length the first part of this difficulty. The uncomfortableness of the idea to our social and political biases. But the second part of this difficulty comes from the complexity of real truth. The ‘truth’ that idealogues espouse lives at the extremes of the argument. They use the extremes because it generates a strong emotional reaction. making it seem more convincing. But to reach that extreme they must discard nuance and detail. That nuance would soften their statements. The ‘truth’ becomes more powerful, but it also becomes more false.

One of the challenges we face is that the current fashions of the media have become very powerful. There is one paticular version of the ‘truth’ that has become the ‘correct’ version to have. Any deviation from the scripture results in ‘cancellation’. We understand that idealogues move towards extreme views at the cost of understanding. This is the case with our media discourse. Though the same plays out across the political spectrum, the media has moved very far to the left. The hard, real, truth is much more likely to exist somewhere in the middle - for the reasons discussed above. Media labels dissent in the most extreme terms, no matter the truth or nuance of that dissent.

To understand how this is happens we have to first understand ‘apple pie statements’. An apple pie statement is a statement who’s truth is so obvious that it is impossible not to agree with. For example, “Apple pie is delicious”. When you mix an apple pie statement, with a political or social opinion, you breed chaos. “Rascism is a moral evil” - undeniable. “Rascism is a moral evil, which is why we are getting rid of ability based classes at school.” - now if you disagree, it’s because you are a rascist. Even though your disagreement has nothing to do with rascism. The apple pie statement tangles you up inside it. It’s these statements that is driving the division in our communities. When the discouse runs to the tune of “You either 100% agree or you are 100% a fascist” then it’s natural that we push people away from each other.

This isn’t to say that the real truth isn’t up for discussion. It’s an apriori axiom of this argument that you replace the truth as often as you discover it. And that’s exactly the point. Understanding and acting on hard truths is about finding what is real, as opposed to what you would like to be real. And often what you would like to be real is what you currently understand to be real. We don’t like to be wrong, and struggle to recognise when we are. Though we are wrong a hell of a lot more than we are right (another hard truth). The best litmus test for whether a ‘truth’ is true or not is to apply it to world. If things go well, it’s probably true.

The most likely case is that the truth isn’t exactly clear. The correct way to proceed is to make decisions based on that truth. That’s an incredible challenge. If you manage to do it, the reward for your ability to handle it’s complexity is real understanding. Most aren’t up for the task. Our predisposition is to choose a side we prefer, based on our feeling, and become dogmatic about it. Knowing this should temper your faith in your ability to decipher truth. It’s wise to tread with care, act on data and ignore strong emotional reactions.

Ideologies are not flat out wrong. All idealogy starts with a truth somewhere in it’s long and twisted history. In truth seeking you must learn to seek it from the most unusual of sources. In some cases, from sources that you disagree with from the outset. If someone awful beyond doubt - say Mao, or Hitler, or Stalin - discovers truth and speaks it - that makes it no less true. Faith causes the bloodiest and deepeest of divisions. But by moving between the words of all faiths you soak in the most ancient of our written wisdoms. It’s not all right, far from it. But even small nuggets of the truth are powerful enougth to affect huge change.

So what is the way forwards? Deep thinking and rigorous self-analysis. No easy feats. The desire for easy anwsers is the same desire that leads you to the idealogues and snake oil merchants. This article has named some hard truths that I have come to understand. You may disagree with them, sometimes in the strongest terms. I encourage you to take them time to treat them as if they could be true, before dismissing them. That’s the whole challenge of a hard truth - you would rather it wasn’t.

It’s going to take a whole lot of courage to break down the walls we’ve erected around free discussion and ideas. We’re going to have to let some people we don’t like and dont agree with take the stage and talk. We even have to run the risk that some of these bad actors are going to convince others to their cause. But no truth can come to fruition from force or at the expense of the forced efforts of another. The truth flourishs wherever the grounds are fertile for it. And what is that fertiliser? Love, respect and dialogue.

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