In his new book 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson has a whole chapter called “Tell the truth or at least don’t lie.” Peterson often talks of the need for people to be truthful and not to say things that they know to be untrue.
Peterson is hardly saying anything revolutionary. What he is advocating seems completely obvious. Most people know that it is better to be honest than not.
But they also know that’s much easier said than done. Telling the truth often has negative consequences for the truth-teller. It can make you unpopular; it can make people really dislike you. Telling the truth can provoke fierce opposition. It can require a lot of courage to tell the truth and you may not always be able to muster it. Even the most freethinking person will probably remember a time where they deliberately repeated a lie just to please others or to avoid offending anybody. Humans are social creatures and our need for group acceptance can override our desire to say what we really think.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the Asch Conformity Experiments where participants in a famous American study deliberately went against their own visual perception just to fit in with the group.
These experiments were first conducted in the 1950s by the social psychologist Solomon Asch who wanted to study conformity and the effects of social pressure. He set up studies where a person would be placed in a group scenario in which they were the only person who was unaware of the true nature of the study, the other people in the room were actors who had been instructed to give scripted answers beforehand. The subject would be shown a series of visual tests in which they were asked to match length of lines on a whiteboard. The lines were drawn in such a way that it was completely obvious to any observer which lines were the same length and which were not. Each person in the room, including the actors and the subject, were asked individually to give their answers to the question. The actors, as a group, would alternatively give wrong and right answers. What was so astonishing about this experiment was that even though the right answer was plainly obvious to anybody, 73% of the test subjects would consistently say the wrong thing just to go along with the group.
Though the flagrant denial of reality, saying 2+2=5, only really occurs in truly diabolical societies, such as Stalinist Russia or North Korea, the results of the Asch Conformity Experiments have profound implications for public discourse. It shows how easily people slip into groupthink, even when they know what they are saying is incorrect.
That doesn’t mean you should go around blithely pointing out the physical flaws of others, or taking contrarian positions just for the sake of it, therefore also obfuscating the truth, but it does mean that we should always be aware of the costs of not telling the truth when we need to. Our society becomes less intelligent and functional as a result of 2+2 not equalling 5. Pretty much everything rests on a recognition of that reality. A misstatement of the fact can only result in a further cascade of errors. Which is why the Soviet Union eventually collapsed in on itself. It was defeated by all its own internal contradictions.
As the late Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture:
“One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”