It's hard work to participate

Boing Boing just ran a review of a new book called True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, by Farhad Manjoo. The author discusses how we filter news, assigning bias based on our own preconceptions or beliefs: show two groups of partisans footage of a political debate and both will swear it was biased for the other side; show the same footage to someone who doesn't care and they won't see bias for either side. Add to this tendency the Internet's capacity to split people into more groups, and we have a bunch of people stubbornly clinging to inaccurate viewpoints and backing each other up into further extreme beliefs.

The book's author goes on to discuss our "limitless capacity for self-deception and selective reasoning", but what caught my eye is the discussion about bias as it relates to my career in commercial art and advertising.

When working on a project, it's very easy to be swept up in a particular viewpoint, and therefore to lose the value one brings to the table as an experienced, capable guide. It takes a great deal of effort, along with the courage to examine one's own hidden agendas, to do the right thing for the project and the client. I've found that the way out of the hidden agenda is to discuss hopes, feelings and goals with the client, bringing to the table a willingness to examine any and all angles. People tend to respond positively to this approach, as long as they feel progress is being made.

The effort is almost always worth it (with two massive caveats*). The primary benefit of the approach is that it builds trust with the client, who comes to believe you're not trying to manipulate him/her, and that results in further (and better) work with less friction.

This is a discipline, however. It requires a commitment to improve one's self over time, and it's not easy. This exact same discipline is the necessary antidote to the problems Manjoo describes. Since competing "truths" are trumpeted by countless sources, we humans need the discipline to work together to discern which "truths" benefits us as human beings. The discipline that, oddly, those whose task it is to create these "truths" -- advertising execs -- have to develop in order to be successful.

*Caveats: 1) Money. This discipline requires an investment of time, and lots of it. 2) Sanity. Clients with disorders or who are incapable of confronting their own hidden agendas cannot participate. In this case, it's best to just let go and complete the project as quickly as possible.

Oh, and one more thing. I've only read the Boing Boing post about the book; I haven't read the book itself.


  1. The irony of this book (and any book that highlights the slipperiness of truth-telling) is that it relies on the notion that there are methods for establishing truth claims in order to deny that truth claims are possible. Except most books like this focus on academia. In this case, however, he seems to have left academia out of it. Which seems curious to me, since academia has, over the years, developed mechanisms for dealing with this very problem.

  2. @Doug Seems to me that the world outside academia doesn't have the tools to ascertain "truth" or come anywhere near it. To me, it feels like we're all standing in front of an info-firehose without having evolved enough to be able to deal with it. To me, the point (if I'm understanding without having read the book) is that evolving requires hard work and a willingness to examine one's self, neither of which most of us are willing to attempt.