Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Over the past handful of years the capacity to maintain professional success and personal integrity has become increasingly strained. Simultaneously the whole concept of integrity within the public life has similarly become strained. I’ve been startled by the striking symmetry between my private, professional and public life as the incredible and terrifying shit show of the 2016 American Presidential election. It all seems to be coming together in a massive orgy of angst, lack of honesty and fundamental integrity across the full spectrum of life. As an active adult within this society I feel the forces tugging away at me, and I want to recoil from the carnage I see. A lot of days it seems safer to simply stay at home and hunker down and let this storm pass. It seems to be present at every level of life involving what is open and obvious to what is private and hidden.
How do we deal with all of the conflict, tension and danger when the rules of the game seem to have been thrown out? Is this confluence of effects common to everyone helping to explain the World, or is it personal? I think it’s worth pondering the breadth and scope of the challenges as we head forward toward a hopefully more optimistic future and 2017.
I’ve highlighted the concept of integrity as the focal point and the thing at more imminent risk. This is an expansion of my previous discussion of peer review that revolves around the same axis. It gets to the ability to care with some depth about the work I do, and whether that concern is actually appreciated. What does personal integrity mean to me? Like most things it is complex and combines multiple aspects of the content of my daily life. The greatest element of personal angst deals with the truth and any willingness for truths to be articulated openly. Research and progress depends upon good ideas being applied to areas of opportunity. Another less charitable way of saying the same thing is that progress depends on finding important, valuable problems and driving solutions. A second piece of integrity is hard work, persistence, and focus on the important valuable problems linked to great National or World concerns. Lastly, a powerful aspect of integrity is commitment to self. This includes a focus on self-improvement, and commitment to a full and well-rounded life. Every single bit of this is in rather precarious and constant tension, which is fine. What isn’t fine is the intrusion of outright bullshit into the mix undermining integrity at every turn.
When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time.
― Laurie Halse Anderson
The core of the issue attacking integrity is the power and prevalence of bullshit in professional and public life. At a professional level bullshit has become the prevalent means of communication of results. Why create real work when fake work can be spun into results of equal and greater value. In fact bullshit is better because it can be whatever it needs to be for success. People continually produce results of minimal value that get marketed as breakthroughs. The lack of integrity at the level of leadership simply takes this bullshit and passes it along. Eventually the bullshit gets to people who are incapable of recognizing the difference. Ultimately, the result of the acceptance of bullshit produces a lowering of standards, and undermines the reality of progress. Bullshit is the death of integrity in the professional world.
There exists an appalling symmetry within the broadest public sphere. We are witnessing a political movement of disturbing power founded on bullshit. We see outright lies produced every day and never actively challenged. This bullshit may actually elect a completely unqualified and dangerous person President of the United States. Why work with facts or truth when bullshit is so incredibly effective? When we look more deeply at this problem we start to see that our political dysfunction is built upon a virtual mountain of bullshit. We see reality television, Facebook, Fox News, CNN, online dating, and a host of other modern things all-operating within a vibrant and growing bullshit economy. Taken in this broad context, the dominance of bullshit in my professional life and the potential election of Donald Trump are closely connected.
A big part of the acceptance of bullshit as the medium of universal discourse is related to fear. Increasingly our professional and public lives are ruled by irrational fears. Fear of failure professionally is rampant. Fear of terrorism is also rampant. Fear of immigrants is yet another common fear tied to terrorism, racism and economic stress. Fear is a powerful emotion that overrules most rational responses to problems. It leads to people shrinking away from the sort of professional risk that research depends upon. Fear is also one of the most powerful tools of political despots. In each of these cases bullshit can be used to either quell or amplify fears. In the technical World bullshit can produce seeming success without regard to actual technical accomplishment. The acceptance of bullshit in place of actual results quells the risk of failure. In the political World bullshit can produce fear where little or none is warranted. We are seeing trillions of dollars and millions of votes being generated by fear mongering bullshit. Even worse it has paved the way for greater purveyors of bullshit like Trump. We may well see bullshit providing the vehicle to elect an unqualified con man as the President.
Here are two major paths to take in life, follow and be rewarded by the power structure, or confront power with the reality of their failing. So I’m confronted with guidance “don’t be a troublemaker” versus show integrity “speak truth to power”. Which is it? Which of these paths do our institutions support today? That’s easy. Be quiet and go quietly through life, and don’t make waves. Better yet, join the bullshit economy and contribute to its vibrant growth as our greatest export.
If you can’t speak truths and provide honest assessments in today’s World, or call out lies in public, can you have personal integrity? When actual bullshit has become the path to professional success, how does one come back? How much of yourself gets left behind in the process? And how does one keep ones self from being a mere shadow of one’s true self? I’ve been struggling with these questions at work with ever-greater regularity. My personal devotion to progress and research is continually undermined by bullshit replacing progress. Today it is easier to make shit up and pass it off as being completely equivalent to the result of honest good work. Moreover bullshit doesn’t have the downside of potentially not working, its “success” is virtually guaranteed. Just tell the people above you in the food chain what they want to hear, you’ll be rewarded in spades! The beauty of it is the made up shit can conform to whatever narrative you desire, and completely fit whatever your message is. In such a world real problems can simply be ignored when the path to progress is problematic for those in power.
These same issues happen to energize a political dialog that becomes a shouting match. There is no truth and the whole thing degenerates into a shouting match. Beyond the shouting match you get the ability to ignore real problems that are inconvenient. A perfect example is climate change. For many traditional businesses climate change is really an inconvenient truth. When bullshit rules, it can be publically ignored without real risk to political success. We are seeing this play out right in front of all of us. We are in danger of losing all connection to facts, truth and science as guiding forces for determining optimal solutions to our very real problems. The road to this end is paved by allowing bullshit to be viewed as equivalent to solid facts.
Is there a path forward? Perhaps things simply need to devolve into the natural outcome from the current path. Nothing short of catastrophe will stop this orgy of bullshit choking public life. One might hope that we have the collective wisdom to avoid a calamity, one might hope.
One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.
― Shannon L. Alder