I’m at the beginning of Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath, and he blew my mind again for maybe the tenth time. His ability to collect a wide range of stories that concern different people, different issues and different moments of history is a testament to his previous background as a journalist.
What makes him a titan among authors is his ability to synthesize this mass of information and develop a unique and deeper understanding of our world.
What inspired today’s column is the role he plays in society.
He is a truth teller.
I think it’s safe to say that truth tellers have done more to aid the evolution of our species than any king, conqueror or cult.
The pages of our history books are filled with their journeys of enlightenment and often littered with their bones — those in power have no interest in distracting the minds of the commoners tasked with serving their masters.
Because of their contributions and the terrible risks they took, truth tellers make for some of our most exciting stories. Think about how many movies and books have been produced about:
Moses, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Spartacus, Marco Polo, Columbus, Da Vinci, Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Galileo, Newton, the Founding Fathers, Marx, Nietsche, Mark Twain, Edison, Freud, Ford, Gandhi, Jung, Picasso, Einstein, MLK, Mandela and Jobs.
Well maybe not Nietzsche, unless you’re a fan of Leni Riefenstahl, the director of those Nazi propaganda movies from the 30s.
I know I’m leaving out tons of people, but the point of this list is to look at the bigger picture of truth telling. By gaining perspective on how people filled that important role, perhaps we can figure out how to play that role in today’s world.
A single truth teller can still perform the act of exposing an ugly reality everyone knows, but is afraid to voice.
It wasn’t that long ago that one courageous person took a stand and changed the world. Do you recognize these words?
“Each person must live their life as a model for others.”
(Okay, that rules out Charles Barkely.)
“…and I made up my mind not to move.”
(As much as I love him, it wasn’t Tom Petty.)
“All I was doing was trying to get home from work.”
Just a simple statement of intent, but hidden beneath these words are hundreds of years of suffering, a desire for basic human dignity, and the can-do stoicism of the Greatest Generation.
The words, of course, were spoken by Rosa Parks, “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement,” whose moment of civil disobedience sparked the biggest breakthrough in Civil Rights since the Reconstruction period.
A truth teller can also leverage the work of those who came before her and make such spectacular contributions to human progress that society is forced to reevaluate how it views gender or race.
Ada Lovelace recognized the potential of the first computer, and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. Her questions of how individuals and society might relate to technology as a collaborative tool makes her the spiritual godmother of Steve Jobs.
Thinking about Newton’s famous quote about his discoveries, Ms. Lovelace could have probably been the technological equivalent of Ginger Rogers: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants… while doing it backwards and in high heels.”
The same could be said for Katherine Johnson, whose computer-like calculations were critical to the success of the early U.S. crewed spaceflights, and opened up the eyes of white people at NASA.
The accomplishments of women in science and technology helped play a role in reshaping society’s views on gender and race, just as much as the way the women of America stepped up to become factory workers during WWII, when the men were called away to fight.
But there’s more to being a truth teller than having the courage to say what nobody else dared to say, or achieving such great things that society is forced to change its views.
There’s a new way to discover truth, but it requires the collection of massive amounts of data and the ability to make connections between that data.
Think about every great religious leader, scientist and artist before the advent of the internet. How did they make their discoveries?
The answer is they noticed something about their world, had some intuition or vision and then put it into practice to see if it worked.
Some of them, like Galileo, were so convinced of the truth they uncovered, they took the risk of being branded a blasphemer, facing torture and death. Others, like Spartacus, Gandhi and MLK had nothing to lose in the face of tyranny and went for it regardless of the risks.
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were the last great explorers of the 20th century, as they penetrated the mysteries of the human mind, but even they were limited by the amount of data they could personally collect throughout their lives.
Freud and Jung weren’t able to access every case seen by every psychiatrist, but there was one man who was able to study almost every bit of human knowledge in his field and was able to develop a perspective unlike anything ever seen in history.
Joseph Campbell was the first aggregator.
What’s the first thing you think about when you hear the name Joseph Campbell?
It’s probably Star Wars, if you’re a fan.
But the reason I think Campbell stands out is because he was the first truth teller of the internet era, even though he made his discoveries 50 years before the internet really took off.
Campbell spent eight years in college, absorbing literature, philosophy, religion and mythology. He studied Old French, Provençal and Sanskrit in addition to learning French and German. After his faculty refused to approve his field of study (Sanskrit, modern art and Medieval literature) he spent five years living in a shack, reading nine hours a day.
With this massive collection of knowledge, Campbell developed the concept of the monomyth, referring to the theory that all mythic (and religious) narratives are variations of a single great story, referred to as the hero’s journey, and first described in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Campbell also drew on the work of Carl Jung, whose theories on archetypes and the collective consciousness blur the boundaries between personal psychology, philosophy, and some greater form of universal awareness.
This quote tells you more about his life than his more famous line “follow your bliss.”
“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” —Joseph Campbell
Buddhists practice emptying themselves of their thoughts and emotions in order to allow deeper insights to fill them. Campbell emptied himself so he could absorb the world’s knowledge of religion and myth.
Campbell’s work changed our view of what it is to be human and how we search for meaning in our stories.
So, how does truth telling work in the internet age?
With computers and what seem to be unlimited information resources, each of us has the power to uncover deeper truth.
It’s as simple as following one news item from beginning to end, while learning as much related data to form a bigger picture of the truth.
Investigative journalists do this, but as news departments shrink and corporate masters order more infotainment to improve ratings, these jobs are disappearing.
The truth is still out there, but it’s buried under mountains of bullshit.
We need to follow one story all the way from origin to aftermath, and learn the context behind seemingly separate news items that pop up in every news cycle.
Here’s a quote from a really smart guy.
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”— Einstein
Joseph Campbell was able to view religion and mythology from a higher level, one where the process and motivations behind those forces was clear.
Aggregating data and seeing patterns emerge is the 21st century version of truth telling.
Putting together a complete timeline of news stories can provide a deeper understanding of the forces at play.
I found a source online that tracked the media coverage of the Flint, Michigan water scandal, and it was clear how little the corrupt leaders of the state cared for the health and welfare of the people, and how the press has failed to do its job of holding public officials accountable:
After watching the social media sh*t storm swirling around Talia Jane, I wondered why a real news story like the Flint water crisis took almost two years and an unknowable amount of damage to the children of that city before it came to the attention of the country.
I wrote about that failure here, noting the problem for the predominantly poor and black town of Flint to get adequate news coverage as follows:
…they lacked three key ingredients that would attract a national audience: money, white skin, and being conservative in a state where the government is dominated by the GOP.
It is up to us to aggregate and synthesize to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of the world.
We can do this in the public space as an advocate, or in personal services, where individuals try to understand the context of a customer’s life in order to find the best solution to serve that person’s needs:
A hair dresser who knows just when to change up your style or color, even though you didn’t say you were in a rut or feeling down.
A tennis coach who unravels for their student the puzzle of what makes one opponent so difficult.
A chef finds new combinations of taste to open up the minds and taste buds of his customers.
Never forget; the number one job of a writer is to be a truth teller.
Sometimes, we may come up with a solution.
Even if we don’t, the conversation spurred by this discovery create ripples that may eventually cause revolutions in society, technology and culture.
I’ve written long and often about the snake oil salesmen who dominate this platform but each of us has the ability to hold power accountable.