Does Your Truth Depend on Meaning?

As I write this, the US is in the midst of the race for the 2020 election. Yes, we call it the time leading up to the election a race. Interesting choice of words, isn’t it?

Here’s what surprises me. Each of the major parties (and their candidates) sees and explains recent history differently.

I suspect that we see and explain history using the Satir Interaction Model.

We hear (or read) specific words. We make meaning of those words. That meaning creates feelings. We then have feelings about our feelings. We each have defenses and rules for what we can say out loud in return. All those feelings, defenses, commenting rules—all those create our response.

Notice that meaning is the second step in how we frame our responses.

We see the data. And how we make meaning triggers all the rest of our communication.

How Do You Frame Meaning?

Jonathan Haidt’s Ted Talk, The moral roots of liberals and conservatives, might give us clues about meaning. He says there are 5 foundations of morality:

  1. Harm/care
  2. Fairness/reciprocity
  3. In-group/loyalty
  4. Authority/respect
  5. Purity/sanctity

Most of us agree on the harm and fairness foundations. We don’t—in general—want to cause harm. We want fairness.

It’s the other 3 foundations where we see the most difference. In general, liberals don’t elevate the loyalty, authority, and purity foundations as much as the conservatives do.

That’s a generalization, and as with all generalizations, it’s wrong for some people.

And, these last three foundations seem to me to be related to Hofstede’s six dimensions of national culture. (See How Do We Decide for Each Other?)

Except, we, in the US, appear to have a polarized culture now. That polarization challenges our discussions and decisions.

Meaning Affects Our Perception of “Truth”

We each see and hear the data. However, if we use the foundations of morality as filters, as mental models, we literally cannot see the other perspective. We are not able to avoid our morality as we discuss what we see and hear. That means we have trouble having conversations about reality.

We might ask if we can all agree on the “truth”? Clearly, in the US, the answer, for now, is no. So, for me, that’s not a useful question.

What we can do is go meta, and explore why people believe their truths.

Instead of framing this is a conservative vs liberal argument (or the other way around), we might ask people to tell stories. I’ve had some good conversations with people when I ask these questions:

  • What does a fair and just society look like, especially when it comes to Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police? Sometimes, people tell me black people do have a fair shake. I offer alternative data (from sources these people respect). Sometimes, they realize what the data tells them. And, when I explain that Defund the Police might mean “stop sending police in to intervene with crazy people,” they nod their heads. (I’ve way oversimplified these two topics.)
  • What does a fair and just society look like for healthcare?
  • What does a fair and just society look like for immigration?

I start with where we’re most likely to agree: on the harm and fairness foundations. I’m not always successful. However, I’ve had better results when I start from where we might agree and then tell each other stories. I’ve not had good results when I attack people’s positions. I’ve adapted my questions to create better results for me.

If I can understand someone’s meaning, I’m more likely to have a valuable conversation.

That’s the question this week: Does your truth depend on meaning?

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