Another Liar's Paradox
I've been giving thought to this NYT philosopher's guest blog, Paradoxical Truth, and to my own personal paradoxical truths. When I make the confession that I am a liar and coward and just want people to like me, something very interesting happens.
Unlike the traditional Liar's Paradox, there is no apparent contradiction to the statement I am a liar. In fact, it is precisely the opposite of a contradiction where conflicting statements are irreconcilably true. It is a statement that cannot be false. Either I really believe I am a liar, in which case it is as true as I can currently understand Truth, or I'm lying, in which case the statement is also as good as True can get.
Mark Twain recognized this: "A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar."
"I am a liar" is a foundation for epistemology. Paradoxically this is one of the only undeniable truths I know. I'm not sure how much further I can ever go toward statements that are irrefutably true. "I speak English" could still be falsified by mimicking sounds. "This statement is true" isn't nearly as interesting or self-evidently true.
My full statement is an example of enantiodromia in action. It is completely true and is subversive of it's own truth at the same time: I am a liar and coward and I just want people to like me.
I have been fascinated by the intersection of identity and behavior. Which creates which? I'm pretty sure that they intercreate each other. Does a single lie make one a liar forever? Probably. And so does a single instance of truth-telling make one a truth-teller. One act of cowardice is as indelible as one act of bravery.
1) I am a liar: begins to restore the truth and corrodes it's own meaning while still being impossible to falsify.
2) I am a coward: this confession builds courage and also corrodes it's own meaning. After losing their webhosting, Wikileaks* tweeted: "Amazon's press release does not accord with the facts on public record. It is one thing to be cowardly. Another to lie about it". I think they are not actually so different. My second rule of epistemology is that all liars are cowards and all cowards liars. Both fear being found out and are acting to avoid consequences. This second statement isn't as self-evidently true as the first and I might be better leaving the whole thing at "I am a liar" if I want to speak nothing but the truth.
3) I just want people to like me: By confessing my need for affinity and approval after declaring my most shameful identity as a liar and coward, I release myself from the need to be liked and once again corrode without contradicting. I have invited people to dislike me, and with the whole of this statement I have given them reasons to.
In the end, I come to realize that the question of behavior vs. identity isn't as important as I thought. The idea of "identity" is really a lot of bullshit. I can't be either liar or truth-teller unless I am both. At any given moment I am neither.
There's still more value to identifying myself as a liar and a coward. I am unlikely to let anyone down and might even surprise those who know me as a liar and coward when I behave truthfully or courageously. Indeed, I do not need to expend any energy at all in defending this identity. That is part of the liberation of Radical Honesty.
Finally, by claiming to practice Radical Honesty, I might wrongly be accorded more trust than I deserve. My confession guards against this also. I'd prefer to be suspected than trusted. I can get value from being doubted and questioned and aspire to doubt and question myself and my ideas. I am dedicated to the "dogma of no dogma" and assume that everything I believe is probably wrong. I hope to remain an open-minded skeptic for as long as I live.
* I learned recently that Julian Assange used "mendax" as his name in hacker circles when he was younger. I find that quite endearing given his current mission.
There is a war going on between those who believe that the power of information lies in its capacity to be withheld-- that information is power if you can keep it to yourself. This is not how it works really. Information is power if you can share it, validate it, vet it, and contribute it to that global awareness that we are all here in the process of creating.
- John Perry Barlow
December 12, 2010