Lying in subtext and by omission

Previously posting on writing authentically, I wanted to find some other criticisms/observations on the topic.  The following is from Can’t You Get Along with Anyone by Allan C. Weisbecker, one of my favorite how-to books on writing that is not explicitly a how-to book on writing [Part 1, Ch. 12: p. 64]:

Nonfiction writers, of which I am one at this moment, routinely lie like slugs in their narratives. Often they’ll lie like like slugs about facts, which, as you already know, I sometimes do. Sometimes lying about facts is okay, sometimes not. But what’s never okay is to lie in subtext, purposely cause the reader to have a rush of insight about the workings of the world which the writer knows to be false. Lying in subtext is sin. Writers who do this, of which there are a bunch, will rot in Writer Hell. My theory is that this worse case lying-in-writing scenario is invariably caused by the same condition that cases bad behavior of any sort: a failure in self-reflection.*

If you’re going to write a book (but not someday): The key to writing, good writing, is self-reflection. In  a sense, it’s a writer’s job, his only job. Take that to the bank and put it in an interest-bearing account.†

*     My view is that lying about facts is sometimes “okay” when the writer’s sole motive is to keep the story moving, or to foster unity (symmetry), or to ease the narrative onto another subject (a segue), with not deceitful implications about ho the world works.

†    Aside from self-reflecting in his work, a writer has to keep the reader wanting to know What Happens Next. So, regarding jobs, writers actually have two.

Later on in the book, Weisbecker shows some explicit examples, as well as makes (to me) a damning statement for media literacy [Part 5, Ch. 7: p. 336]:

Woodward sees fit to end Veil, the Secret Wars of the CIA with a lie on every level you can lie in a nonfiction book. He ends with a chapter describing a personal visit with CIA director William Casey on his deathbed (from the brain tumor).

About two sentences into this, I knew Woodward had made up the scene …. (Others have opined the same regarding that scene, based on looking into dates and hospital records and the like.)

But I could have forgiven that lie, which was only about facts, i.e., Woodward’s deathbed visit to Casey having never happened. … What Woodward does, however in the deathbed scene he made up, is to lie in the subtext as well —in what is really going on —which kind of lying is a sin, for the commission of which writers will rot in Writer Hell.

Here’s the scene: Casey, on his deathbed, admits to having known about the diversion of Iran arms sales funds to the contras. The subtext here is that Casey didn’t have anything to do with the diversion. He knew about it.

Technically, Woodward wasn’t outright lying. But what he left out of his fucking narrative is that Casey knew about the diversion because he had been instrumental in planning and executing it.

A whopper of a lie by omission, no?

But my favorite lie by omission, one near and dear to my heart, comes in Woodward’s Plan of Attack - _his definitive history of our conflict with Saddam Hussein. Woodward does better, wordage-wise, in this one, devoting _one whole page _(out of 450) to U.S. history with “The Beast of Baghdad.” One little problem though: In his one page history Woodward skips from the 1970s to the 1990s, leaving out the 1980s. _Not a word about the decade of the 1980s. Right: The decade during which the U.S. and The Beast of Baghdad were close allies and the U.S., under Reagan then Bush I, was actively and knowingly aiding and abetting The Beast of Baghdad in his crimes against humanity.

Thing is, Bob Woodward himself classifies his books, his nonfiction books, as being “somewhere between the news and the history books.”

Let’s take him at his word on that.

See if you concur: People who provide a democratic society (like what the United States is purported to be) with news (meaning journalists) should maybe question what the shitball motherfuckers in power tell them about their antics. Same goes for the writers of history books, which mold the minds of our children.

Bob Woodward does not question anything the shitball motherfuckers tell him. Woodward just parrots their lies and perception management as facts. Bob Woodward’s books, his nonfiction books, which are something “between the news and the history books,” are lies.

That I had this rush of insight about the journalist who in the 1970s questioned everything and in doing so uncovered the truth, then followed the truth wherever it led, even to the toppling of a president, and who was a hero of mine, and who was now the personification of why Orwell was an optimist and hence of why the world is so fucked-up, slightly exacerbated my terminal loneliness.*

*    If the rewriting (or erasing) of history, which is what Woodward does in his books, sounds vaguely familiar, this was the protagonist Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. Smith, along with the rest of the world of that story, was intimidated, threatened, bullied, into denial/lying via “jackboots on human faces.” That the jackboots are unnecessary in the world of today to get Woodward (and the rest of the mainstream media) to rewrite history is the basis of my observation that Orwell was an optimist.

Example of the (false) metaphor of the tube

I was flipping through my old college business communications textbook (_Business Communication: Process and Product, 4th Edition _by Mary Ellen Guffy) when lo and behold I came across the (false) metaphor of the tube for communications:

Guffey - Communications sketch

I will give the textbook some credit since there is some explanation that it’s not so simple as just putting up a semaphore:

Only when the receiver understands the meaning intended by the sender—that is, successful decodes the message—does the communication take place. Such success, however, is difficult to achieve because no two people share the same life experiences and because many barriers can disrupt the process.

But this is a very message-centric view of communications.  As I’ve learned in my experiences, when you think of communications as “messaging” you are concentrating on the process, rather than the outcome.  As I would argue, the outcome is that you induce an action in the other receiver.  By action I mean either physically (getting the receiver do something) or mentally (changing the way people think is the very basis of Public Relations and Perception Management). This action can be external (getting someone else to do something), internal (writing this out will help me understand it better) or temporal (I’m writing in my diary so that I can tell my future self how I’m feeling right now; or, I’m adding a memo to the file so that, in the event of a future audit, the auditor will know what happened and not decertify us).

I would say that a better explanation of how communications takes place is as follows:

  1. You (the sender) define/desire something to take place (in relation to your worldview/nature)

  2. You identify individual(s) with influence or affect over your desire (the receiver)

  3. You define the action/change you want to induce in the receiver (in relation to the receiver’s worldview/nature) that corresponds to you achieving your desire

  4. You identify the mediums the receiver can accept and how using that medium might affect the action/change you wish to induce in the receiver (in relation to the receiver’s worldview/nature)

  5. You decide upon a medium and appropriate message that will most effectively/efficiently induce the action/change in the receiver.

  6. Then you send it.

Now I’m not saying that you need to do these as discrete steps all the time—human social evolution makes us incredibly efficient at doing these types of things without thinking …most of the time. But those innate skills break down when talking with people of different cultures (or subcultures, e.g. liberals and conservatives or baby boomers and millenials) or life experience, you need to take into account the whole process before the message is sent.

The key part in this is understanding—as best as possible—the receiver’s worldview/nature.  This is why the key skills to communications are curiosity, observation, listening, understanding, and empathy—not to mention broad life experiences.  Which is not to say that effective communications requires touchy-feely feel-goodery: not at all.  In some situations being an asshole is effective and efficient; in some situations it isn’t. Being able to know the difference is the key for communicating effectively.

Satyagraha versus Duragraha

This year’s Symposium on Values, Spirit and Business has the theme “How to Grow Your Business by Integrating the Gandhian Philosophy of Satyagraha”.  The Wikipedia has this to say on Satyagraha—and that “passive resistance” is not descriptive of its tenets—:

Gandhi contrasted satyagraha (holding on to truth) with “duragraha” (holding on by force), as in protest meant more to harass than enlighten opponents. He wrote: “There must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure. If we want to cultivate a true spirit of democracy, we cannot afford to be intolerant. Intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s cause.”

Pratfalls to writing authentically

I go back and forth with my mom—a library media teacher—about information literacy: for me, the future of communications is not about authority, but authenticity. Below is a list of self-deceptions writers put into their writing from Writing to Be Read by Ken Macrorie (also author of Telling Writing) :

No writer knows how often he deceives himself and his reader until he becomes a professional and listens to the complaints of editors and readers. Then he often sees that he has unconsciously

  1. not written what really motivated him to put pen to paper, or
  2. not spoken truly when he thought he was being faithful to the world he experienced, or
  3. told only a small part of the truth, or
  4. forgotten to tell the reader the facts that make convincing what he insists the reader must be overwhelmed by, or
  5. grandly asks questions that everyone knows the answer to, or
  6. apologized for not being an expert on what he writes pages and pages about, or
  7. uses awkward and phony language that does not belong to him, or
  8. used six words where his reader needed only two.

The best writers commit these sins. You cannot rid your writing of them, but you can learn the identifying marks of the snakes and where they are likely to slither into your paragraphs.

Harnessing inequality

The following quote from Here Comes Everybody is interesting in that it exposes dewy-eyed optimism surrounding equal participation (rather than equal access or equal ability) as untenable:

…imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them. Fewer that two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users. And among those contributors,  no effort is made to even out their contributions. The spontaneous division of effort driving Wikipedia wouldn’t be possible if there were concern for reducing inequality. On the contrary, most large social experiments are engines for harnessing inequality rather than limiting it. Though the word “ecosystem” is overused as a way to make simple situations seem more complex, it is merited here, because large social systems cannot be understood as a simple aggregation of the behavior of some nonexistent “average” user.

This follows discussion of power-law distributions (in contrast to bell-curves) and the 80-20 rule.

3 Fortunes

Three fortunes I received following pho:

  1. _Encourage me, and I will not forget you.


  1. Commitment is the hinge upon which the door to success hangs.

  2. Everything serves to further.

Cold-Start car advice

A quote from a Slashdot story on a new fast charge/discharge lithium battery:

…in any high current circuit, the power wasted in the circuit as heat can be very high. It’s current squared times resistance. With batteries that have a high internal resistance, that power heats the battery and is also power that’s wasted. With a high current delivery capability, these would have very low internal resistance and under heavy loads, the batteries would run cooler and would be able to deliver more power to the actual load instead of throwing it away as heat.

Just to illustrate battery self heating - if you ever get stranded in extreme cold because your battery doesn’t have the power available to turn the engine over, just turn on the headlights for a while. It’s a medium load but will heat the battery from the inside due to internal resistance and make the battery better able to start the car. This really works.

My dad also has a story of a his school teacher in Alaska keeping a Coleman stove underneath their Volkswagen Bug and rushing out to tend to it between periods

Cell phones and “personal” computing

One morning a month or so ago, I was listening to a really interesting story on how the US and Japanese vise and view cellphones and the internet. The emphasis in the following transcript is mine:

MARK PHILLIPS: This brings up one of the biggest differences between U.S. and Japanese cell phone culture. While most Americans use computers to develop an intimacy with the Internet, the Japanese access the Internet primarily through the cell phone. U.C. Irvine’s Mizuko Ito:

PROFESSOR MIZUKO ITO: Broadband Internet came in relatively late compared to, say, the U.S., and the mobile Internet came in relatively quickly. You saw in the late ’90s that people were really starting to orient towards the mobile phone as their primary portal to the Internet, and this bias still persists today.

MARK PHILLIPS: Many Japanese actually say they prefer the cell phone keypad over the computer keyboard because they can type faster on it. And perhaps, most importantly, they don’t have to share their phones with anyone else. That’s why the pager fad exploded in the ’90s, because it was so personal. DeNA’s Satoshi Tanaka.


SATOSHI TANAKA VIA INTERPRETER: With computers, although there may be one per household, it’s unlikely that it would be your own. With cell phones, on the other hand, it would belong to you exclusively. Thus, you have the freedom to access anything, whenever you want.

MARK PHILLIPS: This has produced two different trajectories for cell phone evolution. In the U.S. we’ve been upgrading our cell phones with the hope of recreating the Internet experience we’ve had for years on the computer. In Japan, since the cell phone has traditionally been the gateway to the Internet, the evolution has instead been in the incremental improvement of the cell phone network and hardware.

This last part is really interesting because I experienced some of the value of personal computing when I volunteered at Boston Tech Day and volunteered for technical support on some middle and high schooler’s laptops. As part of the school program, some had individually received Eee netbooks. The relationship these teens had to these machines that were theirs was quite different from the teens that brought in a family computer to be fixed. Those with their own netbook showed a lot more responsibility for their computer and seemed to be more active and able in their literacy of its operations.

Quotes on Thought and Process

For hundreds of years we have believed that if something is logical in hindsight then logic should have been enough to get the idea in the first place.  This is complete and total rubbish in a patterning system.  Most of our thinking and education is based on this absurdly false belief.

Edward de Bono, in the forward of A Smile in the Mind

Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.

Robert Heinlein, Assignment in Eternity

At heart, the problem isn’t in your actions, it’s in your thinking. So long as you focus only on what you do differently… you will fail to break new ground.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most

Double Loop Learning

While reading a snarky review on Amazon of Difficult Conversations, I was pointed to “Action Science a la Argyris”.  Googling around I came upon this:

[Chris] Argyris (1976) proposes double loop learning theory which pertains to learning to change underlying values and assumptions. The focus of the theory is on solving problems that are complex and ill-structured and which change as problem-solving advances.

Which is pretty interesting since that sounds a lot like the type of Capacity Building issues I deal with on a day to day basis. It goes on:

Double loop theory is based upon a “theory of action” perspective outlined by Argyris & Schon (1974). This perspective examines reality from the point of view of human beings as actors. Changes in values, behavior, leadership, and helping others, are all part of, and informed by, the actors’ theory of action. An important aspect of the theory is the distinction between an individual’s espoused theory and their “theory-in-use” (what they actually do); bringing these two into congruence is a primary concern of double loop learning. Typically, interaction with others is necessary to identify the conflict.

There are four basic steps in the action theory learning process: (1) discovery of espoused and theory-in-use, (2) invention of new meanings, (3) production of new actions, and (4) generalization of results. Double loop learning involves applying each of these steps to itself. In double loop learning, assumptions underlying current views are questioned and hypotheses about behavior tested publically. The end result of double loop learning should be increased effectiveness in decision-making and better acceptance of failures and mistakes.

This is actually pretty clear, and considering this was proposed in the mid-70s, I can say with certainty that this type of process is pretty well-established in current management literature—which is maybe why it seems clear to me.  Of course, that quote above doesn’t really talk much about why it’s called Double Loop, so I looked that up and found in a very interesting article:

When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its presents objectives, then that error-and-correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.

With this illuminating graphic:

Double Loop

This is very applicable to a lot of the work I do with Capacity Building because it demonstrates a very clear difference between what I would call Technical Assistance (Single-Loop) and true Capacity Building (Double-Loop).  Sometimes all you need is Technical Assistance (like a snazzy new CMS), but often times once you have it, you realize that it’s not being used because your governing culture and values don’t align with the needs of the project (no one in your organization cares about non-targeted external communications); so you have a larger problem.