It is not uncommon to hear folks often voice that they are skeptical of this or that. To be skeptical is to express doubt as to the truth of something. The extreme view of this is the philosophical theory that certain knowledge is impossible to ascertain. While on a certain level I can agree with the intellectual view of skepticism, on a practical level it can paralyze interactions that are critical to functioning interpersonal and social relationships. To be entrenched in this latter view, I think one refuses to truly engage in meaningful and trusting partnerships that define successful interactions.
It is healthy to express doubt as to the truth of something. But a permanent position of doubt is untenable. Some have argued that truth is in the eye of the beholder. I strongly disagree. There are no alternative facts. Truth is an accumulation of facts, and facts are, by and large, discoverable with adequate work. It is only when someone takes the “easy way out” and refuses to accept the facts and the subsequent truth that they are being dishonest. Pete Buttigieg in his recent book (TRUST: AMERICA’S BEST CHANCE) notes that “there is nothing intelligent or noble about a stubborn refusal to acknowledge a mounting fact base—especially when that refusal is motivated by material gain.” He further states that attempts at evenhandedness (to balance accepted facts vs. purported facts) is not evenhandedness at all. It is a dishonest portrayal of good faith social interactions.
So, there is a real dichotomy here. On one level, being skeptical is a fair course to make sure that one verifies the truth that has established a trusting relationship. Trust is a reciprocal process – one projects trust and one receives trust. The critical elements in trust – truth, knowledge, humanity, empathy, dependability, confidence and vulnerability – are therefore employed to variable degrees as we attempt to erase any doubts that we might have. We need to examine and feel comfortable with each of these elements so that skepticism doesn’t affect our ability to work with others.
- Truth – our set of facts must be intellectually and morally sound
- Knowledge – we must be willing to expand our knowledge base, using all modalities possible
- Humanity – only when we recognize our common humanity can we address skepticism in a fair manner
- Empathy – the ability to understand the plight of others (to actively [not passively] engage in this understanding) is critical
- Dependability – we have to have to be dependable (consistent) in our interactions
- Confidence – our confidence (that which is projected and that which is perceived) will be a judge of our integrity
- Vulnerability – the “strength” of vulnerability indicates our willingness to engage others with reliability
How do we avoid the toxic effect of too much skepticism? How do we maintain a healthy skepticism, so we do not get taken advantage of? I would contend that there is no specific formula since sometimes it takes a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I am most concerned about the effects of toxic skepticism. Sometimes that skepticism is related to generational differences/effects that will only take a long time to be overcome, that groups will need to demonstrate bona fide “good faith” efforts to correct those differences. More often than not, skepticism that is not helpful accompanies the inability to objectively review information and make an honest assessment. Buttigieg adds “getting people to trust you through consistent, hard-won creditability is difficult and time-consuming. But a shortcut to gaining trust is to simple ask people to join you in distrusting someone else.” It is this path of mutual suspicion that erodes trust and makes us all engaged in an “us vs. them” instead of a path toward common good to help us all.
Only when we recognize the healthy aspects of being a skeptic (to keep us morally strong) and diminish the toxic aspects of being a skeptic (believing unverified information and breeding mutual suspicion) that we can begin to see our path forward. We have to be open to listen, carefully observe and course correct when needed.