We live in an era of “instant” everything. Microwaves and Uber-eats serve up instant meals, the internet delivers instant access to information and an often narcissistic world assures us that we are entitled to instant gratification in every aspect of our lives.
For me, one of the most troubling of the “instant” trends is instant certainty in all its forms. Instant certainty is the enemy of truth and a barrier to trust.
News and media organizations around the world continually feel the pressure to be the first on a story and to declare, on any issue, the absolute certain, authoritative assessment.
The Deseret News is convening a conversation in our nation’s capital on Jan. 14 titled “Integrity and Trust: Lessons from Watergate and Today,” featuring legendary reporter Bob Woodward and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Woodward, of course, was part of the team that broke the Watergate story, and Elder Christofferson was the first to hear the Watergate tapes as a young law clerk to Judge Sirica, who oversaw the case. I will be moderating a discussion of lessons learned from their experiences and what they mean for people today.
In preparation for the event, I interviewed Mr. Woodward for my “Therefore, what?” podcast. I asked him if this drive toward instant certainty is the enemy of truth. Woodward replied, “Yes, that's a great term, instant certainty. And what happens, particularly on cable TV, both sides, left, right … people are so, ‘This is the way it is,’ there's no alternative. There's not another side. …
"The scenes in our book, ‘All the President's Men,’ and the movie version where we would write a story and it was Ben Bradlee who would slap the copy and say, No, you don't have it yet, go talk to more people, get more sources, get more specifics, the building blocks of good journalism. And so there was no political posturing on his part and I think that's essential to any good journalism.”
Bradlee, Woodward's editor at The Washington Post, clearly understood that instant certainty is the enemy of truth and that trust is impossible to obtain or preserve when truth is absent. Woodward learned from Bradlee that restraint always works, in journalism and in countless other areas of life.
Truth and trust do appear to be on trial in 2019. Business leaders and politicians continue to play fast and loose with the facts. Instant certainty by talking heads, across the political spectrum, unravel trust and launch thousands of angry tweets and vitriolic social media posts.
On Tuesday, President Trump was scheduled to deliver a speech from the Oval Office about border security. Hours before the broadcast, one cable news anchor delivered a “prebuttal” to the speech. This was another level — I called it instant certainty before instant certainty. Having someone who holds a news anchor role delivering that kind of certain reporting about something that hadn’t yet happened is bad for journalism and worse for truth and trust in America.
Instant certainty is also important for us to consider on an individual level. We all have experienced the annoying relative, neighbor or co-worker who is the master of instant certainty. Regardless of the topic, they have the certain solution, opinion or position. Their understanding is absolute and their view chiseled in granite — they are right, they know it, and through words, tone and body language they expect you to instantly agree with them.
The interesting thing to observe is the moment their “certain” opinion is proven wrong. Rather than retreating or even pausing for a nanosecond of self-reflection, they immediately, with equal passion and zeal as their first instant certainty statement, make a new declaration of what is, in their view, the truth.
Searching for truth and seeking for a foundation of trust should always start with a look in the mirror. I confess, I have been that person on far too many occasions, particularly in certain familial settings. I am a slow learner, but I have figured out that my instant certainty never ends well and usually undermines whatever trust exists in the relationship. Instant certainty also relegates my understanding to backward-facing thoughts and emotions rather than being open to new truths that can only be found in a future-facing discussions.
I have found that checking my instant certainty at the door does wonders to foster more constructive conversations and, not so amazingly, takes me to ideas, opinions and truth I never had supposed.
Embracing uncertainty requires real humility and courageous vulnerability. Being able to say, “I don’t know,” or “tell me more” or even “I hadn’t considered that” builds trust and leads to a more complete view of the truth.
Suspending judgment not only provides space for truth to be discovered, it is actually the only path that leads to learning, understanding and trust. When large institutions, governments, businesses and individual leaders can lay aside their certainty, public trust increases. Perhaps instant uncertainty would lead us to more truth and greater trust.