These Truths

I have been distracted this week by the events in Washington, to say nothing about what is happening in London, on the Texas border, in Indonesia and North Carolina, and everywhere in between. These events challenge a set of fundamental beliefs I hold. I learned them from my parents, read them in classics of Western philosophy, observed them in communities of my youth, and vote to uphold them whenever the polls are open. The principles seem a bit naïve today, but they form the core of my relationship with personal, social, and political reality. I will be more specific.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . "

". . . in order to form a more perfect union . . ."

Note: This post captures my personal, subjective truth. It is not intended as an institutional statement or to represent the perspectives of the board, staff, or Associate Network of the HSD Institute.


In a civilization, people join together to make things better for themselves. In democracy of the USA, orderly governance is intended to represent the will of the people and protect “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The goal, as I understand it, is the greater good for the greatest number. I understand that not everyone shares these principles and expectations. At the heart of this belief is something we call “normative truth.”

In HSD we find it useful to work with four kinds of truth:

  • Objective truth comes from evidence and data. It is incontrovertible and agreed to by everyone. 
  • Subjective truth comes from personal and social experience. It is deeply held by each individual in beliefs, values, worldviews, and personal commitments and identities.
  • Normative truth comes from collective agreements. It is constructed by a group to allow for shared identity and cooperative action.
  • Complex truth comes from an understanding of complex reality. It is grounded in a worldview of open, highly diverse, and massively connected human systems. It is the claim that all the other truths can be true at the same time, and that you can choose to focus on one or another, depending on which is most fit for function at a time and in a context. 

Complex truth is quite fascinating, but I am not going to focus there today. If you want to know more about it and how it supports Adaptive Action, you can visit our website. Today I want to talk about normative truth because it has been the source of my tension and distraction this week.

There are many normative truths. Given the tenet of complex truth, they can all be true at the same time. In my experience, I participate in various, and sometimes competing, normative truths. For example:

  • I am a Texan, so I grew up with a particular story about the Alamo.
  • I was raised as a Methodist, so I sang my theology and took communion once a month.
  • I belong to the network of human systems dynamics practitioners, so I strive to live out the HSD simple rules.

Every community I belong to holds its own set of fundamental principles and rules of collective action. You can think of them as cultural norms, family traditions, social taboos, corporate standards, or legal statutes. Sometimes they are explicit, but more often, they are implicit—baked into the everyday experiences and shared narratives of individuals who belong to the group. I may not always live up to the normative truths I espouse, but I aspire to them and expect others in the group to do the same. 

As we become more sensitive and aware, our curiosity and respect for others’ normative truths can emerge. Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and practices are designed to help us do just that—acknowledge and learn from others’ normative truths. You can SEE another’s normative truth without CHOOSING to adopt it as your own. When you are conscious of your own truths, you are free to make intentional choices. You can select the communities you join, the normative truths you adopt, and the actions you take as an individual or member of a group. You can recognize when a normative truth is inconsistent with subjective or other normative truths you hold dear.     

So what?

This week, in many different contexts, I have encountered a normative truth that belongs to none of my communities. In fact, I do not want to belong to a community where this normative truth is dominant. You probably have your own observations, and certainly have different priorities, but this is how I describe the normative truth that is emerging in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process.

  • 15-year-old, privileged white boys do not have to face the consequences of their behavior, but boys of color and girls of any color do.
  • The procedures, principles, and practices of decision making in the US Congress change to protect and enable those in power.
  • Judges are supposed to be partisan.
  • Investigations are held to secure confirmation votes, not to examine evidence or determine the truth of competing claims.
  • “Alternative facts” are generated to justify self-interest of the powerful few.
  • Persons in power can refuse to answer questions and behave like spoiled children, but victims of their power must follow different rules.

To avoid hyperbole, I will stop here. These are, I think, irrefutable tenets of the normative truth that is driving our public decision making and discourse today. I acknowledge that some people among us hold these truths—perhaps implicitly. Some people benefit from these truths, and they would probably describe this normative view in some other way. No matter how they are represented, these claims are diametrically opposed to my subjective truth and to all the normative truths I hold. 

Now what?

I can engage with others to invite inquiry into their normative truths and my own, hoping to find some shared space for communication and action.

I can write this blog post.

I can call members of Congress.

I can vote in November.

There is one thing I am sure I will not do.

I will not participate in a normative truth that fails to aspire to fairness, accountability, rule of law, judicial impartiality, rigorous and non-partisan investigation, truth telling, and grace under pressure. That is a choice I make, based on my subjective truth. I am pleased to have the tools of  human systems dynamics in these difficult times. Through complex truth, I can engage with others and their subjective and normative truths without denying them the rightness of their  positions or sacrificing the rightness of my own.  

Whether you agree with me or not, I invite you to join the HSD exploration of Adaptive Action and Pattern Logic. The HSD models, methods, and community of inquiry will help you become  more conscious of your truths, so you can choose your next wise actions with insight, intention, and openness.

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