“You can’t handle the truth!” That’s the famous line from A Few Good Men, a play by Aaron Sorkin produced on Broadway in 1989 and as a movie in 1992. Thirteen years later, the American Film Institute named this line the twenty-ninth greatest American film quote of all time.
In the play, based on real events, Lieutenant Kaffee is an attorney assigned to defend two marines accused of accidentally killing a fellow soldier through hazing. Kaffee suspects the hazing was a punishment ordered by Colonel Jessup, so he presses Jessup on the witness stand, demanding to know the truth. Jessup buckles under the pressure and says, “You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”
Jessup’s confession leads to his arrest. He’s right: While the undying need for military and prisons proves that reality is too broken for our laws to fix, we still cannot knowingly allow anyone to circumvent those laws, even to do good. Officers protect soldiers from knowing about gray areas. Executives likewise protect investors from knowing what it takes to maximize return on their investment, and protect employees from knowing what it takes to protect their jobs. Politicians protect voters from knowing what it takes to fulfill campaign promises. And most of us seem to expect someone to protect us from thinking about how our lifestyles require oppression of other species and future generations. Many of us do have difficulty handling difficult truths.
It’s not that effective officers and executives enjoy pondering difficult truths. On the contrary, they handle difficult truths by running their calculations and moving on. They are efficient and practical. They pray, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In other words, they trust whatever wisdom they have, rather than spend their lives second-guessing. In the gray areas, no one is clean; one can only move past difficult truths and focus on happy ones. The “Crying Baby” dilemma from Chapter One provides a stark example:
Enemy soldiers have taken over your village. They have orders to kill all remaining civilians. You and some of your townspeople have sought refuge in the cellar of a large house. Outside, you hear the voices of soldiers who have come to search the house for valuables. Your baby begins to cry loudly. You cover his mouth to block the sound. If you remove your hand from his mouth, his crying will summon the attention of the soldiers who will kill you, your child, and the others hiding out in the cellar. To save yourself and the others, you must smother your child to death. Is it appropriate for you to smother your child in order to save yourself and the other townspeople?¹
Because people are split on this question, everyone in the cellar will likely die unless a third townsperson, like Jessup, makes the practical decision that the baby should be killed. However, I doubt many of us would recognize this act of murder as heroism. I think most people, including Jessup, would avoid dwelling on it. I also think such skittishness biases us to underestimate the prevalence of gray areas. Our flourishing, our efficiency, our odds for survival, and our hope ultimately rest on practical leaders who navigate gray areas for us, yet we oppress those same heroes by making them pretend that their ends-justify-the-means approach is not of their nature.
If you are a natural negotiator, then you consider all foolishness immoral, or evaluate in terms of wisdom instead of morality. Other people get hung-up in practice on premises they consider non-negotiable, such as “I must fulfill my duty!” or “The truth must be known!” or “Such a loss could never be forgiven!” You reserve your resources for where they can do the most good. You prefer to achieve measurable goals and accumulate wealth and power that can be used for such ends. You prioritize strategy, planning, efficiency, and risk management.
The preceding is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of GRIN Free – GRIN Together: How to let people be themselves (and why you should). Read the rest here.