IMG_9999-001Now that almost everything we do is recorded and analyzed, we are learning some things that are difficult to deal with.

The video tape of NFL player, Ray Rice, hitting his wife, dragging her unconscious body from an elevator, then leaving her forced the team to revise it’s initial response of:  “It’s no big deal. I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy.”

The responses of many men, and some women, to the undeniable facts recorded on video were denial or justification for the violence. Some women felt empowered to talk about their own experiences using the twitter hashtags #whyIstayed and #whyIleft.

The issues are complex. The truth is difficult. But the public release of that video recording is what changed everything. Denial was no longer possible.

The drive for data as the holy grail, a panacea of objectivity and hard evidence, often backfires. Knowing everything can be extremely damaging.  Not knowing is worse.

I have dealt with this all my life. My birthmother gave me up when I was born. I spent several weeks at a home for unwed mothers in Sioux City, Iowa, before being picked up by strangers and eventually adopted. I knew I was adopted, which helped a little when no one around me looked or acted like me. I was told my real mother could not take care of me, so she wanted a better home for me.

It turns out that wasn’t exactly true. She was engaged to someone who was not my father, and who did not want to raise another man’s child. When I searched for her, she would not allow the agency to tell me her name. She said she just could not bear to have contact with me because she just couldn’t open the door that had been closed 43 years earlier. I did learn that I have three younger half-brothers.

I was excited to have siblings, even if I still don’t know who they are. I was devastated to learn that she could have kept me, and simply chose not to. It was heartbreaking to be rejected again. How could she not want to meet me, her only daughter? How could she not want to know her two adorable grandsons? The truth was just too much for her. I understood it intellectually. Emotionally, the recovery took 8 years.

That kind of truth is coming to light more often as technology allows us to find our DNA relatives by spitting in a tube and sending it off to be analyzed.

A stem cell biologist found out about his half-brother doing DNA testing with 23andme. He had given the test kits to his parents for a present. A stranger showed up 25% related to the biologist and 50% related to his father. But not the mother. It wasn’t clear whether the father knew he had another child.  (My birthfather has no idea that I exist.) It was clear that the information was completely unexpected and changed the dynamics of the entire family. Everyone took sides. The biologist’s parents divorced over it.

Yet, the secret son was given up for adoption and had been searching to know where he came from and who he was for his whole life. I know what that’s like. I also did the 23andMe testing hoping to find my half-brothers some day.

So what do we do when data reveals secrets that we thought would remain private? 

What happens when we learn information that doesn’t match our view of the world and how things work? 

What do we do with information that could harm others even when, especially when, it is true?

Who gets to control the information and what are the competing legal, ethical, and practical rights?

These are questions individuals and companies will be grappling with as more information is discoverable and we learn the unexpected.

Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post addresses the issue perfectly:

There are two ways to protect the integrity of an organization. One is to deny that the institution could possibly falter in any way and to hang onto that insistence to the point of absurdity. The other is to acknowledge that institutions and the humans who run them are fallible and to commit to vigorous standards of accountability to rectify lapses, punish transgressions and make restitution for the harms committed by the organization and in its name. The former approach separates the interests of the organization from the communities that surround it. The latter suggests that the two are inseparable.

Knowing the truth and making changes based on what we learn is complex, difficult, and often involves revising our stories about ourselves and the world.

Yet, we are only as sane as our most closely held secret.

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