Calling a Spade a Spade

I was always curious about where this phrase comes from. Why as spade? It could be any other object. The origin according to Wikipedia is not very satisfying as it just talks about it’s first usage in the 1500s and not really at all about why a spade. In fact it seems completely random as to why a spade.

I am currently reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, which to me offers a more interesting alternative, even if it’s not the “true” origin of the phrase. In 1949 there was a psychology experiment by Jerome S. Bruner and Leo Postman in which people were shown cards from a deck of playing cards and asked to identify them. Interspersed among the standard playing cards were abnormal ones; red spades, black hearts, etc. When tested quickly, these abnormalities caused people to default to a card they knew. For example, they would call the red spade a diamond or the black heart a club. When tested slowly, they seemed unable to process what they were seeing, saying the cards looked purple or rusty, or in some cases being at a loss of words. They were so averse to calling a red spade a red spade that their brain either replaced it with what they wanted to see or they were left in utter disbelief. Of course this story still leaves you with the question of why spade and not any other suit, but to me its a better story than “someone used the term 500 years ago.”

In the context of the book, Kolbert talks about the debate between catastrophism (extinctions are caused by singular catastrophic events) and uniformitarianism (extinction occurs slowly over time), and how people, including scientists, often ignored evidence in order to maintain their current beliefs. They didn’t want to call a red spade a red spade. Similarly, many of the greatest revolutions throughout history were met with great resistance. We used to think the earth was flat; we used to think everything revolved around the earth; we used to think all of life was created in a few instances. None of these ideas went down without a fight.

People are afraid of change. They are afraid to admit that something they have believed for their whole lives might be wrong. Perhaps because they think that to do so would mean their whole life is a lie. And so when reality doesn’t match up with what they are seeing/ experiencing (cognitive dissonance) they make up stories to fit their perceptions or yell, CONSPIRACY! While I think it’s important to fight for the things you believe it is just as important, if not more so, to have humility and an open mind. The world looks different if you look at it another way. Nobody has all the answers, and to think your way is the right way is naive. That statement itself may be naive, because perhaps there is an ultimate truth out there.

All I know is that when things get uncomfortable, that usually means big things are about to happen, especially if you lean in. Just as we can’t change the laws of physics to fit our own desires (unassisted flying would be awesome), we shouldn’t change or pick “truths” to fit our own perceptions, and yet it happens all the time.

Just be careful out there.


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