The New Honesty

Time was when honesty meant telling the truth. Period. If one said what was true, regardless of the consequences, he was being honest. Indeed, the more serious the consequences to the speaker the more courageous seemed to be that person’s honesty — even rising to the level of “honorable.”

But no more.]

Now the word “truth” has been leveled to mean something entirely subjective: it’s what we want to be the case.It’s not about what is the case; it is all about what we want to be the case. If I believe it , it is true.

Honesty, on the other hand, now means “gut feelings.” If it comes from the heart or the gut — or somewhere in the nether regions of the human body — then it is honest. It’s about emotion, not about facts. The rawer the emotion the better. We admire those who are being honest with their feelings and regard them as in all instances “honest.” They become our role models. For the most part.

In fact, the man who leads this country at present is popular, I believe, because he is honest in this new sense of the word. Millions of people are willing and apparently happy to disregard his disdain for the truth because he is, in their view, honest. And remember: it’s all about perception, not about reality. He “tells it like it is.” It matters not that the man cannot recognize the truth and lies fall from his mouth without number. It matters only to millions of people that he is “honest.”

There are numerous problems with this new meaning of the word, of course. For one thing it reduces the other person to a non-entity. We owe them nothing, not even the truth. And as long as we are being “honest” little else matters. Even if in being honest we hurt another person’s feelings and, as I said, reduce them to a cipher. As long as I tell it like it is, as long as I speak from the heart, or the gut, or the anus — whatever — that’s all that matters.

Thus does the truth lie dormant on the scrap heap of so many other virtues, such as honor, courtesy, courage, and temperance. The other person does not matter; only I matter.

After all, I’m just being honest.


9 thoughts on “The New Honesty

  1. I’m in total agreement – many people today do not seem capable of differentiating between subjective or objective truth. Some of those would probably argue there is no objective truth. I, in turn, would argue that both political parties suffer from this problem and that our current president and possible future president live in a world of subjective truth. As I tell my kids, feelings are not facts. My young adult daughter commented that it is sad that she can no longer believe nearly anything she reads about politics because journalists cater to feeling and not facts. What a disappointing turn of events for a nation divided in half. We need to find some truthful common ground.

  2. Dr. Curtler,

    I recall being told as a child that “Honesty is always the best policy”. I was also told an apocryphal tale of a young George Washington who “could not tell a lie”. It is a simple and powerful maxim, and, as is true of many such adages, it conceals a wealth of complexities and complications. Honesty can even hide lies.

    Typically, when we think of honesty, we refer to one or more of three attributes: (1) making statements with a factual foundation; (2) expressing one’s feelings sincerely; and (3) acting with ethical integrity.

    As you rightly point out, in popular culture the term “honesty” has been reduced to a sincerity of expression and cut loose from both empirical accuracy and ethical integrity. The latter two appear to have been dismissed to an ethereal realm beyond the immediate expression of one’s current mood. The effect is to insulate one’s “sincere” expressions from any fact-checking or analysis.

    It is not difficult to see where this can lead. Politics, for example, has come to be more about “authenticity” than policy; more about “intentions” than consequences. When this occurs, as it surely has, then all that matters is the ability to identify and manipulate the “authentic” emotions of others.

    Thus do we arrive at a point where supporters of the President can say two things with a straight face: (1) “Trump always tells it like it is.”; (2) “That’s not what he meant.”. I have heard both assertions made by the same person in a single, short conversation. I doubt that I am the only person to have this experience.

    Further, if one asks for empirical evidence in support of a claim or if one seeks to discuss the consequences of a policy, one is met with vacant stares, vitriol, and, quite possibly, threats of violence. On the bright side, each response appears “authentic”.

    In a world where only the authenticity of expression is the rule, those who pursue evidence and examine consequences of actions become an “enemies”, perhaps even an “enemies of the people”.

    I have directed my response in a specific political direction, but it could easily be directed in ANY political direction. Note that the coverage of the Democratic candidate in the recent election was often about “compassion”, “empathy” and “kindness” and almost never about policy. Far from being inaccurate, the media reports were usually a direct reflection of the candidate’s public statements and carefully manicured political persona. While we might prefer one candidate’s political persona to that of another, we are still bereft of serious discussion of facts and policies.

    * * *

    Turning to the interpersonal realm, I often addressed the issue of honesty in relationships with my students. In discussions of how people manage interactions with others in different circumstances, I would posit the principle that “Honesty is the best policy” and then offer hypothetical (but realistic) scenes for students to consider. One scene comes to mind.

    I asked students to raise their hands if they thought honesty was essential to a good relationship. Almost all raised their hands. Then I asked how many students were in a committed relationship. To these students I directed this question: “When your partner asks you if you like what they are wearing and you do not, do you tell them your honest opinion?”

    Quite predictably, almost no one thought honesty was the best policy in THIS situation. Indeed, one of the points that emerged in subsequent discussion was the importance of being able to be “just a little” dishonest (1) to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, (2) to maintain the relationship on an even keel, or (3) to avoid “personal hassle”. In any case, the key to success in being “just a little dishonest” in this case is, predictably, the appearance of sincerity.

    The students knew very well that sincerity could be used to hide a lie, albeit a harmless one, and that it also could be employed to “manage” an interaction and even a relationship.
    A small lesson, perhaps, but a good one.

    Sincerity can hide the most egregious of falsehoods, even, as James Baldwin remarked, about “Whiteness and other lies”. Yet, if sincerity remains its own measure, the lies it conceals or reveals can never be challenged.

    Sincerity divested of accuracy and integrity is, at best, a mixed blessing and needs to be evaluated considering the lies it conceals or reveals. Some are small and harmless; others assuredly are not.


    Regards, respects, and best wishes,

    Jerry Stark

  3. Hugh, great post, honestly. I was watching Van Jones tearful comments on CNN, about Biden’s win courtesy of Jill’s blogpost. He said character won today; telling the truth won today…

    Thinking back on the current presidency, those folks who told the truth got fired. Inspectors General, diplomats, public servants, etc. who raised concerns got removed from their jobs or were forced out. What amazed me most, is some of these folks testified under oath at great risk knowing they would be punished, yet did it anyway.

    The heroes over the last four years are those folks in the middle paragraph. Keith

  4. Here’s a take on a common phrase: I’m sure most readers have heard people say the past is the past, and to some degree, I agree. But I never understood why people said that. I guess, I wasn’t into clichés, wordiness, and expressions that many seemed to cling. Seemed odd that people would cling to phrases. I did some of that, but eventually caught myself, wondering why I had thought something that I didn’t come up with on my own (I know. Often, a phrase like that is an excuse: a justification for doing something you knew better.). In my teenage years, they seemed to “connect” me to my friends, but again, the only phrases that truly mattered were one’s of truth, but then, why the phrases? As an adult, I found them silly, and in work, more of the “bosses” idea of finding out who’s who. Meaning, some have a philosophy they want their employees to agree. Sorry (I’m not sorry.), but I always think for myself. So, while I might believe the same concepts, I don’t abscribe to phrases.
    Life is life. Life happens in real time. It’s not a program. It’s not a television show. And no matter how much some may wish it, there’s nothing they can do to program their lives. That’s where people find difficulty trying to be perfect or finding the perfect life. Perfection doesn’t exist: not the way many think about it. Life is messy. Everyone is unpredictable. Life all happens one day at a time, moment by moment, forever.
    Someone said we can never be perfect. I asked them, “What is this perfection that you think we cannot be?” I don’t think they knew what they meant by perfection. I asked, “Could it be that perfection is simply not resenting or hating anyone, following what you know is right in each day: doing the best you can?” Again, I don’t think they thought about it much. But this leads to the next thing.
    While walking, I remembered while dating someone, many years ago, and hearing her say the past is the past (Another phrase. I think sometimes we use phrases as a way to get through life, but it seems often used as a crutch, or people change their phrases to suit their current needs.). I pondered upon that phrase. I wondered why say that. Talking with a couple of friends, they explained that most people have done things they would like to leave behind, so they live by such phrases as a way to “smooth over” things they’d rather not regret. I thought about that, but again, I still wondered why say that. To whom does such a phrase need to be said? It seemed to me, when the phrase “the past is the past” was said, that the person was talking more to themselves then to me, but also trying to get me to agree. But why do that? Because, if others agree with you, then it adds credence to that belief. Because, inside, the person can’t be happy unless they get others to believe in the same “philosophy.”
    Later, I heard a discussion about this from a different perspective. What I gathered is what you’ve done is “you.” In other words, you (When I write “you”, I don’t mean you, but to whomever this applies.) were the person who lied, who stole, who talked behind someone’s back. You were the person who though badly about other people, who judged, who did things you would never tell your family. You were also the person who helped the elderly person across the street, helped a neighbor, worked hard, and the rest. You were the one who took time out of your way to help a stranded driver. But the first part still holds. So, whenever you did good or bad, it was you who did that. Which means, that is you (Again, “you” refers to whomever this applies.). The deeds of the past doesn’t go away because of a phrase.
    But yes, we all do make mistakes. I guess it’s about where the heart is. I know some people who have learned from their mistakes, changed within, and could never make those mistakes ever again. And sometimes, such people even forget those mistakes, for having learned and changed for the better, they have no connection to those mistakes, because it’s not them anymore. Or they remember, as if they see another life, long ago, and can help someone else who might make those same mistakes. For instance, former gang-bangers who completely turned around, now helping others to avoid terrible choices. Some getting married again, true to their spouse, raising their children with responsibility.
    There’s an old story in the bible. I never got it before. It was about a city of incredibly bad and irresponsible behavior. It was so bad, only a couple or few people were saved. I think all the people were given ample encouragement and warnings, but they wouldn’t heed. They didn’t want to change. They wanted to continue doing wrong. So, a few good people were told to carry what belongings they could take with them and leave. They were also told not to look back as they left, no matter what they heard.
    So, they left, including a man and his wife. As they were moving further off into the distance, sounds of destruction resonated (The city and all the “bad” people were being destroyed.), but the man reminded the others not to look behind. After some time, the wife looked back and immediately turned to stone as had been warned.
    I never understood that. But after some time, including the above, and a friend shared his view, it was clear. He explained that the wife felt regret at leaving, that there was still something back there she wanted, even if she was living true to her husband. She probably agreed with her husband in leaving, knowing it was right, but inwardly she still wanted something back there. In other words, though she lived true to her husband, she still had something she wanted in that terrible city. She still liked some of the “wrong.” For her, the past was not the past.
    And that’s where this is going. When I heard someone says the past is the past, I wonder why even say that? What is the point of saying that? If you’ve done something you regret, have learned your lesson, and will never repeat such things, then there’s nothing to say. And the only people that might need to hear is someone you intend to marry such that no secrets remain, or perhaps someone you’ve hurt. Otherwise, the question is why? Unless, I wonder, if you still miss that past and ruminate over it. In other words, if you could repeat the past, but without the consequences, would you? Or, is the reason you’ve changed for the better is because of the consequences and not because you didn’t want to be that way? For if the latter, given the “right” circumstances, would you go right back? Do you still dream of that past?
    That’s for each person to figure out for themselves. I’ve pondered upon some things that I’ve held onto, sometimes too long. I’ve also pondered upon things I’ve made mistakes, wondering why they keep coming back in memory. I suppose, I hadn’t completely finished with it, and perhaps, there’s still a lesson to be learned. But I also realized there are some things I held onto because some part of me wasn’t ready to let go, for whatever reason. That was a real eye-opener. But with time, most of those things I used to hold onto left.
    So, in dating this one lady, whom I liked a lot, over time, I realized she hadn’t put the past behind. How did I know? Well, her asking me if I believed the past is the past and has no bearing on the future, that what we had was from now forward, caused me to ponder. Not judge. Just ponder. If she believed that then I would accept her word. But with time, questionable things, like little white lies, questionable activities hidden, and later arguments because of the former, brought her past back. At the same time, and she was correct, I noticed some things in myself that needed changing. But I also realized what we had could not last as they were. And so, with time, we parted as friends, but rarely saw each other again. She still wanted the past.
    You see, some people are not comfortable with honest people. They’re not done with the past. If they’re around honest people, they eventually become bored or uneasy. They still want the excitement of something they grew used to, problems and all. And even the problems are like excitement, because while you’re in that, you’re distracted from what is truly better but what you aren’t yet in agreement with. In other words, some people are not yet happy with the present. Many people need problems, need distractions, and need calamity, for that’s where they find “themselves”, where they feel like they mean something. All the time distracted from the opposite, in a sense. Yes, some people, whether they know it or not, create problems to find themselves, for they are only happy in “fixing” others or solving problems they created or “find.”
    So, I pondered. Travelled a lot. Many jobs. Met tons of people over the years. People are lonely. So, often, they compromise their values for attention. And in those friendships and relationships, in compromise, they become addicted to those experiences. Then, when they’re alone, they feel empty, like something’s wrong. I suppose, to some degree, that’s why people keep being attracted to the wrong people. Ever heard someone say they wonder why they keep attracting the wrong kind of guy or gal? They still want what they shouldn’t want. They want to get away because they know it always leads to destruction, but they still want it. The excitement. The absence of loneliness. The feeling of forever. The dream. Whatever.
    But then, there are people who live alone, with a couple or a few people, and those with many activities and responsibilities, but all honest and being themselves. In other words, people can live alone, can have small or large circles, or have very active and social lives and still not cling to the past of mistakes, doing what is right for them in the present.

  5. Like that waxing and waning moon, we go through times of high energy and then need quiet time – a balance. Covid times have altered our lives, and our cyber habits. Hopefully Biden and Harris will put a full moon of hope in our struggling world.

    I am grateful for a web browser that allows me to load the ‘new post’ notifications – and I can scroll through them at home – sometimes up to 100 before it says that I have to be online to open more. So I can read off line but not comment, and pull up quite late.

    That almost-new moon will bring us an eclipse, and even if we cannot see the moon, we see its effect. You, too, have an effect on all of us – a positive one, which is much needed!
    You have been in the quiet mode, but it’s always a comfort to know that you are there, a light in our skies..

    And that, my friend, is the truth! ‘Verdad!’

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