Saturday, May 22, 2010

Honesty as Faux Pas

I avoided keeping a public journal for two main reasons. I wrote about the main reason last night, but the second deserves a little exploration since it will shape everything that follows.

Despite the CIA's motto "And the truth shall set you free," despite the courts' admonition to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God," despite the media's claims to show you "all the truth that's fit to print," we're a culture of liars. Our commitment to the truth is precisely skin deep. We're committed to the appearance of the truth, to the appearance of honesty. We strive to appear admirable regardless of whether we are. We're so concerned with controlling how others perceive us that the truth itself cannot possibly compete for us. The race is over before it begins. We're committed to crafting the message, to spinning the revelation, to shaping the truth into something much more to our advantage, that is, shaping the truth into varying intensities of lies.

Everyone in our culture does it, and we all do it all the time. And we do it so automatically and thoroughly that we often convince ourselves of the truth of our lies. Indeed, many people are deeply convinced that they are strictly honest people, because their commitment to their performances and delusions is so total that they can no longer distinguish the truth from the lies.

In such a culture, honesty causes problems. There is a price to be paid for the truth, always, but in modern cultures the price is very, very high. Here are three problems you'll have to deal with.

First, when you sacrifice for the truth, you must accept that society holds your sacrifice in contempt.

In the eyes of the law, no matter how hard you work to break free of the delusions and sleepwalking, no matter how you end up suffering for speaking the truth, the law holds you the equal of the vilest liar alive, just like everyone else. All of society's institutions, which evolved within a culture of deceit, are built under the assumption that you're probably lying, and you will be treated as such by government and corporations alike no matter what you do. Our institutions respect no one and nothing. They have the heart of machines, the soul of the abyss, and they act not from any human motives but only according to their rules, which change from time to time to benefit those who have the power to change them. If you want respect, you must seek it from individuals, not institutions; you must appeal to the person, never to the office. This is one of the unchangeable evils of the modern world. Unless you steel yourself to it, it will break your truth-seeking heart.

Second, even from individuals you'll get a mixed response to your honesty.

Most people can't distinguish honesty from deceit, except that in general lies have been crafted to be delicious and the truth is often bitter, so they'll tend to prefer the tasty tasty lies. You can sometimes get away with saying the truth around most people on the questionable but widely accepted grounds that "everyone's entitled to their own opinion," but if you try to push the truth on most people they'll push back, redefining you as "not one of us," not a part of the herd. In general, the herd won't attack one of its own, but if it can define you as a true outsider you'll be amazed how quickly your life can be put in danger. Never underestimate the danger of the herd.

So if you're going to speak the truth as best you can, you're going to have to cultivate manners, learn how to de-escalate angry people, learn how to mediate between angry people, develop your empathy and appeal - in short, you're going to have to make yourself as nice and appealing as possible to overcome on an emotional level the herd's sometimes violent antagonism to the truth. After all, in speaking the truth you're causing them real pain, so you're going to have to give them enough happiness and pleasure in return to make it worth it to them.

A few people will share your commitment to honesty, to the struggle to be true. These people are treasures. Be willing to turn over a lot of weresheep and werewolves in your search for these actual people, and when you find them make sure you hang onto them. I've been lucky enough in my professional life to find and work with many people who share my attachment to honesty and are willing to suffer some for it. Usually, though, you're lucky to have one or two people like this in your life, and to find more takes many years of diligent searching.

Also, keep in mind that even people who want to be honest have their limits. Most honest people are only willing to suffer up to a point for the truth, and after that point they just have to have the relief of more lies and lying to stop the pain. Hardly anyone can hear or speak every truth. You don't really know your friends and family until you know where their limits are, where their tolerance for the truth ends and their need for another hit of the soothing lies begins.

Third, honesty attracts crazies who make it their mission to stop you.

We pretend to have a commitment to free speech, but that's just another lie. When you cross certain lines - and everyone has different lines, so those lines are all over the place - you identify yourself as an alien, an outsider, an outlaw, bootless, a legitimate target for persecution, and some people with no real meaning in their lives will make you their meaning, will define you has a threat and make it their job to hound you. Although the compassionate truth lover in you will want to engage with these people, you shouldn't; every time you engage with them, you make them feel more alive and meaningful and reinforce their need to hound you to try to make their lives mean something. Unless you want to end up like John Lennon or Doctor King, you need to be on the alert for the crazies and always be ready to practice gently disengaging when you can.

Some of the crazies will be too subtle for you to notice. These crypto-crazies will identify you as dangerous and remember you, but they won't stalk you; they'll just calmly and persuasively spread stories about you to poison your social wells, to hinder you subtly from a distance.

There's nothing you can do directly about these people, so you just have to accept that this is a price you will pay for your openness and honesty - some things in life are just going to be harder for you than for friendly liars. You need to make peace with that and with the cryptocrazies and weresheep and soulless institutions out there. You aren't really being cheated. They can't help themselves, since they aren't really sane, and you know in advance that this is the price of being a truthseeker, so don't complain about it. Just decide whether that price is worth paying to become an honest person, and if you decide to pay the price then pay it as cheerfully as you can and move on.

For what it's worth, my advice is to pay the price because the costs of honesty, however painful, are finite, but the costs of deceit and dishonesty are bottomless.

Which brings us finally, in my overly wordy and cumbersome way, back to the second sentence of this entry.

Some people know about the choice you have to make in life between open honesty or secrets and deceit, and pretty much all of us choose some degree of secrets and deceits in order to get along in this world. Although like most people I self-identify as an honest person, and although I'm open about some things (alcoholism and manic depression, for example) that most people try to hide, I have my share of things I don't talk much about. I'm about to break my own rules for you, dear nice, and talk openly and publicly about some things I've kept quiet about.

The problem is this.

Much of our professional life is about role-playing, and in my life I play the roles of programmer, VISTA expert, and executive director. Just as with the roles people play in their sex lives, professional roles only succeed if people feel a certain way about you, if they can emotionally commit to the idea of you playing those parts. If I jar them too much emotionally, if I don't fit their idea of those roles, then they won't accept me in those roles and I will suffer professionally.

The most fragile of the roles I play is executive director, because I'm already a very unusual looking and behaving person to be running an organization. I came out of the closet about my manic depression and my family's struggles with alcoholism long ago, and I have long hair, and I have weird opinions about things, and I don't give presentations the way normal people do, so people have already made a lot of concessions to accept me in the community as an authority figure. No one thinks of me as any normal kind of authority figure. They're already making allowances and accepting me only provisionally or as an exceptional case. They're a bit too aware that I'm playing a role, whereas with people who hide more of themselves they more fully believe those people are leaders.

Other leaders are pretty aware of this necessary quality of leadership and work hard to groom themselves for the role, to be acceptable to people as a replacement parental figure. Experienced and effective leaders are usually the ones most aware that they're playing a role, the ones who are least open and honest about who they are but who can pretend to be the most genuinely present. Such experienced leaders are critics of the performances of other leaders and recognize a failure to act the role properly as a naive character flaw. That is, would-be leaders who don't lie sufficiently well are seen as at best immature leaders who will need to become better liars to reach their true potential, and at worst as people who will never really be capable of leadership.

To such people, some of whom I need to work with in the years ahead, what I'm about to do with this journal is proof that I'm unfit to lead. Most people think a real leader reserves his true self and only offers people the confident, commanding persona, the act, that proves he's worthy. To do what I'm about to do is considered an amateur move, like accidentally belching very loudly through the microphone at a State of the Union address. In such circles, excessive honesty (defined as hardly any honesty at all) is a political faux pas, so I'm going to pay a professional price for this journal.

It's worth it, though.

On a professional level, I will probably benefit as well as suffer for it. Engineers respect the truth and feel contempt for those who lie or evade to make themselves look better. Some of them will respect me more for trying to be a different kind of leader, someone who doesn't just pretend to be what they want but who actually tries to become that person with his whole heart. By showing who I really am and where I came from, they'll be better able to estimate my true worth and decide whether I'm good enough to meet their needs. That will give me an advantage over those they know are merely playacting, however convincingly. So I'll lose some ability to negotiate with the powerful, but I'll be able to work more easily with the people who really understand or need the software.

Sure, it's considered more noble to suffer purely for the truth, but life rarely works out that way. There are almost always benefits to striving for virtue, however imperfectly. The benefit of virtues is not a matter of opinion, which is what makes them virtuous.

On a family level, though, the main reason I'm going to do this is that you deserve it, dear nieces and nephews. You deserve honesty and openness, freedom from the tyranny of secrets, and you deserve to see by example that it really is possible to escape our family's cycles of shame and pretense. You don't have to be afraid and angry. As long as you're polite about it, and generous, and friendly, and careful, you don't have to hide who you are. You can be real with people and have them still like and accept you, even if they think you're a weirdo.

And because I'm doing this for you, I also get to be just that little bit more whole myself, a gift I was unable to give myself until I decided to give it to you.

See how powerful love is?


Degor Stravinski said...

I really enjoy this.
I feel that I encounter many of the social phenomena you describe whenever I attempt (in vain) to face people with what some would view as political (though I quail before reducing it and depersonalizing it in such a way). I don't know if you're an adherent or even a skeptic of the 9/11 truth movement, but that topic produces some horrific allergic reactions, the kind I have no real desire to provoke. I spied a saying on a wooden fence a day or two ago: "If you must cause someone suffering, be courageous. Cause it to yourself." That seems to apply to this topic in some sort of a way. The people who have the audacity to claim honesty as a personal attribute must be brave, and ready to suffer for what they think will bring greatness down the line.

Rick Marshall said...

It's weird when you run spell checks and try to edit your own writing, yet still find obvious typos on rereading. I should have written "will define you as a threat" not "has a threat."

Rick Marshall said...

Dear Mr. Stravinski,

I'm hoping the personal nature of the new entries, that I'm writing it specifically for my nephews and nieces, will help make me find ways to express the difficult things I need to tell them in ways that are clearer and more engaging. Thus, I'm delighted you enjoyed my post; it gives me hope that this new approach won't entirely suck. I suppose we'll have to wait for a verdict from my intended audience, but I'm glad it worked for you.

Regarding the 9/11 truth movement, in general a democracy can't exist unless the demos (the people) are fit to kratein (to rule). To be fit to rule, they must not merely be trained and filled with standard-issue opinions; they must themselves be truth seekers who turn over as many perspectives as possible looking for new angles on the truth.

Any populace that routinely rejects ideas out of hand as "crazy" or "beyond the pale" or a "conspiracy theory" is demonstrating their contempt for any perspective they're not comfortable with. This makes them unfit to rule, which threatens to reduce democracy to mere mobocracy.

The 9/11 truth movement isn't unique in this regard. We have an astonishingly vast array of perspectives that aren't allowed to be discussed in the mass media or in general political discourse. This puts anyone committed to the truth, meaning in human terms the exploration of as many perspectives as possible, in a difficult position.

I think you're right that except in the most unusual of cultures, a commitment to truth also requires a commitment to courage (and as I suggested in my post, a healthy leavening of compassion and good manners to sweeten the bitter pills).

Yours truly,

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

A very excellent, penetrating look at the human reality. I have no doubt that with this form of expression that you will meet eye to eye with your nephews and nieces and find the understanding you seek for yourself and for them.

Thanks for the the wonderful read. RJK

Rick Marshall said...

You're very welcome, Mr. Kuntz. And thanks for the kind words.