Just Being Honest

I should start out with a quotation here, something about truth and beauty or the philosophical inquiry into truth, but I don’t think it will help what I’m writing today. It might make you think that my opinion is worth something, but that would be an illusion. People who start their essays with quotations from Shakespeare or definitions from Webster are not deeper thinkers or smarter; they’ve just read the chapter on introductory paragraphs from the style manual their eleventh grade English teacher made them buy.

What I really want to know is this: why does honesty get such high marks?

In philosophy, the theory of correspondence says that truth corresponds to what is real. I’m not going to pretend that I read the whole chapter on truth (it was really long), but I would guess that many people would answer my question thus: It is good to be honest because you are affirming things as they are, not distorting them.

Next question: who determines reality?

Let’s take this out of the classroom and put it into the real world. The person in the office next to mine has an annoying laugh. She hasn’t touched up her roots in a while, and even so, she would look a lot better if she would stop dying her hair jet black. Very few people look good with jet black hair, especially when they have bad skin, as she does. Hasn’t she ever heard of dermatology? She eats frozen yogurt for lunch every day, thinking it is good for her because it’s yogurt – never mind the pile of nuts and M&M’s she puts on it, never mind the sugar and fat and the fact that she’s eating a giant 24-oz size cup of it. No wonder her gut squishes out over the top of her jeans. Does she really think she’s a size 8?

All of this is true. It is also my opinion. Would it be a good idea for me to share all this with her? Just being honest, you know – how can that be a bad thing? To keep it to myself would be dishonest, and to lie to her face – “No, those jeans don’t make you look fat” – would be wrong. Much better to share with her all the things that bug me, rather than write about them here. Right?

This is the problem: people think that their opinions, which may very well be fact-based, are truth, and good people must always tell the truth. Honesty demands that we tell other people what we think of them. Venting to someone else about her annoying laugh is dishonest, deceptive, and makes me a bad person.

Here’s what I think – take it as truth if you wish, or dismiss it as warped and misguided: Truth has no particular virtue in and of itself. Sometimes truth is necessary. When I go to the doctor, I don’t want him to lie to me about my cholesterol, to tell me I don’t need to exercise.

But a lot of times truth is like Reality TV – it may be real and true, but it’s unnecessary, cruel and nobody’s business. Not telling my neighbor that she’s fat does not bend the moral order of the universe. Telling her that her husband, who just died, was having an affair is both cruel and unnecessary.

There are times to speak out. A child’s bruises should not be ignored. It is dangerous to text and drive. It is a kindness to tell a woman that her skirt is caught in her panty hose, rather than letting her walk around all day showing her unmentionables. A person leaving for a job interview needs to know that wearing a T-shirt bearing a picture that says ‘Big Pimpin’ or an offensive picture is not a good idea.

To equate honesty with morality is deceptive. Most of the time, we mistake our own opinions for truth; they are based on facts, and must therefore be true. And we think too highly of our own opinions, because they are ours, and we mean well, and we are not perceptive enough to see that we are doing more harm than good, or honest enough to admit that we do not mean well.

Rudeness has attained a certain status. “Hey, I’m just being honest,” a person will say, as if that makes it moral.

The truth is, some things are best left unsaid. If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.


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