Today I had a conversation with a friend in which my chronic pain addled “pessimism” provoked the question: “So you really think human beings are fundamentally dishonest?
I said what I had to say quickly, as I was quite busy, but I think this is an important question to address, once raised, so I am going to see it through here, in my usual verbose manner.
If I had to answer such a question finitely, yes-or-no style, then my wholly flawed answer would be “yes,” but only because the realities of being an honest or dishonest person are being framed as a binary here. No one is wholly honest, so if we have to choose between deeming people honest or dishonest, it would be more false to assert that anyone is “fundamentally” honest.
But can we acknowledge that this binary — like most binaries — is a harmful way to frame a complex concept?
We all know that the truth won’t always set you free. Sometimes, it can actually land you in a cage, or just plain get you killed. And while the damage done isn’t usually that extreme, it can often be quite real.
Being “an honest person” is a lot like being a white anti-racist, a cis person who rejects transphobia, or a man who’s a self described feminist. It is a purely aspirational assertion.
Nearly all of us have encountered moments where we have told someone that some statement or action of theirs was racist, ableist, transphobic or otherwise problematic, only to be lectured that the person we are addressing is DEFINITELY NOT racist, ableist or transphobic. People cannot accept these seemingly finite labels, because they want to see themselves as having ideals — ideals that many of these defensive types have repeatedly manifested.
Human beings are complicated, and frequently contradictory, but we often have a hard time acknowledging those contradictions.
Our defensiveness — even that of oppressed peoples — frequently sidesteps the fact that any value worth having or expressing is an aspiration. If a virtue is asserted as a constant, it is likely too entangled with in one’s vanity to serve any consistent, functional purpose.
We, as people working toward a transformed world, embody all sorts of things that are good, but at times we will all falter. Intellectually, most of us know as much, but we sometimes struggle to own that knowledge out loud, or in moments of conflict. This is why calling-in is so important when someone is largely on the freedom side. Because while halting harm and reclaiming safety and dignity can at times require distance, it can also be the first step of something more transformative.
In my own life, there are some wrongs I’ve experienced that I simply won’t confront others about. These harms sometimes involve deception, and at the very least, usually involve self-deception on the part of those who committed said harms. I sincerely believe in transformation, but I will at times leave the past where it is, for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that I believe that some people function beyond my reach, and beyond the reach of any process that I can conceive of. Another is that I think some people will likely round out their time on earth without ever grasping certain concepts, and I’ve made as much peace with them as I can.
And to be transparent, with regard to this subject, I have at times stated a willingness to commit to a process, and wound up stepping back, because it is not my duty to chase after anyone who’s done harm, and convince them to pursue a process that actually honors my sense of human dignity.
All of that said, I am certainly no arbiter of right and wrong. But in my own analysis of what it means to be human, I think we can, at best, speak of ourselves in generalizations. If you say you are an honest person, and I believe you (to whatever extent I can), I will assume that you mean that you usually tell the truth, but occasionally talk your way out of tough situations, by way of deceit, and that you at times side step the truth to spare yourself and others undue hurt or embarrassment.
You may even lie sometimes just for the hell of it, because it’s fun to tell the cashier who asks for your name at a coffee shop that your name is Voldemort or Wombat.
We all have bad -isms smeared into our consciousness (though we are hopefully working daily to weed those things out) and are faced with hard moral negotiations, in this world, such as it is. So yes, we are all, to varying extents, dishonest. Just as we are all, to varying extents, always in need of some self examination. We should always be asking ourselves what harmful biases we may be projecting into the world, and pulling those weeds as they emerge.
To be a “good person” is not a static condition. It is, at its best, a lifelong process. We fuck up, and we usually manage to forgive ourselves and others for doing so — or at least move on from our missteps — because if we want to be better and do better, we know that we are all struggling, at all times.
When it comes to being human failing is part of the package, regardless of our intentions.
Lately, I am struggling with my temper, anger, and impatience, because physical pain brings those things to the surface for me. I aspire to do better, and to do more good than harm each day. Those who love me try to be patient. They won’t always be, because the virtue of patience is also aspirational.
We try to love and care for each other, because while relationships have boundaries, they are also ethical and emotional negotiations.
A commitment to our aspirations, and how hard we try, is what matters most to me, because in my experience, those things make all the difference.
And amid our pain, awareness, and frustrations, let’s admit that our “truth” doesn’t always have utility. The phrase “I’m just being honest” often glosses over the fact that the “truth” may not be at all curative or helpful. And “the truth” — in a singular sense — is obviously a wholly subjective way of describing any chain of events, and should be acknowledged as such.
We all experience the world differently, and even in our own minds, “the truth” is often an evolving concept, and our telling of it can be reshaped with time.
So when we engage with people’s truths, illusions, or the ways in which people distance themselves from “the truth,” maybe our first reaction shouldn’t be about labelling — or what we believe or want to believe. Is it more important, for example, to deem someone racist, or to provoke the examination of a racist behavior? We can write someone off as a “liar,” but we are all liars. We can write someone off as a racist, but we all have our bigotries, as no one is immune to the social ills that are splashed all over our societies. We do our best to dust that ideological filth away, but we wade through this culture everyday, and are affected by it, in ways that sometimes make us offensive, and at other times, excessively defensive.
I am not saying everyone deserves our emotional labor or investment, but if we are going to critique people’s honesty, I think we should start with our own.
As someone who is constantly trying to sort the truth of my own life, I understand why people sometimes narrate their lives differently than I might, if presented with a particular set of facts. If I care, I may be more inclined to understand why, build trust, and maybe help heal the things that cause them to insulate themselves in such ways — or I may simply respect their right to paint over the secrets they carry. Because it’s okay to have truths that belong to you, and no one else.
I do of course value honesty. When I calculate my level of trust in a person, truth-telling definitely matters. And I do want a world where people don’t feel they have to hide parts of themselves out of shame, because they fear retribution, or because they see too little hope for transformation. But here and now, I care much more about halting harm, healing and building forward than I do about any critique of someone else’s stated truth. If they are not slandering someone or otherwise causing harm, gauging someone’s honesty, as others would define it, isn’t a hight priority for me.
But that’s just one person’s truth.