If you search for tenderness
it isn’t hard to find.
You can have the love you need to live.
But if you look for truthfulness
You might just as well be blind.
It always seems to be so hard to give.
Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
— Billy Joel
You can’t handle the truth!
— Col. Nathan R. Jessep
I spent some time today thinking about and discussing honesty. Here are some left over thoughts from that conversation:
Honesty is hard, no matter how you slice it. It is hard to tell the best truth of your understanding at all times, and, sometimes, it isn’t even the right thing to do. It has limits, and negotiating those limits is a challenge.
Maybe it helps to talk about the associated concept of openness. Openness clearly has its limits. If I ask you for your credit card number, Social Security number, bank account number and the combination to every lock you know and where that lock is, it is not dishonest for you to not tell me any of those things. Similarly, if I asked you how good sex with your spouse was, it’s not dishonest to not answer — these things aren’t my business. Reasonable privacy isn’t dishonest. And what of situations where we are being coerced for these kinds of answers? Does our integrity demand that we either give answers which are truthful or remain silent?
It might also help to talk about lying. Lying is clearly dishonest. But there is more to lying than saying things which aren’t true.
It’s not enough to be able to lie with a straight face; anybody with enough gall to raise on a busted flush can do that. The first way to lie artistically is to tell the truth — but not all of it. The second way involves telling the truth, too, but is harder: Tell the exact truth and maybe all of it…but tell it so unconvincingly that your listener is sure you are lying.
— Robert. A. Heinlein
Lying is less about telling untruth than it is about misleading — leading someone to a false conclusion intentionally. Leaving your boss or spouse with an incorrect understanding of something, whether by saying something untrue or leaving out some important truth, or simply stating it in a way that leads them to draw the wrong conclusion is still a lie.
But what about lies which accomplish good things? Part of the preparation for the D-Day invasion was an elaborate and carefully carried out deception targeted at Hitler, which indicated that the main invasion of France would come at Calais, under the command of Gen. Patton, with the invasion of Normandy being merely a feint intended to draw defenders away from Calais. This deception included creating fake diplomatic documents, placing them in a briefcase handcuffed to the uniformed body of a dead prisoner and dropping the body where it would wash ashore in German-controlled territory, along with broadcast interviews with Gen. Patton, and maneuvers made with inflated tanks and playing recorded movements of heavy equipment and tanks reflecting a huge number of troops which simply didn’t exist. This deception was key to the success of the invasion — without it, the invasion at the very least would have required many more Allied dead than it did, and may have failed. Similarly, the Imperial Japanese leaders were given the strong impression that the US was prepared to continue dropping atomic bombs on their cities on a regular basis indefinitely, when, in fact, the bomb on Nagasaki had taken years to prepare, and they had no others available. Without that strong impression, they would not have surrendered, and, instead, would have required a long and bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands which would have cost millions of American lives, and millions more Japanese lives, as they intended to fight until the last civilian. These are but two lies the Allies told during the war which led to the Allied victory, the end of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan, and the saving of many lives on both sides. Were they justified? Or would it have been morally superior to have avoided them, and fought a longer, harder war, with more suffering and the outcome less sure — a world where Hitler remained in power and in control of Europe, for instance, and where thousands of young Japanese men turned every available airplane in Japan into a guided missile that they piloted to their deaths in kamikaze raids on troop transports until the death toll was so large that the American people demanded a negotiated peace, rather than unconditional surrender?
I don’t know. The answers aren’t easy for me to find. I don’t know how to say that some lies are okay and some are not, and how to tell the difference. I don’t know how to frame honesty in such a way that it is balanced properly against every other relevant consideration. But I do think that it’s important that we try to become more honest, and to build lives that don’t require lies and unhealthy secrets to maintain.
A key piece in that process is hinted at by the two quotes at the top — we can support other people in being honest when we prepare ourselves to accept the truth without penalizing those who tell it to us. People will tell the truth more frequently if they believe it will not hurt those they care about or themselves. Similarly, avoiding asking questions that invite lying will help as well — questions like “Do these pants make my butt look big?” or “Do you think she’s pretty?” or “Am I the best lover you’ve ever had?” These run the risk that an honest answer will hurt our feelings, and people who care about us will not want to do that. As we become better able to handle the truth, we are more likely to be trusted with it, and honesty can increase.