Friday, 8 January 2010

Put Bluntly

An agnostic and I were talking a while back about Christian beliefs. It turns out she was rather self-righteous, so I don't think it made much impact, but at least she listened to what I had to say.

We were going through some of the Ten Commandments and I asked her whether she had ever told a lie before (as an aside, is this really the proper way to interpret that commandment? To me, it seems to make more sense to interpret it as "don't spread nasty rumours".) She said that she hadn't. Not even a little white lie. In fact, she said, rather proudly, she had a reputation for being brutally honest.

Does she think being brutally honest is a good thing? While I don't believe that she's never uttered a tiny little lie, it's become something of a moot point. I just wanted to give you the background for why I've been contemplating this concept of "brutal honesty".

When Aristotle discusses virtues, he describes something called The Golden Mean. Basically, he says that the extreme on either end of just about anything isn't good. For example, you don't want to be a glutton, but neither do you want to starve yourself. You don't want to be reckless, but neither do you want to be a coward. Being quick to anger isn't good, but neither is being passive. And which is better - to be a miser or an over-spender? Similarly, I expect Aristotle, at least, would agree that brutal honesty is as much a vice as flattery and white lies.

Yet currently it seems to be a popular opinion that if something is natural, it must also be good. So long as something is truthful, it's fine to be brutal with it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (yes, him again!) talked a little bit on a related subject. In his words, exposure is cynical. Some things ought to be concealed. And no, he's not talking about secret keeping in politics or organizations, but about common decency. He goes even further to say that "truthfulness" does not mean "uncovering everything that exists" but means "saying how something really is - that is, showing respect for secrecy, intimacy, and concealment."

I'm not quite sure I understand what he means by all that, but I do agree that society has lost its respect for the art of being tactful and for holding one's peace. Certainly the truth is very important and sometimes the truth hurts, but just putting something out there for everyone to see is not necessarily an honourable way of dealing with it.

At any rate, if I'm talking to someone about their lying habits again and they proudly mention that they're brutally honest, I might just make them defend their coarseness and lack of empathy...

“Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.” Mark Twain


CavDawg said...

I've been ranting to friends about this topic recently, too. I don't know when "brutal honesty" suddenly became an admirable trait.

Good on ya.

Art said...

I am all for truthfulness. I don't think that necessarily means full disclosure on all topics. For example, an atheist government official may ask "Are you harboring any Christians in your basement?". The brutal truth may be "Yes" but the better answer may be "Go suck on sand."

I almost think if someone claims to have never lied, I would trust them less than someone who admitted to lying.