Radical Honesty

Just read an article in Esquire about the Radical Honesty movement.  It was exciting.  I knew there were one or two people out there as committed to honesty as I am, but I didn’t know that there were enough to constitute a movement.  Or that there was a guru of sorts, and workshops.

Honesty has always been an important part of my identity.   The first time I saw the subject of radical honesty addressed seriously in print was in Spider Robinson’s story Satan’s Children.  Reading it was like an epiphany – the kind where you feel like something you’ve always known deep down has been confirmed.  And, in fact, Brad Blanton, the psychotherapist leading the movement, sounds almost suspiciously like the drug wizard Wesley George from the story.

I’ll go ahead and quote the story again.  I know I quote it a lot, but it’s important to me and I think the essence of it is potentially life-changing.

Even those of us who pay only lip service to the truth know what it is, deep down in our hearts. And we all believe in it, and know it when we see it. Even the best rationalization can fool only the surface mind that manufactures it; there is something beneath, call it the heart or the conscience, that knows better. It tenses up like a stiff neck muscle when you lie, in proportion to the size of the lie, and if it stiffens enough it can kill you for revenge. […] Most people seem to me, in my cynical moments, to keep things stabilized at about the discomfort of a dislocated shoulder or a tooth about to abscess. They trade honesty off in small chunks for pleasure, and wonder that their lives hold so little joy. Joy is incompatible with tensed shoulders and a stiff neck. You become uneasy with people in direct proportion to how many lies you have to keep track of in their presence.

You can read the whole thing online for free.

I like where Blanton is going.  I think I might like going to one of his workshops. 

I agree with his thesis that the communication which results from honesty is often far more positive and constructive than people imagine it will be.  Quoting the article:

That’s one thing I’ve noticed: When I am radically honest, people become radically honest themselves. I feel my resentment fade away. […] In fact, all my relationships can take a whole lot more truth than I expected.

I also agree with Blanton that you need to look people in the eye… radical honesty isn’t effective via email.

Honesty is hard in this culture.  Not just because everyone expects everyone else to lie.  But because people have lost touch with what the truth is.

I see so much passive-aggression masquerading as honesty.  Posting notes on your LiveJournal or Facebook about "certain people who shall not be named" is passed off as honesty when it’s really passive-aggressive, drama-mongering cowardice.

But the real problem is that people don’t think critically about the distinction between perception and reality.  Every time I hear the phrase "I just tell it like it is" I brace myself for a barrage of subjectivity.  I’m not saying I’m objective.  Nobody’s objective.  That’s the point.  You can’t even begin to address honesty without first confronting the fact that everything you see, everything you understand about your world is colored and shaped by your limited human perception.  The first step towards honesty is realising that honesty is not the same thing as truth.

That’s what very few people seem to get.  You’re not telling it like it is.  Ever.  It’s a physical impossibility.  You’re telling it like you see it, always.

And even then, I see "telling it like I see it" abused.  Because it’s truly rare that someone truly tells everything they see.  What you’re really getting is a slice of their perception, filtered through their mood – anger, condescension, disinterest.  When was the last time you sat down to describe down every single object in your field of vision?  Much less every feeling and impression you have of someone you know?

Beyond that, there’s a thing called tact which I don’t think is in conflict with honesty.  For every potentially hurtful statement there is a positive, constructive way to put it, and a dozen and a half negative, communication-killing to put it.  The constructive statement usually requires more thought, and often requires deliberate calming and release of negativity before it can be composed.  It’s the difference between "apparently you enjoy living in a pig sty" and "Is this wrapper on the floor yours?  Would you mind throwing it away?".  It requires attending to and caring for our internal sense of outrage BEFORE speaking up.  Is that dishonesty?  Or mindful, humane honesty?

I don’t know if I agree with Blanton about saying every little thing that comes to mind.  As my understanding of honesty has matured (curdled?), I’ve adhered more and more to the principle "if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all".  Honesty doesn’t necessarily mean full disclosure at all times.  And yet– Blanton’s approach makes me question myself.  Have I gone too far?  There’s a fine line between holding back and lying by omission.  I’ve crossed the line in the past and the guilt still stings.  Maybe the only trustworthy antidote to slipping into deceptive silence is to say whatever comes to mind.

One thing is certain: I’ve deliberately held back from jumping in to the deep end of radical honesty.  I see it as a goal that I’m working towards slowly and deliberately, trying to balance my need for transparency with my also strongly-held value of being humane and not shocking loved ones unnecessarily.  There may have been a time when I got a charge out of being a "freak" and making people’s jaws drop.  Now I derive no joy from it.  I am unashamed of who I am, but I don’t see confrontation as a virtue in and of itself.

So I hold back.  I keep a chinese wall between some of my online identities.  I politely deflect certain questions when I’m with the in-laws and change the subject (a tactic I don’t consider dishonest).  I don’t write much on  my journal any more – partly because I have no time, but partly because I’m less confident now about the line between transparency and being a show-off – or a coward who writes online what he should be saying in person (and in private).  I will answer any direct question in person, but I am more and more leary of discussing some subjects online.  I believe in the principle of radical honesty, but I don’t think the willingness to share translates directly into the obligation to broadcast.

For the record, I don’t think I have much more than the average person to reveal.  This isn’t a roundabout way of alluding to some huge secret I’m holding back.  Anyone who is familiar with my life and has been following it for a few years is unlikely to be terribly shocked by anything going on with me.  It’s not about big secrets, it’s about wanting to to be open, even with the little things.

Still, articles like the Esquire one make me turn the light of introspection on myself and question where I’m at with the whole honesty thing, where I’m going, and whether I’m making progress.  Certainly I haven’t given it a lot of concerted thought lately.  And yet my life has been steadily moving down the course I set years ago, a course calculated to make honesty and transparency compatible with the rest of my lifestyle.  E.g. getting away from defense contracting so I don’t have to worry about a blog post affecting my employability. 

Is that enough for now?  Or is it time to consider further steps?  When does the desire to protect people from information which (I perceive) would profit them nothing and potentially disturb them cross the line from kindness to cowardice?  What is my timeline?  In what year do I expect to achieve full-on, no reservations, transparency?  When do I plan to unclench my shoulders for the last time and let the chips fall where they may from then on?

View All


  1. In defense of transparency. . .sometimes

    You surely knew I would chime in here.

    I don’t know how dr honesty expert in the story would view this, but my take on it is that it is equally dishonest to be honest when you don’t feel like it. I am a pretty honest person. I don’t go in for white lies, and I don’t lie to people I care about. On the other hand, there is so much crap in my brain that if I tried for radical honesty ala this article I would NEVER SHUT UP. (See exhibit A, the livejournal I had to delete because of my divorce)

    My girlfriend Dana was supposed to come over today and make dinner. She called and left a message “I’m really sorry, but I didn’t manage my time well this weekend and I have to bail on you. I’ll make it up to you.” Or something pretty close to that. I appreciate it. I prefer it to people making excuses to me. I don’t resent it. It happens. People are people. I don’t know that she would have said that to any other friend of hers. But people who know me know that I resent lame excuses far more than I resent people being human beings. I think most people in the western world aren’t ready to accept the fact that people are human beings. Our society is fucking vindictive.

    Contrary to what dr shock therapy says in that article, I think one of the most liberating things about radical honesty is the ability to admit when you’ve screwed up. People spend so much time thinking up defenses for screwing up, coming up with rationalizations to explain why or why it’s not that big of a deal or why they really didn’t screw up after all if you view it in a certain way. It’s so much easier just to say “Oops, my bad. I’ll fix it.”

    One of the biggest reason I am such a mess right now is that I don’t know if I will be allowed to be honest for the next 20 years. There isn’t much in my life that I care enough about to make myself that neurotic, but to lose my children because I am interested in BDSM with consenting adults and don’t see any point in lying about just flips me out. I don’t know how to deal with that. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other, but society assumes that if you like BDSM you must also like beating your children and inviting them to the orgies that you surely must have every weekend because you are that kind of freak. What? God people are stupid.

    This falls into the same category as lying to government officials. I’ve said this before about transparency too. I’d lie to a man with a gun to my head in a heartbeat. I’d lie to anyone I knew meant me harm. I’d never lie to someone I was close to. I’d never lie to you. I’d never lie to Dana. I don’t lie to my parents. I don’t lie to my brother. On the other hand, I’d lie to my sister-in-law in a heartbeat. I’d lie to your wife. (there’s some rational honesty that’s probably going to get me in trouble) I’d lie to Gregg, now, though I never did while we were married. That transparency is sure screwing me now.

    I lie to my children about fanciful things, but it doesn’t feel like lying. I built Rose a fairy garden, and every once in a while I put a little led light from ikea in it at night, and bring her out on the deck and show her the fairies that moved in. She loves it. If she goes to look for them, they “fly away.”

    My children believe in Santa Claus. I don’t really talk about him much, but everyone else in my family does, and I think that’s okay. If they ever come to me and say “mommy, does Santa really exist?” I won’t lie. But I see no harm in letting them believe it as long as they want to. People, even adult people, believe a gabillion different fanciful things that make them happy. When you get into adult land, things are less certain. You can’t say “Voodoo spirits don’t exist,” you have to say “I don’t believe in voodoo spirits.”

    That said, I would never lie to my children about life generally, nor have I.

    I don’t think radical honesty is anything like that moron Dr. in the article describes it. There are two sides to it, and he does not address the necessity for a person who is radically honest with others to also be radically honest with himself. A person who does that might find it harder to be so radically judgmental of others.

  2. Have you seen Lie to Me? It’s a new TV series about solving crime by detecting lies through non-verbal cues. In any case, one of the characters participates in radical honesty. It’s not highlighted, but it is interesting to see.

    1. That actually sounds kinda cool. I’ll have to remember that one.

  3. Thank you for posting that. I’m getting that book if I can help it. I posted it on my FB as a way of signaling some of these people that tools like FB should be more useful than announcing when you’re going to bed.

    I would like to hang out and/or play video games. Contact me through one or more of the various channels.

Comments are closed.