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.
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?