Monday, April 18, 2011

Honesty Isn't Always the Best Policy

Over at the webzine I regularly write for, Life as a Human, there is an interesting post about the problems that come with overemphasizing a single trait or value in your life. Author Lorne Daniel writes:

We have all met the person who loudly proclaims his or her honesty, at the expense of everything and everyone in their path.

“I just like to be honest,” she says, after trashing a child’s new artwork. Or “frankly, this project isn’t worth a dime” at a business meeting.

“I know I’m blunt,” some people will say, “but I just don’t like to beat around the bush.” Yes, there can be too much avoidance and obfuscation in human interactions. Our language overflows with euphemisms.

Yet in the guise of being clear and up-front, the pusher of honesty is often all about a single-minded focus on his own opinions and an avoidance of reasoned thought. It’s easier to be a bulldozer than a listener.

Although I don't consider myself an overemphasizer in this manner, I have been this person who offers blunt, unrestrained commentary before. In fact, I littered my previous workplace with such statements for a several months, until it became painfully obvious that the strategy was failing and that I was quickly burning all bridges in the process.

As a Zen practitioner, I have seen myself and others overemphasize one Buddhist precept above all the others. Speaking the truth, or not lying, is a common choice here. A literal approach is taken - that it is never ok to lie about anything - and action stems from that belief. During a recent class on this precept at the zen center, there was one person in particular who was pushing this view. He rightly questioned others who were defending lying in certain situations, but couldn't see - it seemed to me - how attached he was to truth telling.

Attachment to view is one concern when overemphasizing a single precept or ethical teaching. Another is simply aggrandizing yourself.

The blunt folks in Lorne's example above often come from a place of self-aggrandizement, believing that they alone have the answers. I was damned well convinced during that low period at my old job that I knew what needed to be done. If I just shouted a little louder, repeated myself a little more, it might sink in. It was, in other words, "all about me and my ideas."

Now, certainly I had some insight there. But I was also ignoring the contributions of others, and failed to pay attention to cues as to how I might be heard more clearly. Being honest in the way I was actually created a dynamic where I missed important information from others, and thus over time, what I was being honest about became less and less truthful. Do you see how that is?

The problem with excessive blunt honesty is the same problem that comes with excessive passivity around the truth. The relational aspect underpinning all of Buddhist practice - and really of all of life - is discounted or ignored. And so no matter how truthful one is being in a particular situation, it's off the mark.

Lorne writes:

We all long for simplicity. Hence, the temptation to adopt one virtue as our personal calling card and run with it. “I’m all about honesty.” Or “all the world needs is more compassion.”

Sure, be honest. And compassionate. And rigorous. And flexible. Give a try at a nuanced, integrated application of human virtues.

This nuanced, integrated approach is really exactly what we Buddhists call skillful means. It's a recognition of the unique coming together that makes up each moment.

Thus, the old saying "Honesty is the best policy" is probably useful for chronic liars, but actually can be poisonous for those who "cannot tell a lie."

*Grant Wood's painting "Parson Weems' Fable (1939), which is based on a popularized story about George Washington and a cherry tree.


Brikoleur said...

Good point. Also applies to conflict and the avoidance thereof, methinks.

Unknown said...

Petteri’s connection with conflict is valid. When the bullied feels they have no choice but to bash the bully, when a country righteously goes to war, when the truth is brutal, we should look to decisions that preceded that situation. When I do this, I find a string of decisions that led me to the point where a hurtful action seemed justified. Skillful action is not just about the critical point of a circumstance, it is a moment to moment process. If I find myself with a dilemma about telling the truth, I know somewhere in the origination of that choice I have strayed from the path.

Was Once said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Was Once said...

It is not a matter of avoiding conflict, but more important to see how right speech comes into play. There is a time for everything, and if you are lifting yourself above others in the name of truth, then maybe it is not the time(skillful means). I am writing this to myself really because I need to hear this!

Nathan said...

"Skillful action is not just about the critical point of a circumstance, it is a moment to moment process." Yep. Very true.

Nathan said...

And no doubt, timing is really important when it comes to truth telling.