As a writer, a friend, a person, a student, and an employee, I tend to give a lot of thought to honesty; what it means, whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea, and how I feel about it.
To get started, let’s define “honesty.” Honesty is generally accepted as the antithesis of lying, hiding, or covering something up. It is bald-faced. It is The Truth. The problem here is a lot of life’s truths are subjective.
I once spent a week in first grade with my best friend and I ignoring each other, because SHE was WRONG about how to write the letter “e” and she was convinced that it was ME who was wrong. It turns out we were both technically right, but because we were sitting opposite each other, we were really just handicapped by our lack of spatial awareness. The teacher intervened.
And this happens all the time, with values and culture and religion and politics. Which is why, for the sake of this writing, I’m going to clarify. When I say “honesty,” I mean intentional honesty – not the Indisputable Facts of the Universe – but the kind of honesty where you’re trying hard to communicate how things look or feel from where you’re at.
With definitions down, we move on to the ha-ha-should-I-really-be-saying-this-out-loud conundrum. And this one is personal, folks. I’m not going to tell you when to tell the truth, or to whom, or on what subject. I will, however, explain how I approach it.
I tell the truth until I think telling the truth is a stupid idea.
Why I tell the truth most of the time: I believe that honesty is the truest form of activism. People are complex and confusing, and when that gets brought to light, stereotypes crash and fall. When I’m honest about my life, it becomes really obvious that I don’t actually fit any particular stereotype. I’m female, and I like getting hatchets and geeky action figures for Christmas. I also really, really love cute underwear, and tiny utensils. And this goes for everything – gender, sexuality, hobbies, political leaning, religion/spirituality, age, mannerisms, etc. People are incredible varied creatures.
I consider breaking stereotypes activism, because I view ignorant assumptions as the cause for most conflict. When strangers go from being “them weirdos” to “real people”, the conversation is open and blanket justification is no longer an option.
When I stop telling the truth: I stop telling the truth when it becomes impractical. When it hurts people I love (without that hurt being necessary in a larger conversation or situation). When it gets in the way (like telling a customer that I think they’re fucking stupid and creepy and I just really want their money). When it has legal ramifications (like when it’s summer and I’m too hot walking around town and wearing clothes feels like a lie, but going full naked gets me arrested). And when I’m too vulnerable to face the scrutiny of the public (I have scars that are healing, but aren’t quite ready to be displayed and poked yet).
That pretty much covers it. And while I recognize that I’ve got a pretty reasonable philosophy worked out, the lying part can still sometimes suck. As I see it, there are two reasons for this, and both of them are culturally perpetuated.
If you have to lie, it’s because what you’re doing is wrong. Shame on you. You don’t tell people about embarrassing things, because it’s awkward and makes you blush, right? Yeah, sometimes that’s the case for me. It may line up that I’m lying about a mistake I’ve made, or something I, or someone else, considers wrong. It may line up that I’m completely honest about it, even if it’s hard. And that’s because my honesty (or lack of it) isn’t based on shame and the avoidance of shame. But the stigma attached to telling tall tales is pervasive enough that I catch myself feeling sad every once in a while, buying into it on reflex.
Why can’t you just suck it up for the cause? You’re lying because you’re a coward! Sometimes I don’t tell the full truth because I’m scared of people’s reactions. But being worried about real consequences (getting fired, getting kicked out while still underage, not being ready to deal with insults on a certain topic, etc.) is not cowardice. I’m choosing to weigh the risks and protect myself and the ones I love. Could I just “suck it up for the cause”? Yes, and it would be a one-shot waste of effort that I could have been using elsewhere – in areas that won’t take rejection like an arrow to the knee, and will have a much stronger impact.
Honesty and lying, much like anything else, cannot be cut into black and white. To simplify truth/perspective, fact/subjectivity, open/shameful, or good/bad is to take away the nuances of being human; the richness of expression, or the details that make us individuals. So no, I may not be honest or dishonest all the time, but I’m fairly honest about being dishonest, and that suits me fine.