Radical Honesty

A. J. Jacobs is a writer and journalist with a rather unusual method of getting his stories. He is not content just to research whatever subject he happens to be writing about. He immerses himself in the subject, actually living out his project to the point of obsession. As it turns out, while doubtless a lot of trouble to his wife and friends, this approach does lead to his writing books both interesting and humorous. His first such book, The Know-It-All chronicled his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, while his second book, The Year of Living Biblically, told of his attempt to live his life according to all of the rules of the Bible for a year.  These aren’t the only experiments that A. J. Jacobs has conducted upon himself. He has compiled some of his minor projects in a book titled The Guinea Pig Diaries.

Cover of "The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life...

Cover via Amazon

One of these projects, and the subject of this post, is a concept called “Radical Honesty“. Radical Honesty is a technique developed by a psychotherapist named Brad Blanton. Radical Honesty is just what the name might implies. Dr.Blanton teaches that we should always be completely honest with one another. This might not seem to be a particularly new or radical concept, sages and moral teachers have been telling for centuries that we ought not to tell lies. Dr. Blanton takes the idea further, however, by insisted that we should always be honest. We shouldn’t tell those little white lies that help to smooth our relationships with others. If your wife asks if the dress she is wearing makes her look fat, say, “yes”. If you don’t want to go out to dinner with a friend, say so and don’t make up, “other plans” or imaginary headaches. If you find yourself desiring your friend’s wife, say so. In fact, Dr. Blanton believes in simply removing the filter between what we think and what we say and do.

Is this a good idea? Well, we should be honest in our dealings with others. As a matter of justice and charity, we ought not to take advantage of people by deceiving them. Honesty, by itself, is not necessarily always necessary or desirable. Honesty is a virtue when it serves the greater virtues I mentioned. It is not necessary to be honest if being honest leads to an evil outcome. It is not necessary to tell the Nazis that you are hiding a family of Jews in the attic, or to tell the robber where you have hidden your money. Even Dr Blanton agrees with this. It is also not necessary to tell the truth if doing so will lead to hurt feelings.You do not have to tell your wife she looks fat and you probably shouldn’t tell your friend you desire his wife. No good can come of such confessions.

There is a subtle line here, though. A. J. Jacobs wrote of an old widower who sent him some poetry he had written and asked Jacobs for his opinion of his writing. Jacobs didn’t think the poems were very good, but wrote an encouraging reply. He could not bring himself to tell the man he though the poems were badly written. Ought he have told the truth about his Opinion. Dr. Brad Blanton thought he should have. He argued that he was not, in fact, doing the man a kindness by lying to him. If his poems weren’t much good, he ought to be told the truth so he wouldn’t waste his time trying to get them published. I sort of agree with Dr. Blanton. Back when Simon Cowell was on American Idol, he was generally disliked  for his cutting criticism of the contestants’ singing, especially during the tryouts. This seemed to be very cruel, yet perhaps he was doing them a kindness by showing them that they lacked the talent to sing professionally, and that they would be well advised to try something else. Perhaps the real cruelty would be to encourage someone to follow a path you know they have no ability to complete simply to spare your own feelings. Perhaps.

I cannot help but feel that what Dr. Blanton has really done is that he has discovered a way to be obnoxious to his neighbors and to have avoided the usual consequences by pleading that he was just being honest. In any event, I am not convinced that getting rid of the filter between the brain and the mouth is such a good idea.A. J. Jacobs was not convinced either, as he explained while describing his life as George Washington.

That was another one of his projects. Jacobs did not go about dressed in a colonial costume. Instead, he decided to try to live up to George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. The thing that most impressed Jacobs while studying the life of Washington was the tremendous restraint the Founding Father displayed over his emotions. By nature, Washington was a passionate man with a fierce temper. In his youth, he was a rather arrogant, entitled aristocrat who flattered his superiors in person while undermining them behind their backs. Yet, Washington possessed the strength of will to remake himself into a model of decorum and decency. George Washington was supposed to be unable to tell a lie in the famous legend, but I somehow doubt he would think much of Radical Honesty. If Dr. Blanton advises us to remove the filter, Washington spent much of his life creating the filter and making it stronger.

I think the idea behind Radical Honesty is that we ought to be “authentic” or “natural”. Washington would disagree. If he had acted authentically and according to his basic nature, Washington would have remained just another Virginia planter and we would still be a colony of Great Britain. The simple truth is that civilization depends on people restraining their impulses and not doing and saying whatever comes naturally. I said civilization, but I shouldn’t have. The members of any society of human beings, no matter how primitive, must learn to restrain their more selfish feelings and work with the other members of their group. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ideas about “noble savages” who lived entirely with nature were myths. If anything, a tribe of primitive hunter-gatherers would have to have even less tolerance for individual eccentricities than a modern society. I think we are losing this idea of restraint. Any impulse felt must be acted upon and someone else will clean up the mess. I wonder where it will lead us. Nowhere good, I imagine.

I guess the only thing I can say about Radical Honesty is that being honest is a good thing, being radically honest may not be.

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