The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Regarding Honesty

Shaun challenged me on a statement:

“Next, I am going to challenge you on this statement: "a lie is as bad as the offence it conceals".

There are actually two important questions here, and you have ignored the first one.__1) Are you the kind of person who lies? _2) Of the lies you've told, how bad are they?

"Respect for the truth comes close to being the basis for all morality."_- Frank Herbert__I believe that, in general, the first question only occurs to conservatives.”
Steve: Then you are simply wrong on this issue. This is roughly equivalent to a liberal saying that “the question of what is most fair between human beings occurs only to liberals” or any other sweeping statement of the “we rule, you drool” variety.

"At best, with respect to Scooter and Bill, liberals assume, "All politicians lie, so how bad was the lie?" At worst, liberals assume, "Everyone lies, so how bad was the lie?" "
Again, sweeping statements from the “my political opponents are either knaves or fools” school.

I cannot speak for “Liberals” as a group, although I will say that I’ve found them neither more or less moral, intelligent, or compassionate than conservatives. I DO think that they tend to be more likely to believe that human nature is more malleable (existence precedes essence) than conservatives (essence precedes existence.) Just my opinion, but the vast majority of the differences seem to come down to this.

I can comment on my own attitude about honesty. You can then apply this to whatever you consider me to be politically, and if you wish, generalize to an entire group.
The first of Musashi Miyamoto’s principles is “Do Not Think Dishonestly.” Now, I’ve seen this translated several different ways, including “Harbor no sinister designs” such that it seems to be a statement that includes both concern for an accurate grasp of reality, and a warning against cheating others.

The usefulness of a map comes from two things: knowing where you are going (goals) and accurate perception of where you currently are (clarity.) Absent either of these, the smartest, strongest person will just walk in circles until they run out of energy. In life, we all know brilliant people who just can’t get their shit together. This is what I see when I look at them.

Between human beings, honesty is equally important. Without it, a relationship is torn into pieces, and friendships wither. When it comes to our leaders, we have an even greater need for it, because we need to be able to trust them concerning arenas where we have no direct knowledge, and are pretty much at their mercy.

So…Bill Clinton lying about whether he had sex with Monica? Bad. But certainly no worse than having the sex in the first place. And since I didn’t vote for him on a morals ticket, I wouldn’t react the same way I would if, say…my parish priest was boffing a choir girl behind his wife’s back. My question would be: does this man make sound decisions as Chief Executive? Powerful men screwing around is a fact as old as powerful men. Or screwing. My only real objection has to do with the nature of his agreement with his wife. If he broke his agreement with her, this is a bad thing, for certain. If she had run screaming, I’d think less of him. But for whatever reason (and we on the outside can only speculate) she did not. So my sense is that this was an unfortunate situation, but do I really know if they have an open relationship, with an agreement to keep it quiet? But I’m back to the question of whether he makes a good Chief Executive based on the governmental decisions he makes. And you know what? In general, it’s fascinating that most of those who liked him as a Chief Executive weren’t appalled by the sex and lying anywhere near as much as those who OPPOSED Clinton as a Chief Executive, which makes me think that the outrage was partially manufactured: in other words, had Clinton been a Conservative Republican, the percentages of those appalled and supportive would have been just about switched the other way, and Democrats would be wringing their hands about how our moral society is going to the dogs. Feh.
There are a string of “Ifs” connected with the Scooter Libby situation, but IF Cheney and Bush used the “Outing” of Valerie Plame as a warning to those criticizing the war effort, and “If” there were deliberate lies used to manipulate us into Iraq, and “If” as a result of her outing, operatives connected to Plame were compromised and perhaps arrested or killed (all of these things have been said by former CIA people) then this situation is almost uniquely bad, and dangerous for our country in a way a blowjob could never hurt us. Thousands dead, hundreds of billions spent, decades of diplomacy and good will burned for little good, and quite possibly a net increase in terror. IF those initial presuppositions are correct, this is an absolute horror-show.

If you believe that the entire Plame affair was a piffle, well then, of course the Clinton lie looms larger (and it wasn’t exactly a lie…it was something no better than a lie, however—a deliberate attempt to mislead the investigators. If they had asked: “did that woman perform oral sex on you” and he’d said “no” THAT would have been a straight-out lie. But for at least a decade before the testimony, I’d noticed that for many Southerners, genital sex is one thing, and oral sex another. Genital sex is called “relations,” so when he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I knew exactly what he was doing. Like I said: not exactly a lie, but not the truth either.)
The question of what I excuse in other people has to go deeper. Is it “everybody lies”? Well, sort of. Deeper. Try “we are incapable of really knowing what ultimate truth is” or “the first job of an adult human being is to see reality as it is” (which is a contradiction with the first statement.) Hmmm. Try this one “the first job of an adult human being is to COMMIT to perceiving reality as it is, and responding to that reality with the greatest level of honesty they can muster.”

This still doesn’t quite touch it. And for that, I apologize. Let me make this more personal.

I try very hard to be as honest as I can. To that end, I constantly compare my ideas about the structure of the world against my results in three different categories: fitness, finances, and relationship. And I assume that when I fall short, I have screwed up. My reality map is wrinkled, or I have been dishonest about what I see. And I take as much responsibility here as I humanly can.

But friend, don’t you see the ego trap here? Think about it for ten seconds…
All right, here’s the trap. And this is a real snarl, a Gordian knot that is dangerous enough to brain you.

1) All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Remember that line? Phrased another way: nobody’s perfect. Or look at the Hero’s Journey, and note that FAILURE and the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL are absolutely essential parts of the process. Add to this that human senses are fallible. And memories. Add to this the fact that the Ego will resist with everything in its arsenal to keep you from climbing to the next level, especially guilt, blame, and shame.

So…say you have to lose some weight. Start a diet and exercise program. YOU WILL ABSOLUTELY FAIL. Now, if you give yourself an endless raft of shit about falling off the horse, then your ego wins—you “tried” and “failed” and hell, what’s the use. This is where the ability to forgive yourself is so dead-bang important. Those who cannot get frozen. On the other hand, forgiving yourself for every failure can also be over-done: people just refuse to take responsibility for negative patterns, repeating them endlessly, and forgiving themselves every time. Feh.

So the optimal pattern walks between these two extremes. Forgiving yourself for failure to live up to your own standards, while always pushing harder and harder, or going deeper and deeper. It’s tough, trust me.

2) Let’s say that at this point in my life, after many years, I am pretty good at keeping promises to myself. I have the woman of my dreams, make plenty money, and am in great shape. And I identify the critical path to these things (which I hallucinate all people really want) as being honesty and integrity and “goodness” or something.

Dear God. If I did that…what in the hell do you think I’d see when I look out in the world? How many people are successful, or healthy, or worthy of respect if I looked at ALL THREE arenas, and judged them by what I saw?

When someone has an opinion that varies wildly from mine, I look at these three arenas. If they beat me in all three, I pay VERY careful attention to their reality map. If they’re even-steven I give their map respect. If they have serious flaws in one or two of these areas, I withhold judgment. If they are flawed in all three I am politely disinterested.

But how close is that to contempt? If I held the world to the same standard I hold myself to, unless I felt compassion for the human condition, unless I recognized that we are all flawed, all working with the same existential bullshit, I’d respect no one but Steve Perry.

Just kidding.

But can you see my problem here? The cost for believing that no one is better than me is grasping that I’m not better than anyone else. The instant I slide away from that position, my ego will measure the rest of the world according to MY standards (which no one has any obligation to measure up to) and suddenly I look pretty damned good. And most of the world would look like sickly, lying, damaged goods. They would look like retarded children too deluded to see that they are too sick to have healthy relationships, too lazy to lose weight, too stupid to build a satisfying career.

I mean this very very seriously. As you dig deeper into yourself, the temptation to say “Hey! If you’re not doing this there’s something wrong with you!” is fantastically high.

What stops me? Basically, knowing that no matter how far and how fast you run, everyone is the same distance from the horizon. That’s not to say I’m totally morally relativistic: no child molester is gonna baby sit my son.

Nor does it mean that I excuse all behaviors. Do I love my enemy? Sure. Will I blow your head off if you break into my house? You bet. But I won’t be ANGRY with you about it.

If I judge without forgiving, what in the hell do you think would happen to my relations with white people? Do you honestly think that if I were judgmental, I wouldn’t have a raft of current and historical shit, enough to generate enough raw hatred to want to kill? I suggest that anyone who knows me (and some of you have known me for thirty years) look at two things:

1) how gentle I am in everyday life. Anyone out there ever heard me raise my voice? Threaten anyone? In any way?
2) How much I love and practice violent sports, love writing violent books, love violent movies.

What do YOU think all of that’s been about?

Let’s take it further. If I didn’t forgive, if I didn’t see both the eternal nature of the soul AND the conditioning influence of reality, I’d have contempt for black people. I mean, gee, if the average person has a bad relationship, doesn’t make much money (or hates their job) and is in poor shape, and I am contemptuous of THAT, then add the raft of problems black people (either here or in Africa) have: poverty, crime, disease, illiteracy, illegitimacy, etc…

And without perspective, I’d consider them less even than the white people I’ve already established are beneath me.

Hmmm. So, without compassion, understanding, forgiveness, not only do I lose perspective on myself, become incapable of protecting myself from my Ego’s frantic attempts to preserve itself, but I’d isolate myself from most of mankind, hallucinating that because I score high in these three important but artificial categories, I am somehow “better” than other people. And I’d hate myself for the black blood that connects me to the po’ black folks. And hate and despise white folks because with all of the advantages I craved, and cried myself to sleep as a child for not having, most of them really ain’t that much, and have a fantastic capacity to delude themselves into believing they and their culture are superior.

No. There is no joy down that road. So…people are people to me. Forgiving others means the ability to forgive myself. Seeing the way we have all fallen short of our potential keeps me sane. Seeing myself in every human being I meet fills me with love and compassion.

And frankly, when I meet people who are balanced in these three ways, they seem to be more open than average, more accepting of the flaws of others, less judgmental even as they strive for excellence, and encourage it in others.

I think that honesty is the hardest thing. The first thing. And the first thing to go when people are in pain. If I can forgive myself for my past sins, and move forward toward my future, I must first see how we’re all in this mess together.

That’s not a “liberal” point of view. That’s my point of view. Label it more broadly at your own risk.

Too many labels, and you obscure the very thing you seek to understand.

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