Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Radical Honesty, Part 2

Please start with Part 1, below.

Now that I've made my own default views somewhat clear, I can talk about what radical honesty is, and the implications. Ed's words to me were that he defines the central imperative of radical honesty as, "Be as open as humanly possible, and then minimize harm." (That's a loose paraphrase, not a direct quote. Feel free to correct me in the comments, Ed.)

I would break it down into two imperatives: never lie, and always share relevant information. To me, it's akin to a monastic discipline like abstinence or silence. I had a lover with whom I practiced radical honesty, a long time ago, and it was a real challenge, and led to a lot of insights, but it was very difficult and made our relationship pretty dramatic at times. I think it's a good thing to try at least once, assuming you have a partner willing to try it with you.

There are two related things that I'm really enjoying about Ed, and one is directly this matter of honesty. Sometimes he says exactly the wrong thing, and other times he says something so great you can't believe you're hearing it; you believe him in the latter cases because of the former. And because he (compulsively? by choice?) brings up problems almost immediately (which I know partly from tracking his relationship with Mel on their blogs, and hearing about it from him), you really can know that "no news is good news" - it's really not likely that he's saving up things to gripe about later. And if you ask him a question, you'll get a (sometimes painfully) true answer. All of this has a way of being comforting even while it is challenging.

I'm experiencing this as a relief from Mosch's more strategic approach to honesty, but, as I have told both of them, I could just as easily experience Mosch's tact and care as a relief from Ed's bluntness.

I know from the past that I am capable of radical honesty when I choose, so I am trying this with Ed as well. I had an opportunity recently to reassure him in a way that was so cost-free and so ultimately meaningless, and yet so potentially painful to withhold, that only an idiot or a total jackass would have withheld it, and yet I did so because answering the question that way was not quite truthful. And when I told him later that I would have answered differently for anyone else, he thanked me sincerely for the honesty. The guy knows what he wants, and so far he can take it as well as dish it out.

His wanting it doesn't make it the best strategy for me. Probably my best strategy given his preferences would be to do enough to give the appearance of radical honesty, while still being strategic the rest of the time. But I am willing to risk harm to my interests - and to his - in order to actually give him what he wants in this way.

Or at least to try.


Debbie said...

This strikes me as one of those things that could work, but often doesn't. It reminds me of two of my friends who used to always tell their dates that they were into dating multiple people. Their dates were generally disappointed to hear this but generally agreed to it.

One person quit doing this after a while because he realized that none of his dates were ever really okay with it, no matter how much they claimed they were.

The other continued much longer until he got evidence that someone he was with was seeing another person and realized that maybe he wasn't as okay with this idea as he thought he was.

That said, I do think it's possible to work if it really is okay with both people.

I don't guess I've ever done this perfect truth-telling myself, though I do tend to gravitate toward people with minimal social skills who blurt out whatever. Though that can hurt sometimes, that's normally only when the truth hurts. It would be even worse if I were still ignorant of the painful truth.

I do less well with people who do subtle hints because those hints tend to go over my head.

Now people with actual tact, who can tell you stuff you don't want to hear in such a way as to minimize the pain? Rare and wonderful.

Sounds like a good adventure.

Sally said...

This reminds me (and sorry, this is rather a digression even by my standards, but I'm feeling self-indulgent) of those logic puzzles of the form:

There are two kinds of people. The Liars always lie and the Truth-tellers always tell the truth. [blah blah] One of the people says "[Whatever]" - is he a Liar or Truth-teller?

My answer to this is: He is a Liar. Truth-tellers do not exist.

But back to radical honesty - there appears to me to be a fair amount of room to maneuver in the vagueness of the phrases "be as open as humanly possible" and "share relevant information" - this isn't necessarily the same as being honest or telling the truth all of the time. It would be easy to characterize an unpleasant reality as "not relevant" and thus not something that needs to be shared. To me, of course, the effect of this is not a bad thing, but it does dilute the "radicalness" of the position and leaves open the possibility of increased self-delusion over a more mediated kind of honesty in which you recognize/acknowledge that you are not going to be pointlessly honest.

Also it seems to me that "be as open as humanly possible, and then minimize harm" could lead to things like (to take an utterly trivial example) feeling good about yourself saying to your lover when you're about to go out on a date, "Wow, you really do look fat in those jeans! Not that there's anything wrong with that. I long ago accepted that you were always going to be a kind of physically unattractive person and that I like you for these other reasons."

I mean, this is being open, if that is what you were thinking at that exact moment, but of course, people do not say every single thing that ever goes through their head. By necessity, you have to pick which of your myriad thoughts you are going to share. Given this, doesn't it seem like there is/should be a consideration of whether the statement is harmful *before* you make it?

If you are not bothered by comments about your fat ass, substitute some other more hurtful truth (truth from your lover's perspective that is) - say, "Wow, you really aren't very good at math, are you? That's OK, a lot of people aren't very smart, and I don't hold this against you and I love you very much." What purpose does saying this serve? If you are, for example, a math major, your lover might very well be able to justify this as "relevant information" but it is actionable? Does it make a difference to anything? Is it just kind of, well, mean, when it comes down to it?

I am obviously not accusing Ed of being likely to say anything like this, etc. I have totally moved away from the Ed-ness of the position to understanding the wider implications as I see them. And it seems to me that this kind of approach (as I understand it) is consistent with both greater lying to oneself (in a fundamentally nice person) and permission to be sort of an asshole in saying whatever you want (in a fundamentally less nice person).

Thus spake the curmudgeonly critic. Next: Why puppies are over-rated.

Actually, driving to work today through the small stretch of residential neighborhood on my route, an adorable little dachshund crossed the street in front of my car far enough away that I was able to just enjoy looking at him and did not have any 'oh shit I'm going to kill this dog' feeling that harshes the joy of watching a goofy dog on the move. In my living on <4 hours sleep and hence half-brain-dead state, I found it quite cheering. I'm not *totally* hopeless.

Jason Galbraith said...

"I had a lover with whom I practiced radical honesty, a long time ago, and it was a real challenge, and led to a lot of insights, but it was very difficult and made our relationship pretty dramatic at times."

You have always been one of the most honest people I know. In that respect you are indeed a radical in the best sense.

Perhaps I should be saying so in a private e-mail, but the drama (which as you know pales in comparison to the less nobly motivated drama I have experienced in other relationships) was worth it! And to be remembered in this forum for a positive difference I made, or helped you make, is even more worth it! Especially on a day that I was feeling just no good in general at anything! Bless you!