Whatever Happened to Honesty? (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 5 March 2016


My father was a musician. In the 1960s, he designed a music program for the Chicago public school system. He took the soprano recorder — the woodwind flute-like instrument used in Baroque and Renaissance music — and he had it mass-produced in durable plastic. The sound was surprisingly clear and beautiful. He then wrote a teacher’s guide, the Olenick Method, using musical excerpts from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and the like. He was on a crusade to expose children to real music. 

Back in those days, most schools would introduce students to the flutophone as their first musical instrument. It was this screeching flute-like thing.  We’d all learn how to play ear-splitting renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. It was awful.  But Dad had us playing the William Tell Overture on the descant recorder, and it sounded like music. Mention the flutophone in my house and my father would shout out, “A total piece of crap!”

I was 9 years old, at a neighbourhood birthday party, and what were we given as a parting gift? A flutophone. “A total piece of crap!” I shouted out, being honest about how I felt, and echoing my father’s wisdom. I was never invited to that house again.

I was raised to be painfully, brutally honest. It was a hard lesson to learn that honesty does not always serve you well. It took me well into young adulthood to learn how to say, “Sorry, I’m busy tonight,” or “Yes, that shirt looks nice,” rather than what I was really thinking. It seems trivial now, but I had this very strong moral code, combined with some real social awkwardness, that got me into a lot of trouble. 

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes was often seen marching around with a lighted lantern in broad daylight. It was a joke to make a philosophical point. “I’m looking for an honest man,” he would say, sure that he would never find one. True to his philosophy of Cynicism that called for simple living, Diogenes would sleep in a jar in the marketplace, letting it all hang out in ways that his fellow Greeks found scandalous. But Diogenes would say he was just being true to nature, just being honest to himself. Though, if truth be told, he’d been forced to flee to Athens after having been caught in a dishonest monetary scheme. 

Consider all the little lies we tell. Consider the big lies. Are we always honest with ourselves? Are we always honest with each other? A few years ago, a fellow Unitarian Universalist minister in the US told me that he was struggling with that’s month’s theme, which happened to be Honesty. “How can I openly share with members of my congregation the little lies in my own life without losing their trust?” he asked. 

There are some studies that show that a majority of people do lie — everyday. A study conducted in 2002 at the University of Massachusetts claimed that “60% of adults can’t have a ten minute conversation without lying at least once.” In fact, people in the study told an average of three lies per each conversation that was recorded. Of course, most people thought they were among the 40% who don’t lie, until they saw themselves on videotape. 

Another study says that 91% of people lie regularly. Of those interviewed, the majority said they lied to either save face or not to offend others. 

Maybe we’re more honest here in Quebec than elsewhere? I don’t know. In my experience, I certainly find that directness is cultural. I come from a family of New Yorkers who moved to the Midwestern US. Where we came from, you said what you thought. It was no surprise I didn’t fit into local expectations of politeness as a child. A Québécoise friend recently said to me that she finds her own culture comes across as too direct in Anglophone circles. Native English speakers tend to couch things in flowery language. When we don’t understand something, we say, “I’m sorry, but would you possibly mind repeating that, because I’m afraid I didn’t quite hear you.” As opposed to, “Bei, j’ai pas compris.” Is that honesty or a difference in cultural style?

Honesty is something that’s supposed to develop with age. Three and four-year olds tell lies or tall tales as a way to process new ideas. Those imaginary friends are very real in their minds. As children grow, the ability to tell a white lie can demonstrate the development of social awareness and empathy. It’s not nice to hurt someone’s feelings, so you learn to say something kind that you don’t necessarily feel. By adolescence, we can become quite proficient at lying. “Where were you?” your mother asks. “Studying at the library,” you answer. What a relief that she doesn’t notice the grass-stains on your knees.

It’s developmentally appropriate for teens to be secretive. As one psychologist writes, "Kids who tell everything to their parents at age thirteen or fourteen are not growing up.” In fact, researchers find that lying peaks in young adulthood and then decreases during adulthood. But by how much? 

A recent neuroscience study at the University College of London found that each time we lie, “the brain becomes desensitized to the emotional twinge that dishonesty usually causes.” This may be why lying becomes easier with time, and why small lies like “nickel-and-diming on tax returns sometimes balloons into massive fraud, why spousal white lies become deeper secrets, and why scientific misconduct escalates from [purposefully] ’losing’ data to faking findings.”

If we believe the study from the University of Massachusetts, that 60% of people can’t get through ten minutes without telling a lie, that’s pretty scary. Yet, some other studies I read about (note how honest I’m being by not saying I’ve actually read the studies themselves), anyway, some of those studies apparently “found that most people don’t lie very often but a few people lie a lot.”

Which brings me to truth. There’s honesty — the feelings that only we know we have and the actions that only we know we have done, and the reality of what we reveal about those feelings and actions to others. We know how honest we are, or how often we tell the truth.

But truth itself, is another story. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is central to our Unitarian Universalist principles. That’s the fourth principle, right in the centre between how we interact with individuals and how we interact with the planet. This faith is all about how we freely and responsibly search for the truth to inform those relationships. I think of honesty as one part of the equation. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to be honest — to be kindly and responsibly honest. But the search for truth is harder than simply not being dishonest. 

How do we know what is true? Is truth my telling you what I feel is true or is it about the rational and responsible search for truth. In these days of accusations of “fake news” and claims that “alternative facts” or “other facts” are a matter of personal perspective, how do we verify the truth?

According to cognitive scientists Philip Fernback and Steven Sloman, on our own, “individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.”

They argue that what sets us apart from other creatures is not our individual mental capacity, but our ability to “jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. Hunting, trade, agriculture, manufacturing — all of our world-altering innovations — were made possible by this ability. Chimpanzees can surpass young children on numerical and spatial reasoning tasks, but they cannot come close on tasks that require collaborating with another individual to achieve a goal. Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats.”

They write, “Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared.”

Of course, reading this makes me very happy. That’s what I’m always saying. We may each be on an individual spiritual path, but we come together because we can’t do this alone. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is not a solitary endeavour. It’s something that needs to be done in community.

But let’s be honest. We’re watching a world that is getting lost in misinformation. We’re seeing groups of people convince each other through the lies they share, because the lies have become the truth that they want to hear.  But before we point our fingers at others, we have to be sure that we aren’t doing the same. Just because we feel something is true, does not necessarily make it true. We may honestly share our emotions about something, but that doesn’t mean that we’re always dealing with truth.

We say we dare to question, but sometimes we stand too firmly in our positions and we aren’t really listening to anyone else. We’ve got to engage, take risks to share our knowledge, and to let others share their knowledge, so that together we can refine our understanding.

This balance between honesty and truth is also spiritual work. The other day someone said to me that talking about honesty brought back memories of their repressive religious upbringing. To tell lies was to sin, and to be guaranteed that you would burn in hell. 

I suppose that if we humans are prone to being less than honest all the time, it would make sense that we would want to call upon an external God to keep us in line. But that image of a God who punishes us for our imperfect humanity does not fit into our Unitarian or Universalist theologies. Some of us simply don’t believe in God, and those of us who do, are more likely to see a transcendent, loving force in the world that we humans too often ignore. Rather than look for reasons to punish ourselves, we look for ways to overcome what makes us turn in on ourselves. We look for ways to overcome what makes us fear being honest with others.

There is this image of a God who walks in the world, the God who walks in the Garden of Eden, but I don’t see it that way. What I see is that together we embody the mind, the heart, the hands and the feet of whatever the positive force may be that can move us toward truth.

Everyday, we need to remind each other that honesty matters, that truth and facts really matter. If we isolate ourselves we can become lost in our self-delusion. That’s why we need one another.

Maybe we need to reconsider the lies we tell to preserve the feelings of others, or to save face. Maybe we need to find ways to creatively speak the truth in love. 

And yes, sometimes a polite white lie is still required. Rewind to that birthday party. I’m 9 years old. As I unwrap that flutophone, I know my father would say “What a piece of crap!” and he’d be right. But I’ll just say, “Thank you very much.”  Someday, when I’m older, I’ll find the right tune.

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