To be perfectly honest, nobody is

The implication of the phrase “to be honest” is that when you don’t say it, your statement is a lie. And the sad thing is, this is probably true.

The Cynic philosopher Diogenes is said to have walked through the streets of Athens, waving a lamp in broad daylight, proclaiming he was looking for an honest man. Apparently he never found such a man in Athens, and when we hear this, we’re not surprised.

Most of us value honesty, but few, if any, can rightfully be described by the word. We would like to be, and some others may even think us so, but when we examine ourselves, we know it’s not true (unless, of course, we lie to ourselves first). “There is no one good, no not one,” and no one honest, or anything close.

I can think of nothing more difficult than honesty, that beautiful thing, wonderful to achieve but impossible to grasp. There is but one conception and many misconceptions. To tell the truth is part, but dispelling falsehood is the whole. Many falsehoods help us achieve ends so long as we’re willing to be less strict about the means, and that’s the temptation.

Now, there are two kinds of honesty: moral and intellectual. Moral honesty is easy to recognize, however difficult it is to put into practice. It’s a matter of conscience, behaving as you know you should. You mustn’t lie, but you also mustn’t leave someone with the wrong impression. You mustn’t cheat someone, but you also mustn’t let someone cheat themselves. We breach moral honesty because of consequences. Wanting a certain outcome, we make sure that things, or more really the appearance of things, are stacked in our favor.

Moral honesty, I love when I find, but intellectual honesty I treasure more than gold for it’s more rare and more precious.

Not only is it not a matter of conscience, intellectual dishonesty is often not even conscious. The same skills that are necessary to make decisions or tell a story become dishonest when used to excess, and the line where excess lies isn’t well-defined. To retell something, for example, you have to summarize, paraphrase or give partial direct quotes. You may even have to bring in additional outside information. But a complete reproduction just isn’t feasible.

This modified reproduction can easily be made intellectually dishonest by giving only half of an idea or not making clear that something someone said was sarcastic or in jest. If you’re retelling an argument, you may leave out some point that you weren’t able to give a good response to.

The most frightening thing about intellectual dishonesty is that often, it’s automatic. Because you believe something strongly, you let what you wish were true substitute for what is true and become lost in the seduction. Because your brain is a shape-sorter but with only triangle holes, you actively seek out triangles to fill your mind with and what’s square or round you make fit as a triangle or reject entirely. Who’s surprised, then, that the world looks triangular?

Therein is the danger of ideology. It says the confusing and contradictory is simple and uniform, and though it may be good to strive for what should be or what you think is true, saying something is what it isn’t is the definition of a lie.

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