An Honesty Manifesto
On August 21, 2017, under the shadow of the sun blotted out by the moon in North Carolina, I made an intention to trust. But how can I trust when I am a liar?
There have been almost ten thousand days in my life and I estimate I have told, on average, one lie for each of them. 10,000 instances of deception, and projection of a fake world narrative. The number makes me wonder about the physical effect all these lies have had on the world around me. In a simple, common lie, there’s a profound, hidden intention: to change the world. What is a lie but an attempt at making the world seem different than it really is? How much of that projection comes to fruition? What would the world look like today if I had never told a lie? How was the world changed on the day I told my first lie? When you told your first lie?
We all lie, and the world is the way it is because we lie. If it’s true that all of the events in my past have led me to my present reality, then it’s true that I am in the situation I am in right now – in part – because of lies I have told. Lies have an effect on people and outcomes around us, and whether big or small shifts happen with the telling of each lie, over time lies have an emergent, fractal effect on the outcomes of our lives.
Let’s take that for true.
Each time I have told a lie I have made a small shift in the outcome of my life, but also in the life of the person to whom I told the lie (non-consensually). We live in a world constantly shifted by lies that we tell and are told. With all the billions of relationships that exist between people, and all the billions of lies told every day, it’s hard to imagine the scale of the effect this pattern has on our societies, our economies, our relationships, and our minds. Of course, the world is complex and is affected by many things that have nothing to do with lies, but I hope you join me in trying to single out this one input for the moment.
We all lie, and the world is the way it is because we lie.
If we’re not lying we’re telling the truth, right? Truth is objective reality. It’s the measure of what’s happening in the world around us. Truth is not the product of honesty, it’s the product of reality. It’s impossible for people to measure truth because the simple act of observing the world corrupts it and skews it with bias. In that way, truth is elusive, but nonetheless important. To “tell the truth,” is impossible, because no one knows exactly what the truth (objective reality) is. This does not mean we should not strive to tell the truth, though what’s more important is to express what we believe to be true. This is honesty.
Honesty is simply expressing the truth to the best of your ability. A totally honest person could spend her whole life saying things that are false, that are not facts (not truth), but that does not mean she has ever told a lie. All you need to do to be honest is say what it is you actually believe to be true. Sadly, most people don’t uphold the courtesy to say the things they believe are true, much less not say the things they know are false. Every day, we are bombarded by intentionally false statements, or lies.
I have lied in countless and petty ways. In elementary school, I lied about having a crush on a girl in class because I was embarrassed by the truth. In middle school, I lied about wanting to smoke pot for the first time because I was scared of being seen as not cool. In high school, I lied to my parents, telling them I was sleeping over at a friend’s house when I was really out drinking, because I didn’t want to disappoint them. In college, I lied to an employer, claiming I had restaurant serving experience that landed me a job, because I knew it would get me what I wanted. In my working adult life, I’ve continued to find ways and reasons to lie. Running a business comes with constant pressure to paint a cheery picture of the company’s success and sustainability despite short and long-term doubts presenting themselves every day. In all these cases, I intentionally presented statements I knew were false, which provided value in a way that my reality could not.
Despite their various motivations, all of these lies were based on the same foundation for any lie: creating an alternate personal story in which my “self” (my ego) is aligned with my conception of an ideal self. Of course, this alignment has no evidence to support its existence. My current self is never perfectly aligned who I want to be, and whether that’s good or bad, I didn’t want those around me to know that. So, I created my own facts in hopes of deceiving those around me into believing in that ideal world, that ideal self. In other words, a liar hopes for the ignorance of those around him. The equation of a lie is thus:
And a life full of ignorance I have had indeed. For almost my entire life, I have lived with depression and anxiety, but because of lies I have told, most people in my life are completely ignorant to this. I’m not just referring to the thousands of times I replied “good” when people asked, “how are you?” though that answer was certainly a lie at times. I’m talking about, for example, lying to my dermatologist who prescribed me Accutane, an acne medication with serious mental health side effects. She would ask me monthly during our mandatory check-ins, “have you had suicidal thoughts?” “No,” I would lie. I was sick of having acne as a troubled high schooler, and I was not going to let feeling hopelessly depressed keep me from clearing up my skin, being more attractive/desirable, realizing my ideal self. How dangerous could that lie have been? I have probably devoted much more energy into propagating the story of my life as if I did not have depression, rather than addressing the depression itself. This is the destructive power of dishonesty.
After such a long and consistent history of lying, you might picture me as a worn-out, down on my luck con-artist type, but that’s not the case. I live a very comfortable and privileged life, and I have never faced any substantive consequences for any of my lies. Do I suffer every day from the guilt of such a life of lies? No. Has my reputation suffered as a result of telling lies? No. Do I struggle to prop up the crippling weight from all the lies I have told? No. Do I still consider myself an honest person? Yes, but that’s because the most pervasive and consistent lie I have told is to myself. And that lie is that I can be an honest person, who just happens to tell lies.
You may be asking what I have asked myself many times: who cares? Most lies are “white lies,” that don’t have significant negative consequences. It’s not every day you get to lie about something big like whether you were texting when you rear-ended someone, or if you are cheating on your spouse. Most lies are bland: “I’m well, thank you,” or “I’m late because of traffic.” Shouldn’t we just let these white lies be? Some of them might have even been “good lies,” which are necessary to ensure the comfort and safety of people around us. Do people really want to hear “Actually, I’m having a shitty day. Thanks for asking.”? No, of course not. Just say “good” like everyone else. Keep your negativity, your personal baggage, your truth, to yourself, asshole.
This question of whether lies are an effective tool for creating a comfortable, ideal society is critical. More than anything I hope to convince you that no, they are not. A person for which lies are permissible in order to create a sense of comfort and safety is a person who favors their own feelings over empirical fact, their own opinion over evidence. A person who is not honest to you does not value your consent, as they lure you into a projection they assume you would not have picked otherwise. This person has not reconciled themselves, and can therefore not make progress towards healing. This person is arrogant to think he knows what is right for you. This person creates lies in other people. This person wants an ideal world, but is not willing to listen to how you might contribute to that world. This person is me. This person is you. More than three of these people in a room makes a dishonest society, in which reality, truth, consent are subordinated to a mutually nonconsensual fake story. A dishonest society, where healing, justice, and regeneration cannot exist.
But I don’t want this fake story. I want the real thing. I want to make an ideal world, but I want to know the real world. I want it how it truly is: disgusting, pitiful, and dangerous; untalented, uninteresting, and uncool. I want to know with intimacy the world’s abundance, and its folly. I want the world as it truly is, and I want you as you truly are. I don’t want to hear lies because I reject the “cool structure” that warrants their use. I don’t want to know who you think I think you should be based on a racist, sexist, ableist, ageist, homophobic, transphobic, system of priority. Don’t assume I’m bought in to the social constructs that makes lying seem necessary, and I won’t either. Don’t assume I can’t love you because you’re fucked up, because you, like the world itself, are most beautiful when you are the real you, with all your curves and blemishes. The real world is worth celebrating; it’s our only option. You’re worth celebrating; you’re all either of us has got. If we want to make improvements, fine. But first we have to know what’s real, or our solutions won’t match up. And if there’s no solution to be made, if the traumas of your past make healing impossible, that’s fine too. It is nice to know you. To know you as you truly are. There’s no way to make better what’s already perfect, anyway.
Be honest to your lovers; it’s one of the most romantic things you can do.
My hope is to live in an honest society. I envision a world without lies or deception, where people value truth and facts more than ignorance and comfort. I want to live in a world where people value consent, value people, more than they do social constructs. I want to live in a world that allows for healing. Healing of the planet, healing for all its inhabitants. Where reality is celebrated, for being just as it is: as a starting point for progress, or for the perfection it already is. I want to live in a world in which I am free to trust. A world in which I know at the very least I can trust you, and you me. By writing this I hope to illustrate this world, and encourage others to make the same dedication I am making today: to be honest for the rest of my life. That means I will never tell another lie, and in doing so reconcile myself, and my world.
And begin to heal.
An Honest Society
What would it look like to live in a place without lies, where inhabitants were unequivocally, unquestionably, undoubtedly confident that what was being told to them was honest? What would the world look like if honesty could have an emergent, fractal effect over time on the outcomes and events in people’s lives and our community as a whole? What if one could honestly say, the world is an honest place, people are honest, and the world is the way it is because people are honest. What would this world look like? Sound like? Smell like?
First, let’s discuss what an honest society is not:
People seem to think that a world with no lies would be dystopian, a place where brutal and unnecessary comments run rampant. Just look at the film Liar Liar, where Jim Carey’s character, a lawyer, is cursed by his son’s wish that he never tells another lie. Jim goes around acting exactly as many people would expect. “I’m a little upset about a bad sexual episode I had last night,” says Carey’s character, to a judge during a court proceeding, when all the judge asked was “How are we doing this morning?” Carey’s character is constantly verbalizing the taboo, or admitting to embarrassing truths, like it was him who farted in the elevator, or that the only reason people are being nice to a new woman in the office is because she has large breasts. He throws out disses willy-nilly, not because he wants to but because he has to. The curse of honesty compels him to make light of people’s traumas, and to be a jerk. Do we really want to live in an honest world if it brings such unnecessary pain? I don’t, but I know that a perfectly honest society is not necessarily a brutally honest society.
The first assumption behind the brutally honest society myth is that people who don’t tell lies feel compelled to go around telling everyone each rude or random thought that comes to their mind, or sharing raunchy details about their lives with strangers. In fact, honesty doesn’t mean you share everything, just that everything you do share is something you believe to be true. It’s all about consent, after all. If you don’t want to say the truth, just don’t say anything. No one is forcing you to speak. And if it feels to awkward to stay silent, there’s a way around that, too. I invite you to join me in my comfort in using the phrase, “I don’t want to answer that,” or, simply, “I’m not going to say.”
The second assumption is that an honest society is bad because if people heard the truth about themselves and the world, they would become depressed, saddened by their own disorganization and ugliness. This assumption asserts that the ideal world is one in which everyone is happy, confident, and satisfied. Since the real world is a mean place that doesn’t make most people feel that way, we should propagate the narrative of a world that does. But this narrative is not a happy, confident, and satisfied world, it’s an illusion. It’s a story, and one that ironically creates more suffering than the mean, ugly, real world.
“Life is risky.” In this quote, Alan Watts sums up the liability of being alive. Basically, if you’re going to be alive, you’d better be willing to wade through your fair share of shit, because the world is a deadly place to exist. That profound impetus behind a lie – to change the world – makes more sense when you start to think about all the terrible, violent, and disgusting things that happen. Who wouldn’t want to change the world for the better? No matter how desperate we are to change the world, however, a lie lacks the existential ability to make the world a better place, or to improve any situation. Any argument to the contrary is an illusion. Think about the movie The Matrix, in which humans experience normal life through a computer generated virtual reality, while their bodies lay motionless in pink goo in a post-apocalyptic planet. If you’re a character in The Matrix, are you satisfied with the claim that your life is better off living in the Matrix? It doesn’t matter. Because you’re not living in the Matrix. It’s an illusion. Just like a lie, the experience of life in the Matrix is not real. For the person who reads this and thinks, “Well, like, what even is real, man?” remember, truth is just objective reality. Just because you can’t know what it is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter.
So, lies cannot make the world a better place. Period. With each lie, we put an additional layer of objectively worse experience onto one another. There are no good lies. No “white lies,” and a lie cannot create any outcome but a negative one, in the long term. But as it turns out, there is no need to alter the way we perceive reality, anyway.
There is no sense in calling anything in nature a “flaw,” because nature doesn’t exist to appease our sense of how things should be. Nature just is. Nothing goes to waste in nature; everything has its perfectly adapted function. No one says, “that forest should do a better job at growing trees, creating habitat, and providing a shady spot for one to sit with a lover.” A forest does just as it is supposed to (thanks, Gandalf). As a part of nature, you too are perfect the way you are. There’s no real ideal you, just you as you are. So why do we constantly tell each other lies that basically mean, “this is how I think you should be.” It strips us of our truth, and postulates that we’re only worthy if other people think we are.
So, let’s use honesty as a way to break down the oppressive social constructs that don’t serve any of us. Let’s use honesty for social justice! “You can’t handle the truth!” – Can we not handle the truth, or can we not handle the pressure of existing outside of the normalized definition of success. Pretty, skinny, rich, white. Let us not create monoculture. Let us celebrate the abundant, imperative gift, tool, beauty that is our diversity. Let’s model ourselves and our societies after the ever-perfect forest, where each person’s spunk is integrated, regenerating the whole. (For the reader who jumps to the relativism argument: the unfavorable, oppressive tendencies of man will be, as in nature, selected out.) An honest society is one in which the concept of a “perfect person” becomes as obscure as that of the purpose of a desert.
Despite constantly trying to cover up reality with lies, people generally want to know the truth. Humans intrinsically value truth. Science and journalism are interesting to people because we value truth. People want to know what is really happening, which is why despite feeling embarrassed, people appreciate knowing when their pants zipper is down. Just because someone values something, however, does not mean they deserve it. Just because I want money, does not mean I deserve it. If I want money, I have to go out and work for it. I believe this principle does not extend to truth. That is to say that I believe that people inherently deserve truth, or at least honesty. If we value justice, and we believe that all people deserve justice, then all people deserve to know the truth. But since truth is hard to come by, we deserve honesty. Each time you are honest to someone you are making the world more just, because you are supplying a person with their unalienable right to truth. Conversely, each time you lie you are depriving someone of their rights and making the world more unjust. An honest society is a just society.
This is big, heady talk about changing the world; but remember, I’m talking about a simple, radical action that every person can take in everyday life: honesty. Simply not intentionally stating things you know to be false.
“But what about people who have to lie?”
Ok, I can see how it’s a privileged argument to suggest that everyone has the ability to be honest all the time. What if someone has a gun to your head? What about women forced into sex work? What about the earnest felon who seeks to leave his old ways behind him by leaving a few details off a job application? What about undocumented families who hand over fake papers to keep from being deported? What about the single mom who lies about being stuck in traffic to avoid losing her job? These are valid questions, and I would have a hard time disagreeing with the actions of any of these people. (I’m certainly not calling for anyone to “snitch” on someone who is in danger for the sake of being honest.) This is the same critique people have had of the Nonviolent movement: Is it really worth it to not defend yourself against someone with a fucking gun, all in the name of a remaining nonviolent? What does one person’s unnecessary death have to contribute to an entire social movement? Where is the pragmatism?
We’ve got to start somewhere. Perhaps my plea is not directed at these people, at least not at first. Perhaps any lie only propagates the injustices that cause these oppressive circumstances to exist in the first place. Perhaps honesty is one of the most strategic, pragmatic actions you can take.
We all want an ideal world. I know this because I have seen millions of people march on the streets for gender justice. I have seen people sit through the harsh winter in North Dakota to protect their water. I know this because I reject the idea that all conservatives want to reduce social welfare programs because they are bigots, rather than people who have a different conception of “progress,” based on what they were taught as children. I know this because of the billions of dollars donated to charity every year. I know this because of the rates of activist burn out. I know this because of how much money there is in politics.
Deciding on the definition of this ideal world is the cause of all violence. But we all want an ideal world, that no one is arguing. Let’s start by figuring out what the real world looks like.
If we’re willing to suffer in the name of an ideal world, if we’re willing to put in work for an ideal world, let’s get it through compassionate feedback, not lies.
Feedback is a gift. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, given from one human to another. Whether you are getting relationship advice from your best friend, or giving the finger to someone who just cut you off, or notifying a coworker of something stuck in his teeth, we all have the opportunity to participate in the process of feedback, and therefore the opportunity to say, “in some way or another, in my way, I want to help you be more fulfilled.” Feedback is the attempt of one person to explain the truth as they see it to another. A gift of honesty. What a gift! But unlike most gifts, which everyone knows are supposed to be accepted graciously, no matter how much you dislike them, feedback suffers from being the only gift that society has agreed should be resisted. This is in part due to our love of the rugged individual, part due to our isolation, and part due to the fact that most people are really shitty at giving feedback. Many people are not ready to improve. Improvement is scary. This is the reason that we get that defensive-with-a-crush-on-embarrassed feeling whenever we receive even the most nominal feedback (think, “you have something stuck in your teeth”). So not all feedback is equal. It must be given with love, care, and compassion. It is difficult to improve when feedback is given in a spiteful or hateful way. When it’s given this way, it points out what’s wrong, but then doesn’t leave room for improvement. In capitalism, we’re taught to uplift ourselves by standing on the shoulders of people with less opportunity (self-advancement through subordinating others). Feedback can certainly be given in this way. But once feedback is given with compassion, where the goal is to uplift others at the expense of no one, the entire process becomes positive and regenerative.
Feedback is the sociological equivalent of peer review; it’s not perfect, but it’s worth listening to. Think about the level of intelligence that exists within humans. And to think that we all have access to that information, and we can all integrate it, through the gift and receipt of feedback. How arrogant, then, to not accept the gift of feedback; to assume that you are more skilled and aware than anyone else. Even the most brazen of feedback, the kind that is given without any semblance of compassion, should be integrated. By integrated I do not mean heeded. You can disagree with feedback and still integrate it. To integrate feedback, is to listen to it, and then test it against your own sensibilities and intellectual rigor. The degree to which you follow feedback is irrelevant. What’s important is the degree to which you listen. When we are excelling at the skill of giving and receiving feedback, we’re practicing at the world’s most important activity: listening.
If feedback is a gift, listening is a sacred bond. What a joy to wake up each morning and have the ability to think, “Today, I will witness the soul of another. I will pour my own whole heart into listening to someone, because I know that it will take the greatest amount of emotional energy I can muster to possibly capture this amazing gift, this creature originating in the depths of a human’s dark mind, metabolized, electrified, and finally materialized into waves that I have the responsibility of snatching out of midair, encapsulating, preserving in their original form, and then cherishing as lovingly as a child, so that they can grow within me without being distorted, change me, challenge me, scare me and inspire me, and so the next time someone is brave enough to listen to me, I can pass it on.” There is no better way to understand and connect with someone than by listening to them. And on any given day, you might be the only one to truly listen to a particular person. What a responsibility, and gift! But not listening to the words they sew together, critiquing their grammar or waiting until it’s your turn to talk; that’s not the role of a listener. The role of a listener is essentially to remain nonviolent; to not coerce. To not lead or direct, but to observe and wait. In the nonviolent tradition, coercion is violence. What is violence but acting in a way that someone else does not consent to. Listening avoids violence. The equation of listening is thus:
Listening is nonviolent, lying is violent. The opposite of honesty is not to lie, it’s to not listen, or to be violent. The opposite of lying is not honesty, it’s listening. We listen so little, and talk so much. We are honest so little, and lie so much. What effect would an honest society have on how we deal with violence, and other crimes?
Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up and think ‘no one will try to deceive me today.’? This is the radical thought that someone in an honest society might have, in a world without crime. Would a justice system be useful in a world in which people did not lie? Would people even want to commit crimes if the world was full of people who they trusted? One thing is for sure, in an honest society, there are fewer crowded prisons, less messy court battles, and generally less crime. This is because an honest society is inherently more just, and less violent. Imagine the world we could build in all the time we save not harming and imprisoning one another.
If I trust you, I will not harm you. If I trust you, I will not question you. It’s clear. If I know you will only tell me the truth, then why would I need to question you? I think most people expect living in an honest society to be a loss, a burden of truth that must be carried on their backs. But in becoming honest, you are not the loser but the winner. In becoming honest you become empowered, esteemed, trusted, and not questioned. Your voice is valued, and your feedback integrated. Trust is just as much about honesty as it is about not questioning. Not questioning validity, not questioning existentially. If I am totally trusting, I have no use for questions like “why am I unhappy?” or, “when will I die?” If I trust, I know the answer is out there, but I need not question it, because I know it is just as it is, and that’s okay. When you trust, the world lights up before you, and reveals its answers to you in the form of the simple beauties around you all the time. You’re not unhappy because of the crisp air at the onset of winter. Your life will end in the warmth of the apple blossoms in the spring. Peace. Self-love. Contentment. Joy. All these benefits and more are waiting for those who choose to trust.
But how can you trust, why would you trust, when the world is full of lies?
The honest world I have described does not exist, and likely never will. I have seen no evidence to suggest there has ever been a large population of people who didn’t lie, or who valued honesty in the way I have described. We live in a world with countless urgent problems: Billions of people live in abject poverty, our planet is warming rapidly and will likely be permanently affected by human pollution, our entire economic system is based on extraction and exploitation, and a single mom in Denver just lost her only job. We humans are creative, capable beings, but we tend to not be good at balancing distal and proximal problems and solutions. Either we’re feeding the hungry, or we’re changing our economic system so that hungry people don’t exist, but never both. Why would we ever choose to spend our energy on building a society that simply does not lie? If you could wave your magic wand, wouldn’t you pick a society that doesn’t hate? Or one in which all people are perpetually happy and self-actualized? An equitable world? A just and sustainable world? Why work towards an honest world, of all the worlds we should work towards?
What would your answer be to the question, “what are the top five most harmful concepts in humanity?”? I expect most people would say something like, hate, fear, war, poverty, and death. But dishonesty? Doubtful. In our world, dishonesty does not hold the stigma of these other concepts do. What’s worse, a lie or a war? War, of course, right? War is terrible, along with fear, hate, and poverty (and whatever other concept you come up with), but at some level, all of these concepts are a part of our reality for the same reason: our inability to heal. As a species, we are great at healing. Think about how wonderful it is that your body can repair itself from an injury without you consciously doing anything. As a society, however, we are abhorrent at healing. 150 years after the Civil War, and we have not healed from the wounds of slavery. 600 years since Europeans landed in America and we have still not healed from the genocide experienced by Indigenous peoples. These wounds fail to heal because we fail to reconcile them, allowing them to fester, multiply, repeat. To heal our society we must reconcile it, but how can we reconcile it when it is hidden by the ignorance we have tangled into it.
Like a doctor who cannot make a diagnosis without having inspected the patient, people cannot know or build solutions to social or personal problems without knowing themselves or their societies. So, not hate or war, but ignorance is the real enemy. It’s insidious. It prevents humans from knowing their conditions, so they can never work towards real solutions to any of the other, more important problems. It’s a foundational, fundamental, contextual framework more than a problem itself. It has to be solved before anything else can be. If Step One is eliminate poverty, Step 0 is to know the nature of poverty. “Observe and Interact,” is the first principle of permaculture, because you cannot design anything, whether it’s a garden or a peaceful planet, without knowing the conditions under which it will thrive. I hope you are similar to me in wishing to know the conditions under which a peaceful, abundant, just, and sustainable world would naturally thrive. Let us find those conditions, and then implement them.
I have on approximately 10,000 separate occasions made those conditions harder to find. No lie I have ever told has been worth sacrificing a more perfect world. I cannot undo the lies that I have told in the past, uproot the ignorance I have sewn into the ground beneath our feet. But through honesty I can observe and know the roots of the problems of myself and my society, I can know their workings and their chemistry, I can mulch them into the ground with the help of my peers, and we can turn them into soil, in which a new world can grow.
And begin to heal.