Saturday, October 1, 2016

Honesty

What brought this country to a point where so many people admire one man's openly admitted lawlessness and dishonesty in pursuit of his individual gain, no matter the cost to others?

That's the sentence that started what was going to be a medium-length Facebook post to follow up an article I linked to that referenced how Trump supporters seem to be incapable of criticizing him; when provided with made-up examples of things like writing off a white Siberian tiger for Putin's birthday as a "business expense," they instead list their own reasons why such tax-evasion schemes are actually good things.

"I'm a selfish person and much of my time and money goes towards pursuing my own goals and desires," that Facebook post would have gone on to say, "though I like to think that I'm getting better at not having this create a negative impact on the people around me." I would also have added (in an increasingly moralizing tone, I'm sorry to say) that at least I'm always aware that I am part of a larger society, and have a role and responsibility towards it, and ... and then I realized that I, too, have avoided taxes in the past (the IRS don't read blogs, do they?) and justified it in various ways. I, too, have expressed biased and even racist views, often those I'm not conscious of within myself at first, others that I've recognized and continue to struggle with. For example, I'd automatically assume the author of the linked piece, who describes himself as "a Southern white male veteran who lives in a very rural area," is a Trump supporter, or at least embodies some of their characteristics, just because of that description. Instead, he subjects those supporters to some trenchant castigation, and I'm once again left facing my assumptions, and questioning why they're there. It's true that when you see the clumps and colors on any demographic map, "southern white male veteran rural dweller" does tend to tick all the Trump-supporter boxes, but that's no excuse for my looking at those words and assuming that any individual person does.

There are many other words today defining the ways that we categorize and describe ourselves, some of which weren't part of the language when I was growing up. Agnostic. Republican. Feminist. Catholic. Vegetarian. Latin@. Gun owner, PETA supporter, single, married, transgender, genderqueer, male, female, other. Other. And that's really what it boils down to, isn't it? "Othering," another word that's younger than I am.

So much of what shapes our ability to be honest occurs long before we are capable of this kind of self-reflection [Ed. Note. Or perhaps it's just that I'm coming late to the party, and this is a realization that usually happens in one's twenties or thirties. I wouldn't be surprised.] and gets normalized and buried in the mental category of "just the way things are." Some things in this category can't be changed: I'm white and female and over 50. What can be changed are attitudes like "... and therefore superior to non-white people" or "... and therefore should behave in a certain way" or "... and therefore must believe what this other over-50 white female believes," all of which I would resent were they assumed about me. If I am honest with myself, I will be watching for these inbred instincts and consciously working to get rid of them, to retrain and reshape the paths in my brain that click in those specific neural patterns when presented with a certain image or idea. There have been times in the last few months when I've found myself spontaneously quoting scripture, of all things (not always the Bible, but usually), as the random access database that is my brain spits out what it thinks to be information relevant in the moment. If all of that and more is in there, and comes out of my mouth without prompting, what other learned language and behaviours am I demonstrating without realizing it, every single day?

Who's defining the word "honest" these days? Here's what Merriam-Webster says: free from fraud or deception; reputable, respectable; creditable, marked by integrity, marked by free, forthright, and sincere expression. In other words, someone you can believe in. If I'm not honest with myself (and others), how can I believe in myself? If I can't trust that other people are being honest with me, then I find it harder to believe in them. At the least, I will give them the benefit of the doubt, but it will color every interaction from then on. And I am sure that other people have come to that conclusion about me in the past, which is one reason that it's something I'm thinking about now, and working on improving. Yet there has been a new definition added in recent years, where "speaking your mind" and "telling it how it is" now mean "being honest with your listeners" even when the mind of the speaker is filled with hatred and bigotry and a terribly warped view of a fearful pseudo-reality and the purpose of the telling is to incite even more hate and bigotry and fear in those listeners.

If someone honestly believes a lie, and tries as hard as they can to convince others of the truth of that lie, are they a liar? That's different from someone who is desperately trying to convince themselves of a lie, and who needs everyone else to believe that lie so that they can be validated in believing it too. Or who just doesn't give a damn about the truth, and lies with impunity because they can and it's getting them what they want, or because it amuses them to lie to others and manipulate them.

What I do not understand is how a person can look at the well-documented history of Donald Trump's lies, including lying about the fact that he lied when the contradictory lies were both caught on tape [Ed. Note. There's another blog post in that somewhere, about English expressions that are still being used, but no longer have physical cultural connections to the things those words represent.], and still use the word "honest" to describe him. And if they can't use that word, why is "honesty" no longer on their list of important qualifications for the presidency?

Finally [Ed. Note. Thank god.], what responsibility is placed on the listener? It's just as important to listen honestly as it is to speak honestly, and we do so little of that in our lives, unless we're called by vocation or profession to do so. To simply listen to what people are saying, and then to try to hear both what they are saying out loud and what they are saying with their body, their intonation, their phrasing, their choice of words. To work through what was said, with the other person, until both sides have a clear understanding of exactly what is being communicated. This is not necessarily agreement with what was said, but agreement on what was said. But it's irresponsible to listen and believe something without questioning it, especially when it comes to politics instead of personal relationships. This is also why I do not understand how a person can look at all of the well-documented history of Hillary Clinton's honesty and discard it in favor of the rumors/lies about her without also questioning their own motivation and their reasons for doing so. "Well, I just don't trust her," that person will often say. Why? And if their answers to that question are things that I can refute with the equally well-documented proof that the specific rumor/lie is indeed just a rumor/lie, and they're only left with their "gut feeling" then there's something at work here other than the question of honesty, in my opinion, something in that person that's probably manifesting itself in other gut-level feelings like fear and unhappiness and worry about the future, all of which are playing into the hands of a person who's promising to solve all of their problems, starting by getting rid of all of those "others" who are causing them.

What brought this country to a point where so many people admire one man's openly admitted lawlessness and dishonesty in pursuit of his individual gain, no matter the cost to others - and we, as a country, are only now getting around to talking about it seriously, rather than mocking it? This is a problem that will not go away by itself after November, and it's something that America needs to address as part of who we are as a society, and how we want that society to look in the future.

How do you define honesty?

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