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Some Thoughts on Radical Honesty

A couple of weeks ago, before I travelled to the UK, I was home watching old episodes of the TV show Bones on Netflix. If you've never seen the show, it's about a beautiful forensic anthropologist with an inability to relate to other people's emotional state that's as tenuous as a BitTorrenter's understanding of intellectual property, a dashing FBI agent who has a startling lack of ability to think outside the box, and the wacky hijinks that ensue in the world of forensic science because each is too cowardly to admit that they fancy the other.

One particular episode I watched centered around a group dedicated to the idea of "radical honesty." As might be expcted from a mainstream television show written for a mass audience by generally competent but not particulalry brilliant writers, the show's main characters spent some time debating the merits of complete honesty in interpersonal relationships, and wacky hijinks ensued. In the end, cultural norms were validated, the easiest answer was reached, the bad guy was arrested, and everyone was happy.

Something left me flat about the episode, and after processing it for a while, I figured out what it was. Any discussion about radical honesty invariably ends up getting framed as a question about whether or not being honest all the time is good, and that is a terrible way to look at the question.

It has been my experience that people dedicated to the Radical Honesty movement tend to be, not to put too fine a point on it, rather horrible people. Now, I'm sure there are absolutely lovely, smart, compassionate folks who are part of the whole Radical Honesty thing...but I have yet to meet any.

The folks I have met to advocate Radical Honesty tend to fetishize blunt, unvarnished, raw communication, at the expense of compassion or of any sort of concern for the emotional response of the people to whom they are speaking. Like the main character in Bones, they tend to display a lack of empathy toward their fellow human beings that, from the outside, borders on active hostility.

And that's unfortunate, because it means that conversations about Radical Honesty almost always end up being framed in terms of "Is honesty good, or do we need little white lies and other small deceptions in order to make civilization go?" The debate gets set in terms of honesty vs. dishonesty, and that's a damn shame.

To me, it seems self-evidently obvious that honesty in one's romantic affairs is not just the best policy, it's the only policy that's likely to lead to healthy, secure relationships. Debating the relative merits of honest relationships is, to me, as pointless as debating whether "round" is a good general shape for a wheel.

I advocate, absolutely and without reservation, for honesty in relationships. That would, at first blush, seem to put me square in the same camp as the Radical Honesty folks...and I still can't abide them.

To understand why, one need only consider the question "Does my butt look big in this?"

It is a fact of the human condition, as sure and immutable as the fact that night follows day: Whenever anyone discusses the idea of honesty in a relationship, at some point the conversation will turn to "Does my butt look big in this?"

Those who advocate for dishonesty will say that the easy, comforting answer, the flattering lie, is best. The Radical Honesty crowd will say that telling the truth gives the other person the opportunity to learn the valuable life skill of Not Taking Things Personally...and besides, you're not responsible for someone else's emotional state anyway.

And they're both wrong.

The question "Does my butt look big in this?" is almost never about the clothing in question or the butt in question. (I won't say it's never about that; the speaker might be getting ready for a job interview or a date or something, and looking for advice on the most flattering outfit to wear. But that's very situational.) Instead, the question is almost always about something else--a passive way to fish for compliments or validation, an expression of body-image insecurity, something like that.

The white lie--"Yes, dear, your butt looks magnificent!" if it doesn't--does little to address the real issue. And the person asking the question is unlikely to believe the answer, anyway.

But the Radical Honesty answer is no better; in fact, it's worse. "Your butt looks big no matter what you wear" also does nothing to address the real issue, but on top of that it's pointlessly, needlessly cruel.

It is possible to be honest without being cruel. That's the part the advocates of Radical Honesty rarely get right. "I like your butt better in the polka-dotted skirt" might be an honest answer. "I love you dearly; there's no reason to worry about your butt, because that's nothing to do with the reasons I love you" is another.

Honesty without compassion is rubbish. The question should not be framed as "Which is better, honesty or dishonesty?" but rather "How can we strive for absolute honesty in a framework of respect, compassion, kindness, and sincerity?" All too often, when the question is framed as Radical Honesty vs. The Little White Lie, the only compassionate answer is The Little White Lie, because the philosophy of Radical Honesty--at least as I've seen it practiced--treats compassion with disdain, or even contempt.

Honesty is the best policy. Being honest is an absolute prerequisite for healthy relationships. But honesty does not excuse indifference to the feelings of others. Poor behavior is poor behavior even when it's wrapped in the cloak of honesty.

The same is true, I think, of many different ideas about relationships.

There are a number of relationship philosophies that I think are absolutely essential to healthy positive romantic relationships. Other than honesty, they include the notion of accepting responsibility for one's emotional state, being willing to accept and work through issues such as personal insecurity, and being willing to accept responsibility for wrongdoing without externalizing blame, among others.

Essential to all of these, though, is compassion and respect for the particular feelings and experiences of other people.

Unfortunately, I have seen examples of situations where people use every one of these principles as a blunt instrument against others. Any one of these can be subject to the Radical Honesty Effect--enshrinement of the principle above the basic rules of decency, to the point where adhering to the principle becomes validation enough that compassion can be discarded.

I've seen the idea that we are all responsible for our own emotional state become distorted by the Radical Honesty Effect in some parts of the poly community, where it seems to be taken as a code phrase for "I can do whatever I want to you, and no matter how it makes you feel, that's your shit to deal with, not mine."

With personal responsibility, as with honesty, there are compassionate ways to interact with others, and there are ways that suck. The notion that we are all ultimately responsible for our emotional states does not, in point of fact, justify one in being an arsehole, any more than honesty does.

Radical Honesty can become an excuse to say whatever's on your mind without regard to the effect your words will have. The idea that we are all responsible for our own emotions can, if not watchdogged, become an excuse to behave however you like without regard for the way it affects other people. Unfortunately, what that means is that debate about either of these things tends to get framed in some unfortunate ways--honesty vs. dishonesty, personal responsibility vs. projecting responsibility for the way you feel onto others--that miss the real heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter, as far as I am concerned, is "What can I do to make my relationships stronger, built on a foundation of integrity and trust, and to help the people around me feel supported, cherished, and loved?" I don't feel that dishonesty, whether in the form of "little while lies" or otherwise, does that; but I also don't think that saying "Man, that dress makes your butt look like two enraged hippopotamuses dueling with light sabers under a circus tent!" does that, either. I don't think that enabling insecurity by accepting responsibility for the emotional experiences of my partner does that; but I also don't think that saying "Tough shit, that's your issue, you deal with it" does that, either.

It is possible to be compassionate without sacrificing any of these ideals, which is something I rarely seen talked about in any conversations about them. In the case of a person struggling with some kind of negative emotional response, it can be as simple as "I see that this is something you are having difficulty with. I want to help support you and give you safety while you come to terms with it. Let me know how I can make you feel cherished and loved. If you need more of my time and attention while you deal with this, I am here for you."

The key here is that any philosophy, even if it is true, does not excuse one for being a douche. This probably should be self-evident, but apparently it isn't.


( 36 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 2nd, 2012 08:16 pm (UTC)
Man, I *so* want to go for a [insert-beverage-of-choice] with you some day...
Mar. 2nd, 2012 08:23 pm (UTC)

I want to serenade you in Bugs Bunny operas and scatter rose petals at your feet.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 3rd, 2012 11:36 pm (UTC)
As the recipient of and viewer of other peoples solicitations on dating sites and whatnot, I can assure you that yes, some people just feel the need to be assholes.

some people who are assholes and cheat on their partners try to use Polyamory as their "Its ok because it has a legitimate name" excuse for their behavior.

Some people (and I have seen this more in men than in women) are flat out abusive, but since kink is "beating on people for the fun of it" they use that to justify their asshole behavior as legitimate.

Neither of these cases give a rats ass about anyone else, they only care about what their wants are and how to get away with it. I think the rude variety of the Radical Honestiers are the same way, they are legitimate assholes who think that applying a label to it makes it not asshole behavior.

so I full on and totally agree with your sentiment and will add, "those who are civil, compassionate and caring, don't care if they are seen as such and don't feel the need to or try to justify their actions."

(I hope this made sense, brain is a bit fuddled with some stuff today)
(no subject) - sari - Mar. 4th, 2012 07:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - Mar. 4th, 2012 12:32 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 2nd, 2012 08:40 pm (UTC)
No lie, that butt looks awesome.
Mar. 2nd, 2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
I was thinking the same thing! Yummy!
(no subject) - polylizzy - Mar. 3rd, 2012 11:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 2nd, 2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
"basic rules of decency"
Is that of the same class as "common sense"??

Care to define what those rules might be? Might they be different depending on the relationship and individuals involved? Might they be different for society as a whole vs individual interactions??

Just food for thought and pushing back on hand-waving.... :D

Mar. 2nd, 2012 10:31 pm (UTC)
The above post was from me... I hadn't noticed LJ 'lost' my login...
This^ What terryo said... - modestgodess - Mar. 6th, 2012 03:07 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 2nd, 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
Curious Muse tries again!
sod. just lost my eloquent and well thought through comment :-)
So, to try and pull it off twice (so to speak): I was raised that the first time I am hurt it is their fault. The next time it is my fault. Doesn't mean they're not an arse, just that I am maybe making bad choices about who I allow in my life. Then again if the hurt was not malicious it is for me to find understanding and forgiveness without allowing it to keep happening. Sometimes hard to tell the difference there.
I am a blunt kind of person. I don't doubt I sometimes cause hurt. I try not to. I don't realise people are over-sensitive to criticism because I welcome honesty about me. If it's someone I respect I find ways to change. If I don't respect them I don't give a toss. not everyone thinks that way. I try to empathise with that but I don't understand it.
As to my bum, I'd like an honest answer, we can spot a platitude a mile off. But what I'd really really like is for a man to pre-empt the question by telling me from time to time 'Damn, but you're sexy'. Then I wouldn't care about big bum or saggy tits or pot tummy or whatever. We all have wobbles, physical and emotional. It's just nice to have those put into a perspective of the whole of us from time to time. Too often we forget that even those closest to us need to hear our thoughts rather than guess at them.
Mar. 3rd, 2012 01:05 am (UTC)
There is a significant number of autistic people who would refer to this statement as a dehumanizing stereotype:
"they tend to display a lack of empathy toward their fellow human beings that, from the outside, borders on the autistic."

Check out the following links:
Mar. 3rd, 2012 02:14 am (UTC)
Very interesting -- thank you for those.

(I have several friends on the autism spectrum who certainly are very sweet and caring and wonderful, and their issues revolve around interpreting emotion/nonverbal cues, not a lack of empathy as a whole.)

Would a fairer/more accurate way for tacit to say this be something more like "borders on popular perceptions of the autistic"?

-- A <3
(no subject) - keep_up - Mar. 3rd, 2012 02:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 3rd, 2012 01:31 am (UTC)
>>> "Your butt looks big no matter what you wear" also does nothing to address the real issue, but on top of that it's pointlessly, needlessly cruel.

OMG, yes, THIS!!!!

I've been trying to live my life according to a personal ethical code which is pretty much identical to what you've laid out above -- be honest, don't lie to spare someone else's feelings at the expense of giving a genuine response, BUT temper that response with love, respect, and compassion. (In other words, I'd be the one saying "Honey, you have an AMAZING ass. I think the red dress shows it off to better advantage than those jeans, but you'll look great to me no matter what." And that way, when I say "Mmm, no, those jeans aren't doing it for me -- maybe try the next pair?" when we're in a fitting room, she'll know that it's a referendum on the item of clothing, not on my desire to take a bite out of her bottom.)

(And, yes -- while I certainly agree with some of the principles of Radical Honesty™ in theory, I have not found its adherents to be particularly kind, compassionate, or loving in their practice of it, with the occasional exception. Therefore, it's not a movement I can espouse even though I'm a believer in *honesty* in relationships -- it seems like it's too often an excuse to be blunt and rude, and to put the consequences of the rude behavior off on the listener for being "too sensitive" because "I'm just being honest!")

-- A <3
Mar. 3rd, 2012 05:07 pm (UTC)
Yeah, It's kind of like many philosophies. Great in principle, but it attracts the worst elements. Which is unfortunate, because many of the RH exercises I have found VERY helpful over the years.

Most people who live it well, I notice, don't go spewing that they are practicing Radical Honesty though. Kinda like... Christians. There's no need. They simply live it. Just a thought.
(no subject) - ashbet - Mar. 3rd, 2012 11:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 3rd, 2012 10:00 pm (UTC)
Tries to promote Edward's theory by being kindly honest. ;)
Mar. 3rd, 2012 08:18 am (UTC)
Thank you for this.

Amongst many communities, I would like to see a bit more dialogue about compassion and what it looks like within a relationship. I've also been thinking about the Buddhist notion of "right relationship" and how that might apply.

(Though I know you're not too keen on the Buddhists!)
Mar. 3rd, 2012 05:03 pm (UTC)
Actually, someone who has actually studied Radical Honesty would probably say, "Yes your butt looks big AND I LOVE every inch of it."

Of course a person studying Radical Honesty wouldn't ask such a leading question about their butt when what they are really looking for is validation of their overall looks. They'd probably say something like, "I am feeling insecure right wearing this dress. I am looking for validation of my looks." In other words, they'd be honest with themselves about the real motivation for asking about their butt in the first place.

Still robotic, but not the cruelty that people who don't get it follow. Saying that Radical Honesty is about being a cruel douche is like saying folks who read Ayn Rand and go rabid Objectivist understand her philosophy well (they tend to be douches too I've noticed).

Of course, the founder of Radical Honesty is a nutbar. Which doesn't help matters...
Mar. 3rd, 2012 06:14 pm (UTC)
Granted, my experience is limited to folks who say "I practice Radical Honesty!"--most of whom tend, I've noticed, to be absolutely horrible people.

I like edwardmartiniii's observation about people who graft the word "honesty" onto the end of something else, as in "radical honesty" or "brutal honesty;" all too often it seems that the first word describes pretty accurately how they relate to others.
(no subject) - mellyjc - Mar. 3rd, 2012 11:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 3rd, 2012 11:59 pm (UTC)
How does 'lie by omission' fit into Radical Honesty?

It's interesting how the perspective seems to be brought into question again with dementia. Do white lies become more acceptable when they are with the intention of calming the patient, making them feel better, since they won't remember the answer and ask again in five minutes anyhow? Then it seems to become a matter of compassion versus integrity for some people.
Mar. 7th, 2012 12:51 pm (UTC)
dammit! I thought you finally had the aswer to how do I answre the query about how do I lok in these pants. darn you for being a merciless tease!

Have you ever considered putting yourt muses on particular topics into a book? I really think you should franklin.
Mar. 7th, 2012 12:55 pm (UTC)
I do believe in honesty but I also think that if you can carefully choose your words to honest but not wounding it'll be less obnoxiously & unnecessarily brutal. Unfortunately, it also requires long pauses in your speech, which most people don't have the patience to endure. This is why I prefer the written word... It gives you time to think through what your saying, revise & edit, not only for typos but for clzarity & grammar. speaking off the top of my head doesn't really work well for me...
Mar. 7th, 2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
I wonder if there really is a good response to the butt question anyway *lol*
whta about grabbing their ass & saying "damn you're curvalicious & I love it" ;)
Mar. 9th, 2012 07:12 pm (UTC)
       suzmonster says I have to read and follow you. So I am doing so. Hi.:)

Mar. 9th, 2012 07:17 pm (UTC)
Howdy, and welcome aboard!
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( 36 comments — Leave a comment )