Friday, October 1, 2010

When Honesty Isn't Honest

Jack Kerouac, in On the Road, has characters Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx do an experiment in which they try to tell each other their full and complete thoughts: "We're trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on our minds."

The experiment does not work:
They began with an abstract thought, discussed it; reminded each other of another abstract point forgotten in the rush of events..."it started a train of my own, something real wild that I had to tell you, I'd forgotten it, now you've just reminded me of it..." and two new points were born.
Thoughts "going viral," that's how thinking works. One point leads to five or two, filed for later in the conversation, but it just gets worse as we progress. The brain works faster that the mouth!

All of this proves the point that some people are being something other than honest when they insist that they must "honestly" tell others everything in their hearts and minds - even, and especially it seems, if what they say is cruel and hurtful. (These folks are closely related to those who say terrible sexist, racist, mysoginist, homophobic things in the guise of a joke - "What, can't you take a joke?")

As Carlo and Dean readily demonstrate, we simply cannot say everything that passes through the mind; it's not humanly possible. That means that we are being selective in what we choose to say to others; we have no choice but to be selective.

In short, what comes out of the mouth is chosen by the speaker from among all those thoughts and ghosts of thoughts, sensations, memories. Cruel and hurtful speech is not necessary for the full expression of all we think, which we can't do anyway. It is a purposeful way to be cruel and hurtful.

We should call people on this, just as we should call people on those jokes that are not only not funny, but are also usually bigoted.  We should call out people for hiding behind humour and honesty, for they are being neither funny nor honest; in fact quite the opposite.

So the next time someone pulls this on me, I will say that those more literate would know from reading On the Road, that it's just not possible, and that those more intelligent see the cruel bigot in them - and as I want also to express the fullness of my mind, I just had to say so. And that's no joke.


Trulyfool said...


The Road characters, also, we might think, aren't the most sober and reflective crew.

The honesty Kerouac is suggesting (unless he's poking fun at the characters and meaning something like your point) I always thought he meant to be seen as speech and writing that didn't owe much to the social constraint of the time.

'Cool' or 'wild' meant accepting and uninhibited. Kerouac seems to have thought substance use was an aid to a spiritual freeing-up.

The Beats, if they felt they were speaking with absolute honesty, were less likely to rage or mock against downtrodden people.

The bluntness of ugly words claiming 'honesty' is, as you rightly point out, an excuse to vent in a reactionary way. The jokes are 'soft' versions of that, too.

Hardly anyone does that to me. Maybe they guess I wouldn't go for it.

When someone approaches the point where it's clear they feel they can loosen themselves enough actually to say something at someone's potential expense -- and I do get people who want to do this, students in my classes who feel things are too routinely 'liberal', either on my part or another student's -- I hear their them out, but field their words in such a way as to make them see how the 'honesty' might be taken by particular listeners.

Direct rebuffs of such people seem counterproductive. They conclude that they've not really been given a 'fair hearing', or they reinforce their bitter sense of our 'political correctness'.

Folks like them have to have an 'innocent' outlet -- like expressed speech and to be satisfied that speech is enough to vent their feelings.

You and I both are aware that the demagogues parlay the smoldering hatred of social bigots into a street movement and the basis for visible power.

I would never let someone be bullied in my presence -- even if only by a joke. And if things got rude, I'd use my not inconsiderable rhetorical -- and 'people' -- skills.

But democracy has to have room even for the reactionaries to have their say. Their lies can be countered.


ChrisJ said...


Yes, I agree about the Road characters; I'm ignoring their motivations and using the results to suit my own purposes (My quote left out the part about them having to take benzedrine!).

You are bang on about the charge of political correctness, but I still think that we have to call people on things- I'm sure part of the ploy, conscious or otherwise, is that many people will be silent or cave at the charge of pc'ness.

People can have their say, no matter what we think of it, but I least respect the ones who have to pretend that they aren't saying what they are saying. I wasn't so much thinking of students who may have to couch opinions in ways to counter the prof tactfully, but of general conversations.

askcherlock said...

This brings to mind the phrase "wickedly funny." Many times hurtful thoughts are indeed couched in wickedness and you are right to call people on it. Nothing makes me happier than truly good humor. It is a gift. Too bad there are those who abuse it. I think of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin here. Yes, we have free speech but there are boundaries to which many do not adhere.

ChrisJ said...


I couldn't agree more.

Indeed palin and limbaugh are just wicked. Period.

Steve Sexauer said...

Good observation, and well said. Thanks. Hurtful comments are not honesty, they are an attempt to hurt people.

I love discussions about honesty, so at the same time I wonder if there is a place for humorous criticism for the general good of humanity, even if it hurts somebody's feelings?

I guess I'm asking: Is it bigotry to call out bigotry and mock it in order to let people know we disapprove? Society is divided into groups that are surely detrimental to us as a whole. Religious groups especially promote divisiveness. They all claim moral superiority, and promote intolerance in some fashion. Its in a sense organized bigotry. Each of us is an unwelcome outsider who is condemned by every sect we don’t belong to.

So what's the best moral approach? Is it silence while unfairness, war and atrocities continue? Burning buildings? or targeted humor to evoke discussion? It true that people aren't often ready to be preached at, but make them laugh or get provocative and at least they take notice. I don't think humor is always the best approach, but it's better than silence. Political correctness can't be correct in every situation-- if it requires tolerance of intolerance. As things are getting worse around the world, its time to get a little courageous and stop ignoring our problems and improve things as our ancestors did.

ChrisJ said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I agree that there are times when a well-placed joke or comment may be good criticism of society and a good starter of conversation, even if someone's feelings are hurt.

I dislike and don't respect those who go for the intentional slight or cruelty, while hiding behind humour or honesty - there is no other purpose.