Attempting Honesty

It is always dangerous to claim that something about yourself is unique, because it probably isn’t. There is almost always someone who is just as adjective as you are or has done just as much gerund as you have. Nonetheless, I suspect that I might actually be unique when I name Redwall as a formative influence on my philosophy.

Millions of people have read Redwall, and nearly all of them have liked it. I found it deeply horrifying. Twenty years later, there is still no other work that has affected me as intensely. I didn’t immediately understand why, but in time I figured it out: Redwall was horrifying because its characters were dishonest. I do not mean that the characters told lies–to the contrary, telling lies was something which they sternly frowned upon–I mean that their perception of their world and the facts of their world were virtually unrelated to each other.

Redwall is a very conventional fantasy story. A warlord sweeps into the land of Mossflower and quickly conquers it, all except for the fortress-village Redwall, which withstands him. Parallel storylines follow his attempts to get inside Redwall while its defenders keep him out; meanwhile, a hero quests for a way to defeat him. At the end, the warlord and all of his army are killed in an epic battle. As in much fantasy, Redwall‘s universe has many sentient species which fall into “good” and “bad” categories. 100% of the warlord’s army are from “bad” species; 100% of the Redwallers are from “good.”

What made the story different to me was a detail that I suspect most readers didn’t even notice. When the warlord first appears, Redwall sends out messengers to gather all of Mossflower’s residents into the safety of its walls. But the messengers apparently only give their warning to members of the “good” species: when the warlord takes over Mossflower, the “good” creatures have all evacuated, but a large numbers of the “bad” creatures are still there. He brutally conscripts these into his army.

As I read, I kept expecting this to be addressed. About a third of the enemy army were actually from Mossflower. Surely the Redwallers would do something to help them, or at least express some pity? No: at the end, all of the enemy are killed, with no attempt to spare anyone. None of the Redwallers comment on the fact that many of the corpses littering their courtyard had quite recently been their neighbors, or that those neighbors were forced to become enemies only because Redwall neglected to warn them of the warlord’s approach. The characters don’t notice, the narrator doesn’t notice, and the readers apparently didn’t notice either.

It was this not noticing that horrified me. The Redwallers believed themselves to be kind, compassionate altruists, and they continued to believe this even as they killed people whom they instead could have saved. They did not see the contradiction. They did not see the hypocrisy.

That is when I began to realize that people deceive themselves. People have the ability to censor their own perceptions, to block their own knowledge, to halt their own thoughts. I had known this before (I had done it myself, as everyone has), but I had not realized that it could be done systematically. If we simply choose not to recall certain information, we can construct faux realities in which whatever we wish was true is true, realities in which we are not guilty of the crimes we committed, where we are faithful even though we cheated, where we deserve a trophy even though we lost. Do you want to be righteous? Just don’t think about your sins.

With practice, any action becomes reflexive. Just as people become unaware that they are shifting their weight to balance a bike, they can become unaware that they are deceiving themselves. Through repetition, self-deception becomes routine, and finally subconscious. The mind itself becomes dishonest, and thereby unable to recognize its own lies.

Real-world examples of this are extremely numerous, but they are difficult to use because no one accepts examples that apply to themselves. It’s easy to accept that other people are dishonest, but if our own dishonesty is pointed out, the accusation seems like nonsense. That’s the nature of dishonesty: like AIDS, lies corrupt the mechanism that is responsible for detecting them. So I have chosen this example, not necessarily because it is the best, but because I hope it is one that everyone will accept:

Culturally, the United States began as a Christian nation. It also began as a nation with over 700,000 slaves and a racist caste system. Both slavery and racism are incompatible with Christianity, and also with the founding principle that “all men are created equal.” People wanted to be Christian Americans, but they also wanted to own slaves. To do both, they had to reconcile these incompatibilities. Slave owners accomplished this with the “Curse of Ham.”

The Curse is found in Genesis 9. The story is short and simple, and the relevant part is just one sentence of dialog: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” American slave owners interpreted “Canaan” to mean black people, “his brothers” to mean white people, and “a servant of servants shall he be” to mean that a two-level caste system was divinely ordained.

That interpretation makes no sense. From the text, there is no reason to conclude that “Canaan” refers to blacks. There is no reason to conclude that “his brothers” refers to whites. The sentence is not a command for anyone to obey, and it isn’t spoken by God or in God’s name. And even if it were a command about blacks and whites, there is no reason why it would apply to Christian Americans. Using the Curse of Ham as a justification for black slavery is completely and obviously illogical… unless you mentally censor the context in which the sentence occurs, refrain from thinking about how it relates to the rest of the Bible, forget that the racial associations are not Biblical—unless you are dishonest. Then, yes, in the faux reality you have invented, the Bible does say that blacks should be slaves to whites. It’s right there: “A servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

Think of the classic parable of the blind men and the elephant. Now imagine that the men are not blind. All of them can see the whole elephant, but they nonetheless insist that it is a rope, a pillar, a wall. Their seeing does not cause them to understand because they only acknowledge the parts that validate their wishes.

We all wish for the world to be different in some way, and so dishonesty comes naturally to us. We wish that there was no blood on our hands, so we forget that it was we who neglected to warn our neighbors. Dishonesty makes us comfortable, and we gravitate unthinkingly toward comfortable things.

Honesty is quite different. Reality is seldom flattering. If we look at the world as it really is, we may find that we do not like our own role in it. We may find that we are fools. We may find that we are evil. We may find that we are unimportant. These are real risks. Honesty may hurt us, and we instinctively recoil from things that hurt. Dishonesty promises to show us things that will soothe and gratify us. Honesty promises nothing, and it may show us horrors.

Nonetheless, honesty is not only valuable, but vitally necessary. Dishonesty leads to bad actions, but it has a more subtle evil as well. To be dishonest is to be ignorant of the real world–ignorant of the true circumstances in which we act, and of the true consequences of those actions. Without knowledge, our actions are futile, and our lives are meaningless.

If lies destroy our ability to recognize lies, then we cannot trust our own thoughts or perceptions. We might be lying to ourselves and never know it, never find out that we had been deceived. But we are not helpless. Dishonesty will never reveal itself, but it can be hunted. That is what honesty is: hunting. Honesty is searching ourselves for the ideas which make us most comfortable, which feel most right, which are most important to us, and questioning them, not as a catechismal exercise, but with genuine skepticism, willing to prove them wrong, no matter how much their being wrong might hurt or disappoint us. Only by doing this can the lies we tell ourselves be discovered and destroyed.

Honesty is never popular, and it’s obvious why. It isn’t easy. It isn’t safe. For those who want the the universe to validate them, who want to be “right,” a faux world is much more useful than the real one.

But those who are genuinely curious will not be satisfied with delusions. Those who want to participate in life will want to know what life is really like.

4 thoughts on “Attempting Honesty”

    1. Probably not. Dishonesty isn’t a denial that facts exist. It is bias about which facts are important.

      A child might say “Sister hit me for no reason!” when he had actually been in the act of snatching Sister’s cookie when it happened. The child isn’t being a solipsist. He isn’t denying that an incident really happened, or that there are real facts about the incident which can be known. He is using a personal agenda as the basis for choosing which facts to regard as important, and which to regard as trivial.

  1. Remember that slavery was unacceptable to lots of Americans. Our nation paid for it with a war that included epic levels of destruction, death and misery. In the end, slavery was outlawed, and we would not go back to it.

  2. A word came to mind which I didn’t see used. This is not a surprise because that word has lost it’s popularity in a competitive world where we need to convince others of how great we are in order to succeed. But the word is an important one for those who seek self honest. And that word is “humility.”

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