Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.
Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?
And if I shall say that I know Him not, I shall be like to you, a liar.~ John 8:55
It’s the Eighth Commandment. For Christians, it is the instruction from God that forbids misinterpreting the truth in our relations with other people. It warns, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
This scripture is a prescription for moral uprightness, and to ignore it is a sin. But how many of us, Christian or not, really buy into the saying, “honesty is the best policy?” Is this something we really believe in and practice in our lives every day? Or, is it just something that sounds good and right as it’s rolling off the tongue, but just is not practical in our everyday lives? Huh? Is honesty always the best policy? Or should a person consider the situation before being brutally honest about all things and all matters, at all times?
Tell me this: Do you think it is ever "crazy" to tell the whole truth? What about when you are in a situation where telling a "half-truth" could possibly save someone’s job, or someone’s life?
It's a Good Thing, But How Did the Honesty Policy Get Started?
“A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?” ~ Albert Einstein
Beginning when we're very young children, we are taught and preached to about honesty being the best policy. In addition to being taught lessons from the Bible, we are also taught by our parents home-grown lessons about how to be a “good girl,” or a “good boy,” and how we must "always tell the truth." The “honesty policy” is often sold to us along with the story about a young George Washington and the cutting down of the now infamous cherry tree (Yes, GW, the same man we were told went on to become our nation’s first president).
Did you know that many historians say the chopping down of the cherry tree never actually happened at all? And if that’s true (no one really knows for sure), not only was there never a cherry tree, but GW never actually said, “I cannot tell a lie,” when asked if he chopped it, because it was never there! So where did the story come from? From what I've read, it seems someone published a book about a hundred years after Washington died, saying that he told his father he chopped the bark on the cherry tree, only other people born much later in history say it never happened. They say that Washington never did it, nor did he ever say he did it. Others say the story comes from a country folktale about some kid chopping down something or other on a farm, somewhere, and then when confronted by one or the other of his parents, that kid said something profoundly honest that more or less amounted to, “I cannot tell a lie.” According to many, the only thing that’s known for sure about that particular story is that it wasn’t GW, "The Father of Our Country,” who said it.
So let’s recap: The very story we’re told as children as an example of why it is important to be honest is probably a lie. Furthermore, it hints that if you tell the truth, you could possibly grow up to be president, and I think most of us would agree that, today, it's quite possible that the exact opposite is more likely true. And what's worse, the story about the cherry tree isn’t a “story” in the sense of being a fairy tale that even young children know is not true. Instead, it turns out that it's most likely an out and out historical lie; something that was made up either to sell books or to make a tasty sound-bite for a dead president.
So my question is—“Why?” Why do we do it? Does the very idea that it’s a good thing to tell the truth need to die a slow and painful death as a prelude to learning that the world can be, in fact, sometimes not a very nice place? Does the beauty of honesty have to be taken from us in this way, yanked, kicking and screaming from the innocence of tender psyches in order to pay the cruel and hefty price of admission into adulthood?
Well, if honesty truly is the best policy, then why is it that sometimes when someone is honest to a fault, many of us quickly conclude—even though we may not say it, that the person must be nuts, or at least a bit “touched” in the head?
Remember the story in the Bible (Matt. 26:69-75, Luke 22:55-62, and John, 18:17-18, 25-27) when Peter lied, three times, saying he was not one of Jesus' disciples, because he was afraid for his own life? Would he have gotten the same punishment that Jesus got if he had told the truth? And wasn't it his belief that he might suffer the same punishment the reason that he lied three times? Would he have to have been crazy to have told the truth?
Is Honesty Always the Best Policy? Or Is It "Crazy" to Always Be Completely Honest?
“When the whole world is crazy, it doesn't pay to be sane.” ~ Terry Goodkind, The Pillars of Creation
I’m reminded of the 1990 movie, Crazy People, starring the English actor, comedian, composer, and musician, the late, great, Dudley Moore (1935 – 2002), and Darryl Hannah. In the movie, Moore’s character, Emory Leeson, is an advertising executive having a nervous breakdown, and during his so-called “break” with reality, he develops a series of advertisements that get him fired from his job. Blindingly honest, the ads are also daringly rough, rowdy, and rude. In fact, top executives at the agency Emory works for think Emory has to be crazy to put that much truth into his work. For example, one ad for Jaguar says, “Jaguar—for men who’d like hand-jobs from beautiful women they hardly know.” Another, for the twentieth-century version of the Volvo automobile says, “Volvo—they’re boxy, but they’re good.”
Convinced the ad’s creator must surely be off his rocker to insert so much truth into the agency’s advertisements, one of Emory’s coworkers checks him into a psychiatric hospital. There, in group therapy, Emory meets the beautiful and vulnerable Kathy Burgess, another patient, played by Darryl Hannah. In this very funny tale, it is often not clear which group of people the movie is named for: The "crazy" patients in the psychiatric hospital, or the "crazy" ad agency executives.
“Crazy people are considered mad by the rest of the society only because their intelligence isn't understood.” ~ Wei Hui
In 2010, when giant pizza chain Dominos came out with a “rebranding” strategy that included admitting the truth about their product, a lot of people thought the top bosses either had some loose screws, or were geniuses. They came right out and said the pizzas they used to make and sell to us, were lousy. It was truth in advertising staring us all right in the face. But it was only the chain’s “jumping-off point.” Of course, the advertisements went on to tell us how the product was now new and improved, and, after that, admitting that their pizza was bad before seemed like a great and honest idea, but still shocking way to introduce their revamped offerings. On the other hand, Dominos competitor, Papa John’s, had to be taken to court to get them to admit that their slogan, “Better ingredients. Better pizza,” was what the advertising industry calls “puffery,” meaning the words are opinion, not fact.
“THE EDGE, there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson
Can being “too honest” make a situation worse than telling a lie or a “half-truth,” which is just a lie in disguise? Let’s take a look at male-female relationships and the age-old question, “Does this dress make me look fat?”
There’s an advertisement that ran on television in recent years, in Spanish, showing a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful and body-revealing black dress, who asks her boyfriend/husband whether or not the dress she's wearing makes her look fat. In his mind’s eye, the man sees (and so do we through his eyes) the scenarios that will take place if he says “Yes” to the question he’s been asked. His girlfriend/wife is crying in every scene, remembering that he has told her the dress she had on days ago made her look fat. One scene even indicates she may have developed an eating disorder when the two are shown walking together with ice cream cones, the man’s is nearly gone but the woman’s cone is still full of quickly melting, clearly untouched ice cream. Then, we’re taken back to the first scene, days earlier, when the woman enters the room in the dress in question, and she asks the infamous question once again, only this time, much wiser, her boyfriend/husband responds, to her delight, “No.”
“I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy.” ~ Mitch Hedberg
Can an honest person survive in a world of dishonesty and not be seen as having gone bananas? Is there such a thing as being too honest? Isn’t honesty a quality that, like truth, is either there or not there? If that’s true, then doesn't it mean it's not possible to be “too honest?” Isn't "too honest" simply being truly honest? It's the same as saying something cannot be “too true,” because it is either true or it is not true. Take the idea of being able to tell a “half-truth.” Isn’t a half-truth simply a lie, disguised as the truth? I was taught it is possible to lie either by commission (by actually telling a lie), or by omission (by not saying anything, thereby not telling the truth). Therefore, a half-truth, not unlike remaining silent when you know the truth, is lying by omitting part of the truth.
I believe it’s true that, as a nation of people, we want to be a land that values and respects honesty. But, as adults living in a world where you can actually suffer for telling the whole truth, are we really practicing what we preach? For example, when you’re getting ready to purchase a home, you’re not supposed to borrow the money that you will use as a down payment. And when you’re asked, at closing, if you borrowed the money, if you did borrow it and you say that you did, then you cannot close on the home. So, most people, even if they do have to borrow the money, will lie and say they did not, so that they can get the home. Well, you might say they should just save the money and then purchase the home. But if you have a family, with children, it can be difficult or even impossible to be able to save enough to make a down-payment on a home. And if the opportunity comes along where you are able to borrow the money, most would do so, in order to gain something as important as a home of our own.
Always tell the Truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said. ~ Mark Twain
People who are honest are certainly more easily respected, but I have to wonder if most people believe it's the best policy when the “straight trees” are always cut down first, while the “bent trees” get to survive longer. As a case in point, it seems the people who behave the worst, especially in the world of media and celebrities, are the ones who end up with money-making reality shows on television. And the honest people, those who refuse to lie for any reason, even to "embellish" their resumes, or who tell the whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth at job interviews, unfortunately, are sometimes left out in the cold. Unfortunately. Without a job, without a home, and many times, without hope.
So, does this mean we've reached a point in our "evolution" as a race of humans where the price of honesty is too high? Does a person have to be crazy in our society to be honest, always, in everything that he or she does? Or is it impossible to live a completely honest life?
Crazy by Gnarls Barkley
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD