“Liberal” Honesty?

First, a disclaimer: the “liberal” I use on this page is intended to have absolutely nothing to do with the twisted sense in which it’s used in the US. (In that sense, “liberal” is a kind of stealth-pejorative that gets applied to anyone who isn’t a Republican—put another way, against anyone who disagrees with fundamentalist Christian policy or so-called traditional ideology.) Instead, I use this term to represent a sort of regression toward the mean by stepping back from “radical” honesty, which I have previously referenced.

As a rule (in the piratical sense—a guideline), I believe in being pretty open. I don’t mind expressing my views, even political or religious ones, until the social context makes it inappropriate to do so, but inappropriateness can be a tricky thing to pin down. To avoid getting distracted by the specific boundaries of situational appropriateness, I’ll just summarize it by suggesting “most non-professional situations” (i.e., outside of work-related functions). Let’s agree that this is a horrible oversimplification and move on.

“Radical” honesty fails the asshole test, but its basic premise—that people should be honest with each other—is a deeply valuable insight. If the general idea can be salvaged, why throw it away? (There’s a baby-bathwater reference to be made somewhere.) Being more open about your feelings needn’t intrinsically have a negative effect. The reason radical honesty fails here is because it presumes that the people you deal with are willing to accommodate your bluntness (or that you don’t mind alienating people if they aren’t). If we remove this presupposition, we’re left with something far more socially acceptable.*

* * *

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for moving beyond interpersonal myopia. It’s easy to forget about long-term consequences in the face of far more predictable immediate ones, and I think people often overestimate the severity of others’ impending umbrage. It’s entirely conceivable to be in a situation where the optimal long-term gain comes from violating social taboos. If you dislike something but refuse to say so, you’re ultimately inviting more of that thing into your life. I’ll illustrate this by potentially violating a social more (pronounced like the eel)—I’m going to talk about sex. If that makes you uncomfortable, stop reading now. And grow up.

Still here? Good, let’s get started.

ABC News 2004 "The American Sex Survey&qu...

Pop culture is rife with the cliché of the female orgasm as a myth due to women faking orgasms whenever they have sex with their partners, and I find this the idea entirely repulsive. The woman whose partner can’t even find her clitoris—or doesn’t even know what that is!—is surely iconic.**  In any case, anyone who follows the example of this cliché is being terminally stupid. A woman who resorts to faking her orgasms is giving positive feedback cues for something that she does not enjoy—by lying to her partner, she makes herself progressively less likely to have her partner give her a real orgasm in the future. This invites a downward spiral of increasingly terrible sex. (This exists, you know.) She is, in effect, lying to her partner, which is not conducive to a healthy relationship.*** In what I presume to be an attempt to avoid creating immediate feelings of rejection or inadequacy, the faking of orgasms lays the groundwork for a future confrontation of potentially relationship-shattering proportions. (If you’re being rational adults, it doesn’t have to be quite this big a deal, of course, but people do seem to enjoy letting their pride get the best of them.)

This situation is an excellent analogy for all manner of social interactions, not just those in which participants are without clothes. In the same way that Hollywood’s unsatisfied women might upset her partner by pointing out (it’s always a he in these situations) his shortcoming (if you’ll pardon the pun), you risk having more arguments by being honest, saying something like, “Hey, I find X very annoying.” What’s far more important is that by taking this risk, you create the possibility of improving not just your own life, but also the other person’s. If you hate X, other people probably do too, and your interlocutor may have no idea that this is happening.

If you and your interlocutor are capable of having a mature conversation about these problems, the interpersonal upheaval should be transitory—being willing to communicate openly fosters long-term stability in relationships. Then again, if you’re unwilling to tolerate someone who holds opinions that differ from yours, this probably isn’t true (and you may even be unaware that you’re an asshole).

If something bothers you, take action to fix it. If you don’t, then you have no business making a big deal out of it.

In all things behavioral, expecting absolute adherence is naïve. Just like trying to stop smoking, changing the way you react to the world doesn’t happen overnight. Breaking habits is hard, and relapses happen. It’s important to make allowances for these, but stay the hell away from guilt—probably the least productive emotion I can imagine. If you feel bad about something, act to improve it; don’t just wallow in your own inadequacy. (This is another reason I find the Catholic church deeply distasteful, but whatever.) If you’re the kind of person who gets all worked up over making mistakes, stop that immediately. Oh hey, this soap box has grown pretty high—let me climb down from here.

The kind of open, honest communication I’ve briefly detailed here would be a common feature in my ideal world. There’s something about being in new social situations that makes it more difficult, but I try to converse with people like this whenever possible. I can’t pretend that I succeed all of the time, and some people seem to be far less comfortable with bluntness. (I am, after all, a pretty easygoing guy.)

So what do you think? Would this drive you crazy? (Or if I already do it to you, does it drive you crazy?)  In a way, if someone isn’t willing to engage with me in this way, I find it hard to care whether I offend them. Does that make me an asshole?

*   Then again, from an entirely utilitarian standpoint, completely alienating yourself from someone you dislike by explicitly pointing out
the reasons you don't like them could conceivably have a positive effect on society as a whole, so in this regard, perhaps radical honesty is
pretty spot-on.

**  I wonder if this doesn't stem from the presupposition that women aren't meant to enjoy sex, which flourishes in a conservative religious
context. It's not terribly relevant to this depiction, however, because religiosity isn't a necessary condition.

*** With the obvious exception of surprise presents and whatnot, if you feel you have to hide things from your partner, your relationship is in
danger. You should probably work on that.
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