Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Why is Honesty Brutal?

I got a very kind note from Arthur Silber after writing the previous post. In it, he wondered why we see honesty as being "brutal." He mentioned that he, too, uses this phrase, but isn't there something strange about seeing truth as being violent?

I agree with him that it goes back to the Alice Miller theories he discusses (go to his blog to read up on these and come back here when you are done!). In fact, we are socialized from a very young age to carry certain core values and assumptions. I have Western values and assumptions, but unlike most Westerners, I know what these are and am sensitive to differences, having lived in non-Western society for many years and made a daily effort to observe myself as well as others.

Sometimes we find that our core assumptions and values turn out to be either morally wrong, or not factual, or both. When that happens, just stating that they are wrong/not factual seems like an act of violence.

For example, the core assumption that Alice Miller attacks is that parents always do what is best for their children, and if they don't, it does not matter because they 'mean' well. Thus children are made to feel guilty if their parents are cruel to them - and often internalize the cruelty. Arthur has a great article on the strength of this cultural assumption, examining the actor Mel Gibson's relationship to his father. Alice Miller was strongly attacked in her native country of Germany by psychiatrists for bringing up this issue.

I have taught management workshops in which people discuss how to challenge assumptions. It is really difficult to do directly. People have a lot invested in their assumptions - and they have internalized them from a very early age. I think this is why there are often surprisingly hysterical reactions in US and other societies to people who attack those core assumptions.

For example, a feminist writer who points out that some widespread cultural conventions, such as telling upset-looking women you don't know to "smile," is sexist, gets really outraged reactions. People of color and women who write about white or male privilege get this all the time from white/male people whose assumptions are being challenged.

People who challenge homophobia also tend to receive outraged responses that don't seem to have at all comprehended what they actually said. I think the action of "speaking truth to power" often brings out people's defensive reactions. Anything that provokes such strong reactions could thus be categorized as violent.

Those of us who do try to speak the truth in uncomfortable circumstances really feel that we are being brutal at times. Sometimes, I feel when I confront people in the US on their faulty assumptions regarding the Middle East, that I am truly attacking them, though I am trying to approach it rationally. Part of this is because I often provoke an outraged and often completely disconnected angry response. Then I feel as if I really don't know where to start with this person.

Thus, "brutal" honesty.

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