Frankness, honesty, truth-telling and compassion – and the social norms and etiquette that obstruct them
Frankness is necessary now, as is a fierce and unflinching honesty, if human beings are to survive. We face such severe and rapidly escalating global crises, the environmental crisis being paramount, that if we do not quickly recover and embrace more fully the tradition of frankness and truth-telling, then we will soon be dead and buried. For that reason, among others, social etiquette, social norms, politeness and social conventions can kiss my ass, whenever and wherever they obstruct these basic necessities of human survival on planet Earth.
Or to put it in more gentle and courteous terms, as is preferable, generally speaking, we can say: whenever our habits or norms of social etiquette, our ideas concerning politeness or our social conventions obstruct or interfere with a basic and compassionate honesty, frankness and much-needed truth-telling, then our long-held or otherwise cherished norms, sense of etiquette and conventions must be moved to the side – gently and respectfully whenever possible, but firmly, and even fiercely, where necessary.
I came across a greeting card the other day that I thought was hilarious, and piercing, and thought I’d buy it for my office, and frame it and hang it on the wall. It reads,
If you’re easily offended,
now would be
a really good time
to fuck off.
This is a bit blunt, even harsh, but point taken: we must not be so easily offended that all rational, thoughtful, heart-felt or honest conversation or discussion becomes impossible. That would be madness. Or more simply, that would be our present, profoundly abnormal social norm, which we must jettison, like so much used jet trash, clutter or debris from the past.
If it be thought rude to be honest, then let us be thought rude. Honesty is more important than coddling delicate feelings, or pandering to nonsensical social norms and conventions. Let the overly delicate retire to the pre-school playground, while those brave enough to discuss the real world speak undisturbed and unmolested by morons and cowards.
Some truths are beyond all words to covey, and simply cannot be spoken. Some truths do not need to be spoken. And some truths are better left unspoken. Being honest and truthful is not the same as being a hyper-critical, nitpicking, fault-fnding jerk. There is being truthful, and then there is simply being an asshole.
Many people today mistake a general demeanor of sarcasm, derision and haughty, sneering contempt, for sophistication and thoughtfulness. It is not neither: it is simply inept and crass idiocy which shows a paucity of thought and reflection. The general gist of questioning everything is caught, although rarely applied, and instead of truly questioning what should be questioned, a general attitude of impudence, mockery and scorn is randomly paraded and cast upon everything and everyone. This is not helpful, to say the least. This is simply air-head bravado, not intelligence.
Intelligence would mean to respect what is respectable, and to scorn what is not; and to treat all beings with a basic respect, even when their actions or words on occasion demand a forthright and direct response. But such subtleties are beyond many, it would seem, and so, they simply behave like four-year-old children with a personality disorder.
Modern society tends to be overly harsh, and greatly lacking in respectfulness, simple human warmth and openness, and also, common courtesy; and at the same time, profoundly lacking in truthfulness and self-honesty. Surely we can see how an attitude of basic respect can be, and must be combined with a basic honesty and willingness to speak the truth. There can be, and needs to be, a balance sought and found.
Of course, frankness or candor must have some relationship to thoughtfulness, or basic intelligence, just as it must have a relationship with compassion. We can speak frankly about something, but is what we have to say compassionate? By compassionate, again, I do not mean that it necessarily is considered polite, gentle or “nice.” Sometimes things must be said which may be considered impolite, blunt, or unpleasant to hear, but they have to be said anyway. To do otherwise would be a lack of compassion, and a failure of responsiveness.
Suppose we are talking, directly or indirectly, to the fossil fuel industry. Maybe we are a shareholder, sitting in a share-holder’s meeting. The polite thing to do would be to agree with whatever the board of directors or the CEO says. But considering the state of the earth and the vast and truly extinction-level of pollution that the fossil fuel industry is creating, to avoid speaking frankly about the realities facing human beings on earth with regards to this industry, would be nothing short of an act of high treason to humankind, and deeply lacking in compassion, as well as cowardly and unethical in the extreme.
Compassion calls for bluntness at times, and that will simply have to be done in the best way we are able, even if it is not in the best possible way, and it will have to be born with, if we are on the receiving end of such frank and blunt statements. Again, sometimes the truth does not need to be spoken, sometimes it is better left unspoken, and sometimes, it is very important that we speak it frankly and directly, to the best of our ability and our present understanding. It is up to our own innate intelligence to discern what the moment calls for.
Frankness requires some measure of basic intelligence. We can be perfectly candid, but that is not always the most intelligent thing to do. If, for example, we are working on a project of some kind with someone or with a group of people, we may have a good deal in common, but we will also have our differing views on what is the best way to proceed. If we want the collaboration to go well, if we want the project to be successful, then we will have to strike a balance between frankness and candor on the one hand, and compassion and respectfulness on the other. If our partner or someone from our team suggests something, and we respond by saying that it is a completely stupid idea, we may be being frank, but we are perhaps lacking in both compassion and also intelligence in our way of handling our response.
We can be thoughtless with our words, and that may well result in our shooting ourselves in the foot, and causing more harm than good, or even destroying all that we had hoped to accomplish or create. On the other hand, and at the other extreme, we can be so chronically overly polite, meek, mild, gentle or agreeable, that we will go along with anything, and either nod in agreement at unwise, unintelligent, ill-considered or even unethical plans, policies or actions, or worse, enthusiastically support them, despite our better judgement, or alternately, simply remain silent, while idiocy, confusion or evil parade themselves before us, and run the show. We must speak frankly at times, and we must balance frankness with compassion, and also, with an intelligent discernment as to the effects of our words.
We have to think about how we will be heard, how our message might be received, and what kind of response we will elicit, of course. The objective is not simply to vent, rant, draw attention to ourselves, speak our mind or pour forth our every thought and feeling. The objective is to increase the quality of life and the happiness for all, both others and ourselves, through the power of compassion and truthfulness. Blurting out everything that comes to mind with no thought or reflection might not be the most intelligent or compassionate thing to do, and the responses of others, and the results, might not be as positive as we would like. A little thoughtfulness is also needed.
All of this may seem perfectly obvious, but very often, things are obvious only after they are pointed out. Before that, there were anything but obvious – they were simply overlooked.
Most of philosophy, if not all, can be thought of as the art of recollection, or religio – a re-linking to our original awareness. It is the art of pointing out or remembering that which we already know on some level, however dimly and vaguely, but which we have a tendency to routinely and habitually overlook or forget. So yes, we do need to remind ourselves occasionally of the promptings of our innate intelligence and basic common sense.
Frankness is a value which we should hold dear, for the simple reason that honesty and truth-telling are values to be upheld. Compassion is enlightened self-interest, since no man is an island, and all beings and things are interdependent – it is a small world, and in truth, in reality, we are all in it together: we all swim in the same pond, like it or not. Compassion, therefore, is not only kind, noble and virtuous – it is simply intelligent. Compassion is the over-arching and primary foundational value for any sane or intelligent life, to say nothing of a decent or virtuous life, or for any decent, virtuous, or simply sane society. Truth-telling, honesty and frankness fall under that umbrella of compassionate action as vital and indispensable adjuncts or supports to a life and a society premised upon compassion.
If we are not willing to be honest, if we are not willing to speak the truth, then there is little chance that we will live with compassion, or that we will have a compassionate society – no matter how obsequious, fawning, deferential, meek, mild, courteous or polite we may be. This does not mean that we have to be unduly brusk, rude, disrespectful or harsh, but it does mean that we must speak the truth; and at times, that requires the bursting of bubbles of illusion or lies – and that is not always pleasant, and it is not always considered polite.
In fact, poking holes in people’s bubbles of illusion, confusion, lies or self-deceit, is generally considered very impolite in our society. This must change, or human beings will simply perish from this earth.
It is time now to speak the truth, and to speak it forcefully, where necessary: and a fiercely honest truth-telling is now necessary in many regards, and with regards to many subjects.
Speak up. This is our world, and it is our future that we are either building together, or collectively destroying: either through our courage, honesty and brave hearts of compassion, or by our habitual acts of dishonesty and avoidance of reality and the truth, respectively.
Let compassion and the truth be what we hold dear above all. The rest is incidental at best; an obstacle to be overcome or disposed of, at worst. And very often, and in many cases, the latter is the case.
Speak up. We have no time to lose. Honesty, compassion and the truth are all that we need, and what we need above all – and we need them urgently.
Speak now, and let us banish the misplaced noisy silence which surrounds us, like a thick black smog, or a plague. Let us pierce the darkness of denial, illusion and deceit with the clear light of a simple honesty, truthfulness and compassion that has the spirit of a warrior and the heart of a lion.
Speak now. The world is waiting.
Our future is waiting.
April 3, 2014