Instead of listening to what people say, watch what they do. There can be quite a chasm between what people say they’re about and who they actually are. They’ll say they’re for this or that, that they’re against this or that, but when push comes to shove it turns out their principles are really just hobbies. They practice situational ethics. They’ve got reasons –oh, really good reasons – why they didn’t say anything, didn’t raise their hand, didn’t make a fuss.
In a profile about me in Robert Edward’s The King’s Necktie, I talked about the importance of fighting for our fragile democracy, standing against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and how that can often be as simple as having difficult conversations. I believe that if a person votes for, supports, a man who has unequivocally shown himself to be racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist and ant-Semitic that person is supporting those beliefs and the consequences that spring from them. At best that person is tolerating those beliefs and their all-to-dangerous outcomes. That person may not say racist things (well, not in front of you), but again, what people do is more revealing than what they say, and that person’s actions speak volumes. But so do the actions of those principled people say one thing in some situations but do another. Or rather, do nothing. Lips are sealed, butts stay in seats. Because it would be hard? Ineffective? Futile? So, our principles are dismissed, lie unused, when it’s not easy, or when the tide is against us?
Philosophy calls this situational ethics, and I would certainly argue that sure, in some situations situational ethics are appropriate. For example, let’s say my colleague Bob is against murder, but if he sees you coming at him with a knife he’ll more than happily murder you first. His self-defense warrants situational ethics. Now, what if Bob is against adultery but nonetheless one day Bob is unfaithful. He knew it was wrong but he was drunk and she was pretty and fill-in-the-blank. Bob’s an impulsive guy. He doesn’t tell his wife because he doesn’t want to upset her. Bob’s a nice guy. And Bob doesn’t want to get into trouble. Bob’s a scared guy. That’s situational ethics too. Truth be told, I like Bob a lot. He’s smart, really nice, fun to be around, and a wonderful co-worker. I’d give Bob a kidney if he needed one. But I don’t trust Bob. I don’t trust Bob because I know that in some uncomfortable situations Bob has no problem being full of shit. He tells himself he’s not a liar, because technically he hasn’t told a lie. He’s lying by omission. Um…I don’t care, I don’t trust Bob.
I didn’t meet my half-sister until we were both over 50. She came to town for a few days, and on the last day of her visit we went to lunch and she told me I apologized too much and it was really annoying. It may seem strange, but I felt overcome with love. As much as I don’t like being annoying, I was so grateful for her gift telling me I was annoying. More than wanting to be nice and be comfortable, she wanted to be my sister. She wanted to help me. She wanted to do the loving thing. Now, when my sister says she loves me, I believe her, because her actions spoke so much louder than the phrase. Whatever else my sister may be, she takes honesty seriously, she takes love seriously. She took me seriously.
The other day I told someone very close to me that I can’t really trust him when I asks him what he thinks of something I’m doing or wearing because I know he’s too afraid to tell me the truth. Even though I won’t get mad, or I may or may not just change my clothes, he’s afraid to be honest. He probably tells himself he’s being nice, but I know he’s just being afraid. There are other important people in my life about whom I feel the same. I may love them, but they’ve robbed me of the comfort of being able to trust them. Being nice or being polite is often the veil people use for being dishonest, lying by omission, or avoiding conflict. Speaking for myself, I’m much more afraid of a lack of honesty than a lack of conflict. Discourse isn’t scary to me, but dishonesty is. I’m not afraid of feedback, criticism or counsel. I don’t always like it, and I don’t always act on it, but I appreciate the care, concern and especially the respect that comes with it.
Like everyone, I’ve had arguments and difficult, awkward conversations and we’ve all lived to tell the tale. Much of the time situations end up being better, I end up being better for them. But maybe I find dishonesty such a threat because I’ve experienced the real and lasting pain it can bring. Having been betrayed by people you love, you end up struggling with trust. It’s a horrible feeling, and it’s exhausting. I can’t relax amidst polite chitchat, give me ruthlessly honest straight talk any day. I want to live in a world free of bullshit and genteel hypocrisy. My friends know they can trust me if I say that dress looks great because they know I’ll tell them if it looks horrible. They know they can trust my relationship advice because I won’t pretend to like their partner if I don’t. They know I’ll point out each and every red flag, no matter how mad they get. My honesty isn’t rudeness, it’s evidence of my love and respect.
This is what I like about dames. They give it to you straight. Life’s too short, and frankly, life’s too damn hard for bullshit. For me, this goes for dealing with the people you care about, and for standing up for your principles and values. They’re called values because you value them. Just like the people you hold dear, some things are too precious to attend to sometimes and abandon when they’re inconvenient.
If you think honesty hurts, I’m here to tell you that dishonesty hurts way more. And if you think standing up for other people is risky, we all know that not standing up for them is way more perilous — for everyone.