Brutal Honesty

treeswallows_viaAnitaRitenourHonesty is the most important thing—at least, that was a value I learned growing up. No criticism was left unspoken, nor was there any thought that it should be. I learned to value blunt, direct language. I learned to say what I thought. I learned to be brutally honest, and to believe it was the right thing to do.

What I learned was not unique. I see a lot of people who prefer to be direct and who find honesty refreshing. I know a lot of people who find subterfuge and subtext exhausting, and who are actively annoyed by people who weave and bob and refuse to say what they think. And I, like a lot of other people, am actively annoyed by the fact the public figures say whatever they think people want to hear with no regard for truth. Honesty, I think, is objectively valuable.

What I didn’t learn, at least for a while, is that brutality and honesty need not go together.

It took a long time to reach that observation. I annoyed more people in college than I needed to. I’ve annoyed more people since when I wasn’t very good at remembering, and when I chose to set it aside. It’s tempting to be brutally honest—it feels cathartic and simple and efficient. It feels like truth. It feels like breaking a taboo. It feels like opening up the layers of society that cloud things over and revealing raw truth inside.

And it’s insidious, because it also makes anything you say brutally feel true, even if its not.

Gentle honesty, I have found, is much more engaging.

Gentle honesty, first and foremost, is questioning. Gentle honesty means saying what you mean, and not hiding or prevaricating, but also acknowledging that you might be wrong. Brutal honesty in certain, but gentle honest is exploratory. We all have biases, and presenting truths with pounding certainty ignores those—and makes those truths a little less honest.

Gentle honesty also considers the needs of other people. Not everyone likes to absorb new information without the frills. Some people can’t ever, and all of us have areas where we won’t, even if we don’t admit them. There’s no shame in either of those—they’re simply true, and we can admit them or not. So brutal honesty is often pounding too hard against our emotional investment in our beliefs.

And on top of that, the “brutal” part of brutal honesty is off-putting for everyone who doesn’t hold it as a value, and even some people who do. There are a lot of people who will just write you off if you seem too direct. So in addition to being a little wrong by ignoring biases, and a little hard to hear by ignoring people’s needs, brutal honest is also, often, ineffective.

I try now to strive for gentle honesty. And I find that the more I do, the less I am interested in people who just say what seems true. They can stand and bluster and rile up people who appreciate their ideas, but they don’t convince the people who disagree. Instead, I am attracted to people who stop and think and change their minds. I look for leaders who take a step back from their own beliefs, who consider the needs of people around them, who look for the shape of the world instead of trying to pound it into shape.

Which is maybe the best reason to value honesty, but not brutal honesty—the things we value are reflected in our society.

I want a culture of honesty, but I don’t want a culture of brutality.


Image Credit: Anita Ritenour

One comment on “Brutal Honesty

  1. venice967 says:

    This is a very good point. No one in their right mind would want necessary surgery w/o proper anesthesia. There will still be pain in the process of healing but the actual cutting is blunted. Also something else you said struck a note with me. How could anyone want to hear what is being said while the other person in question is tearing down and shredding to bits all you hold dear? And beliefs are something held dear. When I saw the pitfalls of some of my ideas, it felt like I was ‘losing my religion’. It was painful, but at least the Lord was gentle in His honesty with me. It takes a certain strength to be gentle while being honest. And I believe it is something that does have to be learned. From the hippie days of ‘letting it all hang out’ to the internet chat rooms of today where courtesy isn’t even practiced a lot of the time, our society has lost a lot of decorum. Maybe some of it was superfluous, but a lot of it was just common courtesy and kindness. And with the anonymity of the internet, we’ve lost the face-to-face accountability in how we say things. I’m glad you addressed this!


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