Honesty: Not such a Natural Orientation

Published on : 07 Apr 2014
5 min read

The current debate about Dhoni and our expectation that he should have told what he knew to the Hon Justice Mudgal Committee made me think. There is almost unanimity that any one of us would have told the truth, if we were put in a similar situation. One of the celebrated TV anchors was certain that she would have, had she been in a similar situation.

This takes me back to some 41 years. I was in my 7th standard. The charge: my use of abuse and also beating up a classmate during the lunch time. The two of us the aggressor, which is yours truly and the victim my class mate, were in our Head master’s room. After a stern dressing down and a lamentation on how I was unworthy of being a student of such a disciplined school, I was offered a fig leaf to confess and be dealt with leniently.

Until then I had not accepted or denied the charges. But with this offer I promptly confessed and expected that my headmaster will honour his promise. Much to my shock he immediately suspended me from the school and summoned my father, purportedly for as they used to say in those days, “Take the TC (Transfer certificate)”.

I safely got past the ire of the authority (as I have later many times in my life), and passed out of Avichi High School, as one of the school’s and my Head master’s favourite student, who brought many laurels to my school in sports and many other fields. Was I honest or did my honesty become easy, when the consequences were mitigated?

My proposition is: No one is honest in all contexts and at all times. Yet we all pretend to be honest irrespective of the consequences in all contexts and at all times. Why is that we all put up such a dishonest pretence, when we judge a fellow human being, especially when he finds himself on the horns of dilemma: Like Dhoni.

Let us start by asking when was the last time any one of us was honest with our spouse about issues which are material and significant. Is this not the most secure relationship for us to be honest not only about our deeds and thoughts but also our inner emotions all the time? Yet we worry about the consequences, which is breakdown in relationship; sometimes temporary and on rare occasions even permanent. Too big a price to pay! Let sleeping dogs be.

Take the case of democracies around the world and especially our own. We lament every day that not just dishonest but corrupt politicians monopolise the state power. May I ask how does this deep sense of honesty amongst millions permit them to vote repeatedly for these dishonest politicians? The elite amongst us will quickly say that it is the folly of the masses. We will justify our own voting as done under the duress of not having a choice of a clean and honest option. So logically then should we conclude that democracy is a political system of the dishonest? Or that the majority is dishonest or supports dishonesty, which the honest minority will suffer without any demur. A strange way to be honest, especially if honesty is such a non-negotiable value!

Who we vote for we do not have a choice, but do we also not have a choice on who we work for? Take the case of the many organisations and their owners/CEOs, who we know are not paragons of virtues. Yet millions do not say no to these organisations and go to work for them across the world. Where does our sense of honesty go, which we generously profess for others? Here again the elite will say that they do not work for some brands. Brilliant! But do they not patronise them by buying their products? Do we not have a choice here? Or does economics dictate our sense of support or otherwise of these brands?

Many of us knowingly buy spurious brands and pirated movies and software. Does every honest Indian stop at the traffic lights and wear a helmet or a seat belt? When the cop catches us why does our hand voluntarily go to our wallet or why do we let him know about our friendship with senior police officials? The rationalisation for our own dishonesty is that the dishonest and corrupt cop or the system forced our hand.

Whenever any member of an institution commits a misdemeanour or transgression and one of us is a witness and are called upon to testify, I have invariably found that we all are limited with the truth. Our defence is that we and our families will be targeted. So why is this logic not tenable for everyone who chooses to be silent or economical with truth when called to testify?

My personal experience is that even socially powerful people, who have no fear of any personal consequence, are circumspect and economical with truth, in order to protect the institutions they belong to or not wanting to get dragged into “avoidable” controversies. So dishonesty gets justified when it is to protect the survival or reputation of an institution, state, organisation or even one’s family.

I have repeatedly seen in families when horrendous offences are committed against women, the perpetrator(s) within the family is protected by this code of omerta. Honour and loyalty above honesty is often the motto. This is true with every institution.

Hand on heart let us admit our own responses to people who are honest in their engagement with us are not very encouraging. As long as this honest engagement does not disrupt our significant agenda in life or business, we are indulgent. The moment it becomes inconvenient to us or our institutions, our valuing of honesty gets nuanced. I am not being critical but merely highlighting that honesty is not an absolute value or is the default setting in all of us. Most presentations or propositions we make in important forums are nuanced positions; neither untrue nor completely true, even with numbers which are most amenable to be factual. The key is what we have withheld but will tell only when asked pointedly.

It is ironical that a lawyer is reminding Dhoni of his duty to tell the truth nothing but the truth. If lawyers were to strive only to propagate truth, but not find arguments to nuance it, then there will be no need for appeals to higher courts. Even justice is a nuanced position on what is the gleaned out truth. Such is the challenge with absolute honesty. Justice appears to be black or white only when delivered from the television studios. Much in the same way globally the profession of audit has its challenges. How material is the deviation for an auditor to pronounce transgression or a gap is always a dilemma; all the codes and norms notwithstanding.

We as human race have built into us survival and self- protective adaptations. Camouflage, bluff, deceit and opportunism are the adaptations we learnt the earliest, to protect ourselves and our kin from the ever prevalent danger around us. Honesty is the civilising adaptation, we developed in order to build trust with in a community and maintain social relationships. Hence honesty is a deliberate strategy used by humans along with deceit for survival and maintenance of social order.

To elevate it to being a noble character in itself is a social tactic, so that we all will periodically feel inspired to deploy it. In the absence of putting honesty on the pedestal, given the price for being honest, most will not even attempt it. One of the feedback, we give to people, who are honest in their social engagements without understanding the context is that they are not diplomatic. Society judges people who have honesty as their default setting as disruptive and abrupt. The social bluff is, be honest when we expect you to be and when it is convenient for all of us and at all other times be diplomatic; euphemism for dishonesty or should we say limited honesty.

My argument is not that matches or spots in matches can be fixed or the board president should deviously own a team. I am not arguing that under oath or otherwise we tell lies. I am not even arguing that no one ever is honest. My argument is that honesty which we all assume is the natural orientation of human beings is not all that a natural orientation. Like common sense it is not all that common.

When honesty is sought to be defined stridently in an absolute sense it will always be self-righteous and accusative. I am comfortable with a position where honesty is an ideal we all strive for but have the freedom to trip and fall once in a while. This will help us not to choose the other extreme, dishonesty. Any way we all know it within us that honesty is not our natural default orientation. It is a deliberate and discerned judgment we make. It has many shades and not black or white, as we would like to believe.

To start with an acknowledgement that being honest at all times, in all contexts and irrespective of the consequences, is an onerous proposition, will go a long way in helping people to choose honesty more often. Honesty becomes an attractive option in a secure, supportive, non-judgmental and forgiving environment (My head master knew this). In all other environments honesty even when chosen is burdensome. So instead of holding others responsible for honesty, I would focus on introspecting, whether I create an environment which makes it easy for others to be honest.

If honesty were to be so common and natural then stories of Harichandra (Lord Rama’s ancestor) or autobiographies such as “My experiments with truth” would not have been such exceptional works or inspirational.


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