This is true: When I was in my early 30s, I regularly texted pictures of poop to a woman I know.
It’s also dishonest.
Since my last post here four years ago, I’ve had a lot of incentive to think about truth and honesty. The political events of the last 4 years have certainly played a part, but it’s also because shortly after that post my wife and I had a second child, and we’ve been doing our best to raise both of them with some understanding of honesty. I’ve come to think in more detail about how truth isn’t enough for honesty. It seems like the world right now is lacking truth, but in my opinion it’s lacking honesty even more. This lack of honesty is a larger issue, but it has specific implications for writing and communication.
So, how do we think about this problem, address it and try to move past it—at least in the things we write?
Defining the problem
Dictionary definitions are relevant, but boring. If you want to skip to the next section, no hard feelings. The tl;dr version is that dishonesty seems to arise in large part because people don’t even agree on what words mean, including important words like “true”.
A quick OED search reveals that some of the ambiguity is baked into the words themselves.
On the one hand, “honest” means an action or feeling is “done with or expressive of truthfulness, fairness, or integrity of character […] genuine, sincere.” But honest also means “done with good intentions even if unsuccessful or misguided.” So by itself the dictionary can’t clarify: is honesty an underlying reality or simply a description of a mindset?
Likewise, “true” has the same sorts of contradictions. The primary meaning of “true” listed in the OED is something like “loyal to a cause” and “reliable” or related to an action being “sincere”. Those aren’t claims of objective veracity, so “true” rests uneasily alongside what I would call the primary meaning nowadays in common use: “in accordance with fact or reality.”
After looking even superficially at the different senses of those individual words, it’s no surprise to see those contradictions reflected in the wild as well. Articles on the first page of Google point in different directions:
This author says truth is an “accurate representation of reality”. Therefore, you can be “completely honest and totally untruthful” because honesty just means accurately expressing your “opinion”.
Meanwhile, this author says the intention is more important than the outcome: honesty is an “effort” to be “accurate”. However, truth is “subjective [and] ultimately personal.”
So in an environment where people don’t even agree about what it means to be “true”, it’s perhaps not a surprise that dishonesty—and by this I mean “things that don’t align with my own nebulous sense of what’s honest”—is so easy to come by. Understanding that the problem arises partly from language rather than pure malice is important, if only to make the situation seem less bleak. It also points the way to potential remedies.
Addressing the problem: phrasing and context
I assume professional writers try to put written words into the world with the minimum chance of being misunderstood. In other words, our professional interest in honesty and truth primarily comes from self-preservation, because being seen as dishonest or untrue is professionally unwise.
But honesty is more than simply writing something true. Honesty has to be an active decision to take facts and add a framework whose implications don’t run counter to the original circumstances surrounding those facts. Things can be true but dishonest because of how they’re presented, which is why phrasing and context are essential.
Anyone who has tried to deceive knows the importance of how you frame, or phrase, your information. Returning again to the example above, it is true that when I was in my early 30s, I texted pictures of poop to a woman. If asked a yes/no question under oath, I would have to say yes. A more honest rendering of the information, however, is this:
“When I was in my early 30s, my newborn son had an unidentified dietary intolerance. He was exclusively nursing, so my wife—who is a physician—kept a food log to correlate her diet with his symptoms. Whenever I changed his diaper and it appeared like he had blood in his stool, I sent a photo to my wife so she could monitor the extent of it.”
It’s very common in political and even marketing writing to lean extremely hard on phrasing to put the maximum possible implication on a given fact. That’s how a vote for a particular bill becomes “Politician X supports this horrible outcome”. Being aware of the extent to which this happens will make you a better reader, and thinking through the implications of your phrasing will make you a more accurate writer, if you want to be.
There’s no such thing as a fact in isolation. If you leave out any mention of context, the reader may assume that the context isn’t relevant – i.e. that the fact exists against a “normal” or “average” background. If that’s not the case, and you leave out the context, you’re being actively misleading. Here’s an example of a true fact that means very little and indeed is misleading without context: “In just one month in the summer of 2020, the number of unemployed people in the USA fell by 2.7 million.”
In this case, context is crucial – what is the decrease from, and to? What are the absolute levels? What types of jobs are being added and lost to make this total? When the reality being described is still fresh, as in this case, we may suspect that the decrease (in this case from 16.3 to 13.5 million) isn’t the whole picture. But in areas where we know less, we’re more dependent on the author’s framework for the given information.
As honest writers we need to understand the necessary context for a fact. In addition, there’s a certain bias all readers have to notice and remember things that reinforce existing beliefs. Every reader is guilty of this at least some of the time; so writers should resist the impulse to confirm everything we expect our audience to think.
Honest writing in a dishonest world
For writers, honesty is difficult: something can be simultaneously 100% true and 100% dishonest. There’s also a fundamental asymmetry towards dishonesty, because lies are always dishonest…but truths can be as well. Honesty should be prized, and we should strive for it as both writers and readers, but we should realize how difficult it is, and how much a culture of perceived honesty depends on good faith readership.
That’s why I said above that honesty is an active decision, and dishonesty is as well. Dishonesty consists of actively disregarding context, and only seizing upon any idea that advances your goals. Dishonest truths are stripped of context and made to serve ends antithetical to themselves.
If there’s one lesson from the Trump years (as of this posting, it’s not clear how many there will be): lying is bad, but dishonesty is more than lying. Trump’s dishonesty is extreme – it seems to consist of not caring what his words mean, outside of what they can achieve for him moment-to-moment. This is enormously destabilizing, because not only do people inhabit largely separate universes of facts (due to their sources of information), but there’s even disagreement about what words like “true” or “fair” or “legal” or “honest” even mean. Many of Trump’s fans think him entirely “honest” in the sense of “saying what he really thinks.”
If you’ll pardon the metaphor, Trump’s dishonesty has been like clear-cutting a rainforest of language in order to cultivate a crop of praise for himself in the ashes. It works for a short time but soon enough he needs to move on to the next plot, leaving destruction behind.
I don’t know if there’s a way back from this situation without people caring about honesty of expression and valuing it as an end in itself—and that’s a project much bigger than any one person. To writers who want to help make that happen, my advice is to remember: you can’t control your readership, keep an eye on phrasing and context, and facts aren’t enough.