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The Difference Between Honesty and Truth

A failure to recognize the difference leaves you exposed and gullible.

Honesty: Expressing your feelings and opinions accurately.
Truth: Accurate representation of reality.

How could we have ended up with most Republicans celebrating a president who “speaks his mind and tells it like it is” while many non-Republicans are mourning the dawning of the “post-fact age”? Easy. It's because people are confused about the difference between honesty and truth. One can be completely honest and totally untruthful. A schizophrenic can be honest about their dread of the creature standing in the corner of the room when, in truth, there’s no creature standing there.

To mistake honesty for truth leaves you wide open to deception, especially when your honest opinion resonates with the honest opinions of others.

Your partner passionately denies cheating on you because he has convinced himself that he didn’t cheat. Hard to imagine that kind of selective memory? Imagine it. It happens. You want to believe him and here he is being so honest about his feelings and opinions. But is it true?

No, your partner cheated on you.

Your kid says, “But he started it!” and really believes it. He’s being totally honest about his opinion. But is it true? No, your kid started it. You may not want to believe he did, so you’ll say, “but my boy is being honest!” as though that means he didn’t start it when, in truth, he did.

A new-age anti-gun advocate declares with all sincerity that all guns should be banned. Why? Because she read somewhere that guns send out negative vibes that cause cancer in kittens and believes it. Honest? Yes. True? No.

A president publicly states “No collusion!” over 200 times, often in all caps and always with intense earnestness. Honest? Who knows, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and allow that he really honestly, sincerely means it. But is it true? Mueller and time will tell, but it's increasingly unlikely, as evident in him now saying that collusion is not a crime.

We mistake honesty for truth and we mistake earnestness for honesty.

It’s easy to fake honesty with earnestness. You just have to pump up the rhetorical words and gestures. Just say, “No, really! I mean it. I’m absolutely sure.” Gesticulate emphatically, raise your voice, or lower it, using your best condescending mansplaining or womansplaining tone. Make what you’re saying sound heartfelt or like it’s the product of judicious unbiased research. And those are just some of the many ways we have to sound honest when we’re not.

Such earnest fake honesty is easier for some of us, of course. There are professionals who make their living through fake honesty, whole professions that favor that talent—politics, for example (not statecraft, which is different from politics. Clinton was lousy at earnest fake honesty).

Earnestness is profitable because fake honesty distracts people from the pursuit of unprofitable truths. Fake honesty is especially profitable with the gullible and people who have the same emotions and opinions that the professionals fake.

Gullibility is largely a product of failing to notice the difference between honest opinion and truth. You may recognize the difference, but we’re all gullible in the company of people who share our honest opinions.

We’re much more likely to spot a fraud who disagrees with us than one who’s on the same page. We’re much more likely to notice that honesty and truth are different when someone’s honest opinion conflicts with ours; but when someone’s feelings and opinions are just like ours, we’re both in touch with the truth. How could we not be? We both agree? That’s a consensus!

Why do we mistake honesty for truth when we’re on the same page? Because we all tend to see ourselves as the standard for the truth about reality. We assume we’re unbiased. When we’re with like-minded people they must be unbiased, too ­– in direct contact with the truth.

Thinking that we’re the unbiased measure of all truth is why more exes are diagnosed as narcissists by their former partners than there are true narcissists. Their former partners assume that being loving and attentive to them is the true standard. If someone fails by that “unbiased” standard they must, in truth, be narcissists.

Seeing ourselves as the measure of all things is why you’d get far-left and far-right citizens accusing the media of having a bias. Anything that diverges from their gold standard must be biased because lord knows, they’re not biased. They’re the measure of all things.

So is President Trump honest? Maybe. Those of us who don’t trust him spend a lot of time debating whether he’s just pandering (earnest fake honesty) or honestly believes what he says. Is he earnest like a fox or is he earnest because he truly believes? It’s a tricky question. There’s no way of knowing for certain because there’s no way to get an objective measure of his honest beliefs. And he wouldn’t want you to, anyway.

Some of his admirers are grateful that he isn’t a politician. Politicians are dishonest. They overlook the fact that he was in one of the few professions more slippery than politics. He was a carnival barker, a showman, an unscrupulous salesman. His prior profession breeds more professional earnest fake honesty than almost any other besides outright con artist, which he was, too, by his occasional slyly proud admission.

In those professions, it pays to believe your own earnestness. It’s far easier to convince others that you’re honest if you believe that you really believe than if you know you don’t believe and have to fake it.

It’s method acting. You’ll be most convincing to others if you suspend disbelief and conscience altogether and believe with all your sold-out heart whatever you have to persuade others to believe.

But all of that is speculation. We can’t know for sure whether he’s honest or fake-honest like a fox. Probably both on an as-needed basis, and he’s happy to switch between them to keep us confused. Challenge him on his slyness and he’ll smirk “that makes me smart.” Challenge him on his beliefs and he’ll double down on his honesty with a bunch of “Believe me, no really” earnestness.

But whether he’s honest has no more to do with whether what he says is true than the new-ager’s honest belief that guns send out bad vibes that give cancer to kittens.


CNN: Trump repeats Giuliani defense: 'Collusion is not a crime'

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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