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Honesty and Slanted Truth

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 11 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the subject of honesty in boys. This section discusses how truth can be slanted. It follows the section on Honesty and Conflicting Perspectives.

Seeing the subtleties of honesty

The older we get, the more opportunity we have to see the subtleties of honesty and dishonesty. We come to see the difference between literal and figurative truth—to see that a phrase like "I'll do it in a minute" is probably literally untruthful but what we really meant was a metaphorical "I'll do it in a short while." Youngsters of literal mind who are impatient with our "in a minute" promises sometimes begin to count the seconds aloud.

We also come to see that many things are open to interpretation, depending on needs, interests, and perspectives. The cynical word these days is "spin" for the activity of putting forth an interpretation as much in one's self interest as possible; some people are acknowledged to be spin-masters. But cynicism aside, it's hard to deny the frequency with which we appeal for readings of events sympathetic to our own situation. An aware adult will be compelled to acknowledge the legitimacy of others' doing the same.

We construct our own versions of reality

We all construct our own versions of reality and try to get others to adopt them or at least accommodate them. So one person's truth differs inevitably from another's. Some distortion of truth, or of what we best believe to be true, helps most of us manage to cope in the world. In her book, Lying, Sissela Bok—who makes a strong case for eliminating as much burdensome dishonesty and deception from our lives as we can—nevertheless quotes Emily Dickinson on the subject of honesty:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to our Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—


Unless the truth comes to us gently or obliquely, and in moderate doses, we can't always tolerate it. It blinds us like lightning. We need truth to be circuitous, on the slant.

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