Saturday, October 19, 2019

Honesty Versus Unfiltered Speech

or, Carefulness in Word Choice Isn’t Self-Censorship

Stuart K. Hayashi

When people notice me taking time to choose my words carefully, they often convey that they find this off-putting. They misinterpret it as shyness or, worse, some attempt to be sneaky. In the latter case, the assumption is that if I’m choosing my words carefully, it must mean I’m employing some strategy to flatter and deceive. A corollary to this assumption is that the most consistently honest sort of person is one who blurts out every immediate value-based impression that is made upon him — which is what Donald Trump seemed to do regularly on the campaign trail from 2015 and 2016. “Wow,” some people said. “Everything the other candidates said seemed so calculated and artificial. So when Donald Trump throws caution to the wind, and airs the same prejudices I’ve nursed but were too scared to articulate, that is real honesty.”

For a man to tell an outright lie is for him to express a conclusion and for him to intend for it to be interpreted as his reasoned conviction, only for it to turn out that the conclusion contradicted his own actual views the entire time. Recognizing this, too many people on Twitter, 4Chan, and 8Chan conflate unfiltered speech with honesty and even free speech. On the latter count, they conversely presume that in any situation where people exercise caution before articulating their opinions — be that caution based solely on one’s own judgment or based on social pressures — that situation is necessarily one where free speech is suppressed.

In this vein “Onision” — a well-known narcissist on YouTube who has over a million subscribers — has been very consistent about airing various derogatory prejudices about other people and, because those prejudices do not contradict any knowledge he knows to be true, he apparently decides to call himself “the most honest person on YouTube.”

But to speak the truth, someone must first know what truth is — not just a specific item of truth, but the very concept. Someone can indeed be honest when making a statement that turns out to be inaccurate. That is to be honestly mistaken. But being honestly mistaken is more than just believing in an inaccurate statement in the very moment one makes it. Another component is required but too often overlooked: even if an honestly mistaken person does not always succeed in his being accurate, he is consistent in trying. And to try to be accurate is to be aware of one’s own present limitations in knowledge and to investigate the facts of a matter before conveying confidence in one’s conclusions about it.

Honesty is not just the absence of doubt in one’s own statements, but the consistent employment of rationality in evaluating the merits of the conclusions expressed in those statements. Thus, part of being honest in one’s evaluations of a topic is often, in many instances, to refrain from airing a declaration about it.

If, upon first glancing at Mr. X, I announced I suspect Mr. X of being a crook because he looks how I imagine one to look, it wouldn’t contradict what I know about Mr. X. But it wouldn’t be about investigating facts either. In turn, it wouldn’t be about truth-telling. And even if such an announcement were prefaced as tentative, the announcement having been made would influence the evaluations and actions of other people with respect to Mr. X, “poisoning the well” for him. Hence, the announcements of one’s negative prejudice about Mr. X is not an honest statement of one’s own admittedly narrow understanding, but an action that one knows can contribute to prejudicing other people, implicitly encouraging those other people to prioritize prejudice over the search for truth. That a person’s evaluation doesn’t contradict anything that he knows to be factual isn’t sufficient to make the expression of that evaluation a truthful one.

If a man airs an evaluation without any concern for whether it is accurate or not, it does not count as an outright lie, but it still errs on the side of likely falsehood, and therefore precludes it from being an exercise in truthfulness.

To be truthful, a person must have real convictions, convictions reached through objective observation and remembering of evidence. It doesn’t require that one be a stubborn Sherlock Holmes-style detective who is on deliberate “investigation mode” in every waking moment. But it does mean that a person does take some time to introspect and ask himself why his opinions are what they are, and if they stand up to scrutiny.

On this topic, I remember a rather disturbing statement made by someone to whom I was very emotionally close. After she met my mother, she said to me something I didn’t understand at the time: “I didn’t disagree with anything I said. But it was still all an act.” It turned out that my friend has a dangerous mental illness where she doesn’t have a stable “narrative identity.” She doesn’t have any well-considered firm opinions; there is only comfortable mimicking of the opinions and mannerisms of the people who give her the desired sort of attention. (To my knowledge, the situation has not improved. 😢)

Someone who has no firm convictions, and yet states opinions confidently anyway, is not telling outright lies — but is not being truthful either. (And, contrary to today’s clichés, no, it’s not the case that “life and the world are so complex that being objective will preclude you from forming any confident convictions anyway.”)

Hence, if someone engaged in unfiltered speech — divulging every prejudice, or even just some prejudices — without qualification, and not actually looking into such matters objectively, that person would not be contradicting what he knows to be factual, but this would still not be an exercise in honesty. It would, at best, be the equivalent of just making a lot of noise. And making gibbering noises is not the same as spelling out the truth.

Someone who expresses just about every snap judgment on whim, and leaves it at that, is someone who has very little concern for learning what is true. And one who does not care about learning the truth, in turn does not care about telling it.

Perhaps it is the case that none of the many harsh and sweeping value-judgments aired by Donald Trump and Onision contradict anything they know to be true. But they have both demonstrated that they do not know or care what the concept of “truth” even means. And, by that standard, they are anything but truthful.

Having the First Amendment and freedom of speech means that someone cannot and should not face violent reprisals, especially from the State, based on the peaceable expression of opinions when using the private belongings of consenting parties. This applies even if the opinions are hateful and willfully oblivious to concerns about accuracy. A free-speech republic does not use the law to proscribe a person or private establishment from exercising unfiltered speech — the one exception being credible articulations of violent threats. But, by the same token, when a single person or private establishment places filters on what it states openly, that is not the same as an attack on free speech. That is not self-censorship. Nor is it a private establishment censoring anyone. What it is, is simply a private party choosing to exercise its own judgment within a political environment of free speech.

There are some occasion in which, when people’s speech is consistently very guarded, there is reason to be suspicious. There are many cases where people observe a phenomenon that is dangerous or pathological, and yet they refrain from speaking out for fear of social rejection. That is why Donald Trump gets to be surrounded by sycophants who pretend not to notice his pathology. When people notice obvious and urgent facts but refrain from acknowledging them, that guardedness is indeed a form of dishonesty. To name obvious facts when it is urgent to do so, is the same as honoring truth. And, on the converse, to refrain from naming obvious facts when it is urgent to name them, is indeed to desecrate the truth.

And politicians being calculated in their choice of words is indeed a form of dishonesty for the reason that when they do select the words they will speak, the gaining of immediate emotional approval is prioritized above an adherence to facts, facts of which many voters find unpalatable.

Yes, when a very conscientious and self-conscious person takes an extraordinary long amount of time to choose his words — to an extent where it becomes debilitating — that can indeed detract from a conversation. At that point, guardedness can end up concealing urgent truths rather than just being diligent in double-checking the facts in preparation for their eventual release.

But as long as one doesn’t reach the point where it becomes debilitating, taking one’s time to choose words carefully, for the purpose of trying to be accurate, is an exercise in honesty.

Unfiltered speech, saying whatever one feels — even when it doesn’t contradict what one knows consciously — is to be indifferent to accuracy and facts and truth, and therefore is not to be honest. By contrast, filtering one’s speech — when thoughtful and with consideration for accuracy and facts — and delivering it when it needs to be delivered, is what it means to be honest.