When Did Honesty Become an Excuse to Be Mean?

The word “honest” is used in strange ways these days. When someone wants to say something cruel, they justify saying it by using honesty as an excuse. “I just have to be honest.”

Those who practice “radical honesty” often seem to use that to say whatever mean thing comes into their heads. Do those same people also say all the good things that come into their heads? It doesn’t seem like it. To me radical honesty would involve telling people I see how much I like how they’ve done their hair or how beautiful their skirt is.

I see it in book reviews a lot too, where a reviewer tears a book and its author apart and then says they are just being honest. Even if you don’t like something, there are nice ways to “be honest” about it.

Honesty cuts both ways, in my opinion. If you want to be so honest that you’re going to tell someone that their artwork is childish, then you also have to be honest enough to tell someone when you are jealous of them and wish that you had their drive.

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Sabina

    I agree. I’ve encountered this behavior over and over again, and the implication of the “radically honest” people who only say negative things (bluntly) is that if you can’t handle their “honesty,” then you are weak and not to be taken seriously. These people may not even realize what they’re doing, and might believe themselves to be courageous and/or doing their friends a favor.

    When men direct this at women, it has additional implications, considering the widely believed stereotype that women are more “emotional” (and that emotional = bad/weak/silly), so this can be a gaslighting behavior. However, no matter who directs this kind of concentrated, exclusively negative, unsolicited “brutal honesty” at anyone, it’s inconsiderate at best, and abusive at worst.

    I think Anne of Green Gables even said something about this (in Anne of Avonlea): “Have you ever noticed,” asked Anne reflectively, “that when people say it is their duty to tell you a certain thing you may prepare for something disagreeable? Why is it that they never seem to think it a duty to tell you the pleasant things they hear about you?”

    • Ambaa

      I didn’t remember that from Anne! :D

      • Sabina

        Anne has a lot of surprising wisdom. =)

  • 5w_haul

    sorry strongly disagree on this.i am in favour of calling a spade a spade.
    to believe that someone is out there to get you is childish thought and if you really know that then need not to bother.
    if you don’t have anything nice to say……….is most rubbish quote i have ever heard, in individualistic culture a person is not affected by his environment than what is a use of such things. i rather like
    “Nindak niyare raakhiye, Aangan kuti chhavaay |
    Bin paani saabun binaa, Nirmal kare subhaay ||”

    • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

      You can’t control the actions of a nindak, but you can control your reaction to him, and use him to learn from instead of to allow him to tear you down.

      But I do not think Kabir was calling for anyone to *be* a nindak!

    • Ambaa

      I would say that I don’t mind honesty being harsh as long as it is balanced with when you have nice thoughts, saying those too! Speaking truth is very important to me, even unpopular truth. Then again, I try to remember that my understanding of what is True might not be all there is to it.

      Honesty is great, but let’s be honest about both the good and the bad!

  • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

    I found this passage the other day by Sarada Devi and felt like it was written for me – I tend to judge rather harshly and this gave me something to think about:

    “Should any­one ever utter a thing that hurts another’s feel­ings? An unpleas­ant truth, though true, must not be uttered. For that grows into a habit. By indulging in rude words one’s nature becomes rude. One’s sen­si­tiv­ity is lost if one has no con­trol over one’s speech. And once a man casts all con­sid­er­a­tion for oth­ers to the winds, he stops at nothing.”

    Read the rest at http://vedantadc.org/sri-sarada-devi-on-fault-finding

    • Ambaa

      Very nice!

  • Agni Ashwin

    “Just sayin’ ” seems to me to be another way of saying “I just have to be honest”.

    • Ambaa


  • Lauren Borrero

    Gosh so true.

  • Paul Julian Gould

    The usual comeback when peoples’ words are brutal tends to be “Well, it’s just my opinion… I’ve got the right to my own opinion.”

    Because one can, it doesn’t mean one always should.

    Our society here in the US has become one of rabid insistence on rights, while negating responsibility.

    And, furthermore, we’ve got a huge problem with folks conflating “freedom of speech” with “freedom from criticism of speech.”

    Glad I’m getting old… my nation is becoming mean, undereducated and spiteful.