“At least I’m honest”

“Sure, I have racist thoughts. I’ve crossed the street to avoid a black man sometimes, but only at night. I mean, at least I’m honest about it, though, right?”

“I have had a lot of bad experiences with women, and yes, I’m resentful about it. It colors how I treat the women I meet. Even though I know in my head that it doesn’t make sense, in my gut I feel like every woman I date owes me sex on behalf of all those other bitches who teased me and left me high and dry. But hey, at least I’m honest!”

“Can I just say that for me, family life was always just an obligation? I mean, yeah, I care about my wife and kids, but what’s really important to me is my work. I wish we could just be honest about it — I’ll give them money if they leave me alone.”

I don’t think that any of us would say that statements like this represent important ethical achievements. Even in their own wording, they openly admit that they’re doing the very minimum — more honesty! Yet the “at least” may already be an overestimate: who would claim that unethical behavior suddenly becomes ethical when it is openly engaged in?

In reality, the “at least I’m honest” gesture is a foreclosure of ethics, a short-circuit by which being true to one’s own authentic shittiness becomes an ethical obligation in itself. It is the last stillborn offspring of the Christian critique of hypocrisy — a critique that was originally intended to shame people into living up to their stated ethical ideals, much as Christian confession (“being honest with yourself”) was a first step toward ethical transformation and made no sense outside of a process of conversion. In the “at least I’m honest” worldview, by contrast, ethical aspiration as such is already the hypocrisy that must be rooted out, and the only possible outcome of confessing one’s shittiness is to remain authentically, honestly shitty.

In response to this radically self-serving post-ethical stance, all we can do is require people to stop being so damn honest and start being as hypocritical as possible — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it maintains the possibility of an ethos.

15 thoughts on ““At least I’m honest”

  1. “At least I’m honest” is in fact the opposite of the classic analysis of hypocrisy, “the tribute vice pays to virtue” where the hypocrite is a hypocrite because they know what they actually do isn’t right.

    On the other hand, in the specific case of racism, there is a history of black figures who at least rhetorically prefer the honest racist, to hypocritical “support.” Most famously, of course in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s condemnation of “the white moderate” in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

  2. Adam, before I get to my snarky response, I want to say I really agree with your point, especially that hypocrisy these days is frequently a tool used to keep people from trying to be ethical. I really believe you are onto something. A way of trying to articulate how to live a good life in a bad life (to steal from Butler stealing from Adorno). Okay, snark response now.

    Adam, this post is a great response to an earlier post I read. Over here, if you haven’t seen it: https://itself.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/why-am-i-not-a-vegetarian/
    One could add in that your post here contains a wonderful critique of the excuse of systemic harms. That the person who is just being honest, also often implies that racism and sexism are systemic harms (everyone does them), so their individual actions of racism and sexism are let off the hook. But such moves are, as you point out, a foreclosure of ethos. If we look at the writer explaining why he is not a vegetarian (he is, after all, just being honest about it), you see the same moves. On the hand, a sort of confessional move (I just crave hotdogs), combined with the systemic excuse (my personal actions wouldn’t change anything anyways). And so I agree we need to move away from “radically self-serving post-ethical stances.”

  3. You made me go back and read the post, and though I’m ambivalent in some ways, I think it’s more an ethical disagreement than a disavowal of ethics as such — I simply don’t agree that avoiding killing and eating animals is an important ethical priority. I also say that I do take the token gestures that I find relevant (like buying organic meat), though I’m only willing to take it so far in light of their objective ineffectiveness.

    Basically, I’m the kind of person you should be fighting to force to act ethically through legal coersion, like MLK’s “honest racist.” And I mean, good luck and everything. I probably won’t even fight back very hard.

  4. Solid.

    One of the things I was liking from this post, and that I was trying to read out of it, was a broader discussion of the maneuvers people engage in to not be ethical. Particularly the ways they use the failure of certain actions (failure here meaning not sufficient for the outcome; e.g. an individual trying to be less racist is not sufficient for ending racism), in order to justify not changing their own actions. Issues of hypocrisy are one important way people avoid trying to engage in ethics. Shrugging off any responsibility to systemic issues is another way. (Of course, my critique opens myself up to promoting a kind of virtue ethics, which, ugh).
    By the way, Neal Stephenson has this great discussion of hypocrisy in his novel The Diamond Age. He is probably the most relevant passage:

    “You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism? … Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.”

  5. My last comment was written before seeing you had a follow up comment. Solid was in reference to your not trying to score moral extra credit points. And I am perfectly okay with using institutional action to force change. Not likely to happen anytime soon, though.

  6. It’s true that the systemic problem argument can be used to disavow responsibility, but I don’t think it’s quite as insidious as the more general “at least I’m honest” — it doesn’t implicitly make it an imperative to promote the systemic problem. At worst, it makes it a matter of indifference, to be decided based on one’s own personal preference (assuage your guilt or go for the more convenient option). In either case, it at least maintains some relationship with the idea that it would be better if the systemic problem were solved.

    I think an equivalent to “at least I’m honest” on the systemic level is evolutionary psychology, where every oppressive structure turns out to be “just the way we are.”

  7. This precisely the logic of conversion, of redemption, as you point out. Confess and you are forgiven. Confess and you are redeemed. It’s like every time he says “at least I’m honest” there’s an implied “and now you have to forgive me” or “now I am absolved” (of guilt, responsibility, etc.).

  8. I find “I prefer honest enemies” gambit is to rhetoric as conventional militaries sneering at guerrillas is to war: yes, of course you would prefer to continue to fight on the battlefield on which you have just won. But they have just lost there; that is why they have changed tactics.

  9. It’s not clear to me that “honest” racism is better than hypocritical “tolerance” if you’re actually the victim of racism, and not just idly theorizing about it, even though there’s something extremely pernicious about “angelic” racism. I recall a discussion I had with an Ivoirian friend who told me how much he preferred living in London than Paris as a student. The Brits aren’t any less racist than the French, but at least being British means that they’re too embarrassed to make a public scene. If you’re the black guy sitting next to the racist on the tube, it makes a difference.

  10. Of course, nobody here, myself included, would have a clue what that feels like. Even as a woman, i don’t really get what that’s like. We may not be hypocritical shits, but we’re all still bullshitters.

  11. I think it’s a strategic political gambit less than a real preference: “Either join me unambiguously, or else be the kind of enemy I can clearly oppose and defeat.” On an interpersonal level, I have no doubt that hypocritical non-racism is to be preferred over honest insults.

  12. I think you may be misplacing the blame here. When someone says “I’ll be honest” followed by X unethical statement, is he not implicitly relying on an other (real or imaginary) who says “Yeah, I totally know what you mean. I don’t really love my children either”? Perhaps the source of the problem lies with this other. If, instead of agreeing when somebody said “I’ll be honest,” the other was genuinely surprised, or silent, or asked further questions, or any other number of options beyond passive agreement — basically, if the other did not grant the “honest” person his narcissistic satisfactions/identifications — said “honest man” would potentially be forced to examine his desire and the casual ease with which he neglects ethical norms. “I’ll be honest” could be an opening to transformation, if only we didn’t treat the others’ strange honesty as our own.

    (This, I’ll be honest, is what seems to happen when I’m being “honest” to my analyst.)

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