The truth shall make ye fret

We live in a very economical world. We don’t lie, these days. We are economical with the truth. We don’t break promises – some of them were “non-core”. And Qantas didn’t have a near miss with two of its aircraft recently. It had a “loss of separation”.

As a teacher, I know that if I lie to my students, try to pretend I know something I don’t, or bluff my way though, I lose their respect. I teach Computer Science, and I have 26 kids in my class – every one of them interested in a different aspect of the subject, in a different programming language, or using packages I have never seen before. It’s not like it used to be when I was an academic when I taught a prescribed curriculum and didn’t deviate from it. In this class my students are going off like firecrackers in every different direction. In my first year I quickly discovered that I could not possibly keep up with all of them. The best I could hope for was catching up occasionally when they needed a hand.

So when they ask me curly questions, right from the start I would say “I’ve no idea. I haven’t used <whatever arcane language or piece of software they were playing with>. But try looking here and here. If that doesn’t work, give me a day or two and I’ll find out.”

At first I was a bit nervous about this approach. Here I was, regularly confessing to a huge amount of ignorance. How would I earn their respect? But gradually I realised that something strange was happening… the more I confessed to not knowing stuff (but at the same time taking an interest and working alongside them to solve the problem), the more I seemed to actually gain their respect.

I’m pretty confident that if I had tried to bluff my way through instead, they’d have seen through me immediately, and written me off then and there.

Early on in my lecturing career I got asked a question that I didn’t know the answer to. Young, naive, under-prepared and insecure, I bluffed the answer – to the obvious scorn of the questioner, who had been giving me a hard time all along. Then I went home and checked and found that I was completely wrong. So I went in to the lecture the next day and confessed. Told the class the right answer and then expected to crawl under my rock and cuddle my humiliation like an old and malodorous soft toy. To my utter astonishment, the student who asked the question came up and thanked me for the correction, and treated me with a lot more respect from then on.

If you search for tenderness
It isn’t hard to find.
You can have the love you need to live.
But if you look for truthfulness
You might just as well be blind.
It always seems to be so hard to give.

Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.

Billy Joel, Honesty.

Honesty and respect have a very close relationship. If you are known to be direct and scrupulously honest, people know they can trust you. It’s possible that I take it a little too far, feeling uneasy even about talking about the tooth fairy with my kids. I don’t want to ruin their fun, but I don’t like lying to them, either.

Unfortunately our public figures – politicians, CEOs, businesses and journalists, just to name a few – seem to believe that the truth is a dangerous beast to be kept caged and thoroughly hidden at all times. Don’t tell the public what you are going to do, or what really happened. Tell them what you want them to think, or what you think will make them vote for you/buy your product/support your cause. Nothing else matters. And we let them get away with it. We accept it as inevitable that they will lie to us. Unless they are female, of course. Then they are lying witches, but that’s another post.

We seem utterly unable to hold our leaders to account. To say to them, loudly and clearly, WE DEMAND TRUTH. We demand integrity. Any time anyone even tries, the answers weasel around, prevaricate, and dress things up in obscure language.

It seems that honesty and politics have suffered a near terminal increase in separation.


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