Honesty and “Better Call Saul”
Personally, I think honesty is overrated.
I mean, I get that it’s desirable and everything but OMG why do people gotta make such a THING out of it? Why honesty, anyway? Why not kindness or generosity or patience? Why is honesty considered the king of positive character traits?
I believe it’s because honesty is so easily weaponized. People love honesty because it’s handy ammunition and the gun is always loaded. People love honesty because they know they can shoot people down with it. And most of us are pretty easy marks.
The concept of “honesty” is frequently used against people who are the junior partner in a relationship. Those consumed by a burning quest for absolute honesty at any cost are almost always the ones running the show. Nosy parents, overbearing teachers, tyrannical bosses, demanding friends, and controlling spouses. People who hold the power in a relationship never need to lie because they make the rules and they enforce the rules. They are answerable to no one thus they can change or ignore the rules of a relationship upon a whim. Thus it’s very, very easy for them to cluck their tongues and clutch their pearls over the occasional fib. While there are certainly liars-by-nature who use dishonesty to get what they want and opportunistic liars who abuse the truth to get away with dastardly deeds, often “honesty” is little more than a brickbat used by the powerful to oppress the powerless. The powerful have the ability to decide to stand above the law pretty much whenever they want. Hypocrisy is a much less serious charge than lying.
One of my pet peeves is the treatment of honesty in movies and TV shows. If honesty is fetishized by everyday people, it’s deified by Hollywood. The entertainment industry adores honesty-related themes and uses them constantly – I assume because they’re easier to write than more complicated moral dilemmas. Writers often set up these big elaborate scenarios where our hero has to tell a fib that is totally understandable by anyone with half a heart or brain, but their compatriots are outraged by it out of all proportion. Then the next 10 episodes consist of all the other characters completely overreacting, feigning betrayal over a little well-meant truth-stretch, sulking and seething and and shrieking “But Frankenstein, you LIED to us! You didn’t have to go into the nest of vampire-zombies that were carrying the ebola virus alone to hand-grenade their master, we could have come too!” Even when the lie in question literally saves all the other characters’ lives, even when prevents the destruction of the whole entire universe, the characters behave as if lying is this unpardonable sin. It is SO BORING and utterly unrealistic. Totally manufactured drama, which I despise.
This is a huge part of why I love the show Better Call Saul. The treatment of honesty on BCS is fascinating because it is REAL. It’s the only show I know of that actually captures the usually-understandable reasons why people lie and shows lying not as an unforgivable evil but as something that kind of makes sense sometimes.
I find there are two main reasons why good but powerless people lie in real life. One is that they don’t want to get in trouble for something. They’ve done something wrong or screwed something up – a fairly innocent mistake or maybe there were extenuating circumstances – and they just KNOW it’s going to be this big effing thing because they are dealing with a totally unreasonable overreactor that blows everything out of proportion. And lying is easier than dealing with that. People make mistakes and do things with completely pure intentions that don’t go according to plan. Pretty much constantly. I think you can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way they react in and to this situation, and there are many, many people who are absolute jerks when dealing with other people’s unforced errors. They make a ginormously big deal out of it, or they’re super condescending, or they will never let it go and you’ll hear about it forever.
You know what I mean. 30 years later you’ll be hearing from your parental units about something that happened back in high school; at your retirement party your boss pauses before handing you a gold watch to berate or belittle you over that time you botched the Miller Account. People lie to avoid these ridiculous overreactions to basic human foibles and in many, many, MANY cases, the lie is by far less wrong than the overreaction.
But the second reason is even more important. It is that people sometimes just need a reasonable amount of space to freaking live their lives. To be who they are without somebody up their ass 24-7 about every little thing. There are a great many people in this world completely preoccupied with controlling every action of their loved ones or friends or coworkers. If you’re in this situation, the recipient of a controller’s attentions, you can’t go about your day doing the things that you would like to do – reasonable, unremarkable things – without someone calling you out on every aspect of your life. It turns you into a dirty rotten liar because you just need some wiggle room, to like, exist, without someone peppering you with 9 zillion accusatory questions about why you’re listening to that song and why are you reading that article and why aren’t you wearing the red skirt instead of the green one. It is demoralizing at best, soul-crushing at worst.
Since these things are small and harmless individual decisions to any sane, rational person, it’s exceedingly easy to lie over them. And as we all know, small lies have a way of growing into big ones till one find themselves enacting a Watergate-style coverup about what they ate for lunch on Thursday. “Why did you have a double cheeseburger, honey? You know you have high cholesterol. I packed a lunch for you, a healthy lunch, why didn’t you eat it? It had lentils and I worked really hard on it. You know the doctor said you couldn’t eat things like cheeseburgers any more. Do you want to die, is that it? You want to die, don’t you? You want to die to get away from me!!” (well, yeah, right now I kind of do TBH)
C’mon, who hasn’t lied about something like this? You just want some freaking air to breathe and some delicious grease in your veins.
So that brings me back to Saul. Saul (well, Jimmy, since that’s his name at the start of the show, he doesn’t become “Saul” till later on) is a completely screwup. He’s kind of morally challenged, but this guy Jimmy has a good heart, overall. He runs the occasional scam, but only on people who deserve it. He’s in and out of trouble with the law, but not for big things – he doesn’t hurt people physically, he doesn’t take money from people who can’t afford to lose it. His sins are fairly minor in the grand scheme. He has this brother named Chuck, who is to all outward appearances, successful and functional. He’s rich, he’s a lawyer, he has a big fancy house, he holds all the cards all the time and Jimmy has none of them. You know what else Chuck is? He’s extremely amoral. I find Chuck by far and away more amoral, even downright immoral, than Jimmy. But he’s amoral WITHIN society’s rules. He’s the type of guy who knows just how to manipulate the rules to get the desired outcome and the type of guy who has the power to do just that.
Chuck uses the rules to keep Jimmy – who goes straight and very inspirationally becomes a lawyer himself – from getting hired by Chuck’s own firm, twice. He uses the rules to actively hurt Kim, Jimmy’s friend and later girlfriend, both personally and in her career. He sets Jimmy up to fail again and again, and when Jimmy manages to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, Chuck tears him down both overtly and covertly. He tricks Jimmy into confessing to a crime, and baits Jimmy into a rage to get him into even deeper trouble. Chuck has a pattern of behavior that reveals him to be controlling, manipulative, narcissistic. Chuck is a bad person who masquerades as a good person to exercise power over others and has the luxury of performing the masquerade of goodness because he has that power. He talks up honesty, not because he is particularly honest; in fact he is living a lie – the lie that he’s a good person. He espouses honesty because he can, because he has no reason to lie outright, because he’s at the top of the pecking order and is answerable to no one. Why would he lie? Who would he even lie to? Honesty is merely a tool for him to use on others. He wields truth against those who don’t have the luxury of being honest.
Chuck reminds me a bit of Dolores Umbridge, from the Harry Potter series. Umbridge was put in charge of discipline at Hogwarts – making and enforcing school rules and regulations, doling out punishments for transgressions. She embraced that role with enthusiasm, quickly becoming a despot. Harry Potter and the other students had to lie and sneak just in order to reasonably exist when Umbridge was in charge. She was, of course, as all despots are, a big proponent of honesty, even making Harry write “I must not tell lies” in his own blood. Just like Chuck, she made the rules, she enforced the rules, she held herself above the rules, and she worshiped honesty for everyone aside from herself.
Ok fine whatever, why not just tell the truth tho? So people who bladi-blah about honesty are a-holes, who cares? As they say, by not telling the truth, don’t you become just as bad as they are, if not worse? Just be honest and they’ll surely respect you for that. Right?
Not even. In my experience, the honesty hunters don’t like it any better when you tell them the truth, and it’s oftentimes worse than if you’d lied and gotten away with it. “I just want you to be HONEST with me,” they say, crying crocodile tears about how wronged they feel. But when you are, even when you’re honest about things that you have done or thought or felt that aren’t even wrong, they invariably fly off the handle anyway. Chuck was outraged that Jimmy had, against all odds, become a lawyer. Umbridge was outraged that Harry Potter was learning Defense Against the Dark Arts – something he was supposed to learn at Hogwarts! Neither Jimmy nor Harry were doing anything wrong, they were doing reasonable, even admirable things, but they had to live alongside people who did not want them to do those reasonable, admirable things.
Umbridge and Chuck didn’t want the truth, they couldn’t handle the truth. They wanted people to do what they wanted them to do and they wanted to be able to find out really super fast if they didn’t and unraveling lies takes time. Honesty is just a means to an end to them. Honesty is just a way to get their way faster.
For these sorts of people, it is all about control, control, control. They don’t CARE about truth. They care about controlling what you say and what you do and even what you think because if you live with them long enough they get into your head so much that you feel like you’re always doing wrong even when you’re not doing anything at all. Thinking is wrong. Breathing is wrong. (Too loud, probably, and why did you sigh just now? Bored, are we?) Sitting quietly and staring into space is wrong. (Shouldn’t you be cleaning something?) “Truth” is this thing that controlling people pretend to want but they want it only so they can know what you’re really up to all day, every day. You’ll know this because when you innocently, foolishly tell them the truth, they’ll bring it up in every argument you have for the next several decades. They are LYING when they say they want honesty. Demanding honesty is a way for them to turn you into the bad guy, thus obscuring the fact that they are the real bad guys.
Most liars are not born that way. Most liars are don’t lie to commit heinous atrocities or to emotionally hurt anyone. Most liars are just people who are surrounded by unyielding jerkfaces and need a little wiggle room to take a breath now and then. They tried honesty and the reactions from said unyielding jerkfaces were so outrageous, so extreme and unfair that lying started to seem like a viable option. Either they’re in a position of powerlessness they cannot escape like a child in a school or an employee who desperately needs their job, or they value the relationship so much that they don’t want to walk away from it, just like Jimmy doesn’t want to walk away from Chuck. They are stuck and lying seems like the best way.
It’s certainly the easiest way; far easier than waging a war over every detail of every day. Far easier than handing your archenemy ammunition that you know will be later used against you. Honesty is easy when people are good to you. Lying is easy when people are bad to you. Because no one wants to live that way, fighting incessantly over everything, and that’s what you have to do if you’re always honest with a tyrant. It’s exhausting and a miserable way to live. You’ve been handed an impossible choice, either be honest and go to the mat constantly with a control freak making unfair, possibly insane demands upon you, or lie and risk getting caught. The brutes among us use the one-two punch of demanding, domineering, authoritarian personality + honesty-as-supreme-virtue to manipulate us into finding out our every inner thought, to force us into doing what they want us to do. No matter what, you lose.
Lying is preferable to giving in, giving up, laying down and dying. Lying is an act of defiance, a telling of a deeper truth, the truth that you are a person whose desires and wants matter and that you are not sublimated beneath the boot of your oppressor You’re fighting to get what you want using the only weapon you have – secrecy. At least when you lie, you still exist. When you stop lying, you know you’re defeated. They won. You’re gone. They’ve wiped away everything that you are and all that’s left is what they want you to be.
I would rather be a liar than a non-entity.
While the story of Better Call Saul hasn’t gotten to the point yet where Jimmy becomes Saul (I haven’t seen the third season yet, unfortunately), I can see what is happening to him. Jimmy would rather be a liar than a non-entity too. But the problem with this approach is that once you start lying about little things, it’s easier to lie about big things, and lies about lunch turn into lies about other things, things that matter far more, things that you really should be honest about. Keeping the peace begins to matter more than staying true to yourself. Avoiding the fights that are pointless becomes avoiding even the fights that you need to have. You kick sand over the lines you should be drawing and it’s no wonder that people step right over them and demand more and it’s all too easy to just keep on lying.
You have to be careful NOT that you’re being “fair” to the dominating jerk slowly destroying you from the outside in but that you’re being fair to yourself. Because you don’t want to allow them to change you from the good person that you are into the disgusting worm that they tell you you are. That’s just another way they have to destroy you. That is their endgame, you see; either they want you turn you into that non-entity who exists solely as their definition of how you should be, or they want to destroy you.
If I could tell Jimmy one thing, it’s that Chuck would have never changed. No matter what knots Jimmy tied himself into, no matter what principles Chuck forced Jimmy to abandon, Chuck would have simply found another thing, another thing, another thing to complain about. Because for Chuck, it was never about honesty. It was about control. Chuck wanted absolute control and honesty was just a means to that end.. But you can never give a control freak enough control over you. There’s always something more that they’ll decide they need. They’re simply never satisfied and Jimmy should have taken his cards and left the table before Chuck was able to turn him into an entirely different person.