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Honesty and “Better Call Saul”

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 27 years. 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.

 


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Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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39 thoughts on “Honesty and “Better Call Saul”

      • Do you recommend it for people (like me) who haven’t seen and don’t want to see Breaking Bad? I saw the Breaking Bad pilot and was so turned off I didn’t want to pursue the show further.* I understand BCS is a prequel, which is one reason I haven’t given it a try.

        *Maybe I should give it a second chance. I realize it’s iffy to judge a show only by its pilot.

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        • I actually think you could watch BCS (at least the first two seasons) without watching BB. You’d miss out on some of the fun of the easter eggs/origin stories but I think it’s a great show entirely on its own merits.

          But I will say you probably should give BB another chance. I had actually watched the pilot twice and couldn’t get into it either time, and decided it was overrated. Then last year my husband wanted to watch it so we kept going with it, and both of us ended up really loving it – and he hates anything to do with glorifying drug use so for him that was saying a lot. We watched it again immediately afterwards (we never do that) and are now rewatching it a third time and it’s very nearly as compelling a watch the third time through.

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  1. I haven’t seen the show. but I also get annoyed with the tv drama ‘but should have told us the truth!’ subplots. Too often the lies really are understandable and anyone with half a brain and/or the least sense of empathy would be able to forgive then easily. (Or if not easily, at least after giving them a chewing out for deciding to do something stupid and not telling you because they ‘wanted to protect you’, like you weren’t capable of making a rational decision on your own).

    Forgetting though is a different thing. When people you care about hurt or endanger themselves, even for the best of reasons, that’s hard to forget. And if they’ve lied to keep you from interfering or stopping them, you might forgive but you’re always going to have a question as to whether they are trying to misdirect you in the future – not out of righteous offensive at a lie, but out of a protective fear for them. Good dramas show it that way. Bad dramas go all in on honesty being the core issue.

    You make good points on the imbalance of power too. I suspect we all have occasions where we’ve been dishonest in those situations. For instance, I know I’ve written papers in various English classes that reflected not what I actually thought of a book, but what I expected the teacher wanted me to think of it.

    Ultimately though, fetishizing honesty makes no sense because a little dishonesty is necessary to exist in polite society: Your aunt knits you a sweater for Christmas. It’s hideous. Do you say that? No. You say “Thank you. you must have put so much work into this!”

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  2. I haven’t seen the show. but I also get annoyed with the tv drama ‘but should have told us the truth!’ subplots. Too often the lies really are understandable and anyone with half a brain and/or the least sense of empathy would be able to forgive then easily. (Or if not easily, at least after giving them a chewing out for deciding to do something stupid and not telling you because they ‘wanted to protect you’, like you weren’t capable of making a rational decision on your own).

    Forgetting though is a different thing. When people you care about hurt or endanger themselves, even for the best of reasons, that’s hard to forget. And if they’ve lied to keep you from interfering or stopping them, you might forgive but you’re always going to have a question as to whether they are trying to misdirect you in the future – not out of righteous offensive at a lie, but out of a protective fear for them. Good dramas show it that way. Bad dramas go all in on honesty being the core issue.

    You make good points on the imbalance of power too. I suspect we all have occasions where we’ve been dishonest in those situations. For instance, I know I’ve written papers in various English classes that reflected not what I actually thought of a book, but what I expected the teacher wanted me to think of it.

    Ultimately though, fetishizing honesty makes no sense because a little dishonesty is necessary to exist in polite society: Your aunt knits you a sweater for Christmas. It’s hideous. Do you say that? No. You say “Thank you, you must have put so much work into this!”

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  3. Another way to lie to get a little space? I think they’re what we tend to call “little white lies”.

    “How are you?”

    How you really are is miserable and you just barely dragged yourself out of bed this morning and ran a razor over your face that caught about half the stubble and you’ve been ruminating over your personal failures for the past 72 hours because you’re even less inclined to cut yourself a break than your boss or your parents and…

    “Oh, I’m fine.”

    You don’t want to explain all that, and be a bummer, or handle pity, or even genuine concern, or find out that some casual acquaintance is actually completely indifferent to your unhappiness.

    So you’re fine. It’s fine.

    Or at least more fine than if you told the truth.

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    • Totally. I once assumed people in my life actually cared to know how things really were…but they didn’t. Even people who were required by law to care about me, really didn’t want to hear anything other than “I’m doing great”. It’s an act of self-protection to lie, since there’s little more demoralizing than to try nd talk to your loved ones and be met with a yawn and an eye roll LOL.

      I hope you’re doing well, truly well, pillsy!

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  4. I feel like a lot of what you say here is also true about narcissists: they will be charming and friendly and seemingly helpful for a time, until you are ingrained to a pattern of subordination of your own interests in favor of theirs. Friendship and love aren’t really what they want, it’s obedience and control.

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    • Yes for sure. If I recall you and I both had the misfortune of encountering a real live narcissist and let’s just say it was a pretty instructive experience.

      Even non-narcissists use controlling tendencies in relationships to get their way, I’ve found – and I don’t think I’d ever have learned to spot that type of manipulative behavior if not for my narcissistic “friend”.

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  5. There’s a trio of questions that are helpful:

    Is it true?
    Is it necessary?
    Is it kind?

    And if it’s not at least two of those, the rule is “don’t say it”.

    True is only but so good.

    (It’s like one of the handmaidens of the virtues. Much like perseverance or bravery, these handmaidens are only virtuous when they’re with the virtues. When they’re with vices, they become positively vicious themselves.)

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  6. Although I’ve never seen Better Call Saul (and haven’t read the Harry Potter books), I really liked this post, Kristin. There’s a lot to chew on there, and so much of it rings true* to me.

    You mention at least two reasons and circumstances for which and in which people choose to legitimately to lie. I’ll add another that seems less legitimate and perhaps is less legitimate, but is also probably at least understandable or empathizable. For lack of a better way of expressing it, I’ll say that our (and I refer to myself here as much as to anyone else) imperfection. We (or I) sometimes lie for something like naked self-interest, sometimes in ways that harm or at least disrespect others. It’s part of the mix of us sometimes choosing to do wrong. But it’s something that puts us in the same boat as others are in that it’s an opportunity to see ourselves in others.

    I apologize if that sounds confused. I’m confused writing it. I guess I’m trying to take a stab at some of the less legitimate reasons or circumstances for lying and suggesting there’s something not entirely bad about those reasons, too. Sometimes life is just messy and we have to accept the fact of messiness.

    There’s so much in your post comment on and deal with, and if I didn’t have to hustle off to work, I’d engage it more fully. (And I might return if I have time later.) I just want to reiterate how much this post resonated with me. Thanks for writing it.

    *A paradox?

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    • No I know exactly what you meant. In any given scenario there’s many interpretations we can put onto the motives of others and it’s very easy to put the interpretation onto someone else’s behavior and act accordingly. I know I’ve lied over this out of sheer self-interest. Told myself, “well in the past so and so did such and such and they’ll do it again now, probably, so I’ll just cut the corner in the truthfulness dept. and avoid the entire possibility.”

      That’s kind of what I was driving at when saying kicking sand over the line that should be being drawn, really. It gets really easy to skip over any potential source of confrontation and disagreement by fibbing, rather than deal with a conflict in which I myself might end up with my behavior scrutinized and found lacking. I can chalk that up to “well so and so is always so terribly unreasonable” but how much of it is really “Kristin actually didn’t do the thing that she was supposed to do and doesn’t particularly want to hear about it” and/or “Kristin doesn’t like confrontations so maybe she’ll just do what she wants to and work it out later”. Because there’s definitely some of that coming into play.

      There’s a body of psychological thinking that indicates many people lie from self-interest and are barely aware of it or even entirely unaware they’re doing it. I have noticed, after the fact sometimes, people claim I had motives for doing things or fibbing about things, that I really, really do not at all recall having. Now, did I really not have those motives, or were they there and I just chose not to examine them very closely? And everyone does that. It’s probably innate to humanity. And just as you say, totally understandable that we do that, but at the same time many people don’t give you an inch on that type of stuff.

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  7. This makes me think of the school of thought that if a person has an affair, but ends it and chooses to stay and be faithful from that point forward with the original partner, it is best not to “come clean” (barring any potential health risk needing conveyed, of course.) That doing so will only hurt the other person and damage the relationship, so if the person is seriously repentant and dedicated to it not happening again it is better to keep it a secret.

    I see the merit to that, but also why not everyone would agree-especially those who’ve been on the “cheated on” side. But what if you never knew? And are perfectly happy otherwise?

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    • This is not exactly the same thing, but I’ve experienced a relationship with a brutally honest person (a totally amazing and lovable person, just very very very honest and with exceedingly high standards) who never sugar coated anything. I seriously, seriously just wanted them to lie to me about stuff. Dinner sucked, the sex wasn’t great, I was fat, bitchy, whatever, the honesty was meaningless to me, like Jaybird said, without kindness. It didn’t feel like a virtue at all. I would have rather had someone constantly lying to my face than having to deal with the negativity and feeling like such a failure. And ironically, I would have been a better partner in the relationship as it was pretty demoralizing as well. After a while, it shuts you down, no point in trying.

      And so I suspect that personally I’d rather be lied to about cheating as long as it wasn’t going to blow up the relationship. But that’s just me and I can certainly see the other side of it.

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      • Not exactly the same thing as your example, but I get very annoyed with those who style themselves as people “who tell it like it is” or “who are too honest.” In every case that I know personally, such people “tell it like it is” only sometimes and often when it serves some purpose of theirs. They also (in my anecdotal experience) lie to themselves, sometimes realizing it and sometimes not realizing it.

        Of course, I’m just going off of my own sample. Just because I haven’t meant consistently honest people in the way you’re thinking doesn’t mean they don’t exist. By the way, I’m familiar with one interpretation of Camus’s The Stranger that claims it’s a study of a person (Meursault) who is pathologically/dangerously honest. Are you familiar with that book or interpretation of it?

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        • Actually this reminds me of my other complaint about fetishizing honesty.

          A pet peeve of mine with 80s culture was the trend of people saying “Yes, I’m a greedy selfish SOB who screws people over for my own gain [or a racist or misogynist or any other terrible human being descriptor] but at least I’m honest about it.” Somehow being ‘honest about it’ was supposed to make it all okay. Not a first step in admitting the problem or acknowledgment of a problem being worked on but that that hasn’t been overcome yet, just “I’m honest about it.” and that’s supposed to make it completely forgivable/acceptable.

          And we’re clearly not past that vile trend. Otherwise I wouldn’t have watched endless interviewers of Trump supporters basically excusing whatever the latest horrible behavior/statement is because he’s a crude unfiltered jerk …which is somehow cast as refreshingly admirable…

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          • Yes that was definitely a thing for a while there – and it went beyond “but at least I’m honest about it” into a weird land where these people claimed moral authority over others because of their “honesty”. As if being an honest a-hole was somehow better than being a tiny bit hypocritical sometimes.

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            • Calling people out for hypocrisy is a shockingly effective way to gain social points over another person, though. Not in an absolute good sense, of course. In a positional good sense. Hypocrisy accusations drag the high and mighty down.

              They’re too useful in the short term.

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              • I find hypocrisy to be a funny thing – only recognized on an individual level and not on a cultural one. When a person is a hypocrite in a way that the majority of their ingroup is, you can call them a hypocrite and there’s really not much of an effect on them. Hypocrisy only seems to work when someone is already on the outs.

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          • I agree. That type of person is obnoxious, though I confess to at least thinking in that way sometimes (“I know I did/said/though x, but at least I’m honest.”) I’ve also been guilty of being an honesty bully, such as Kristin (and you and Burt) describes. I do notice it’s usually a power thing with me, just as Kristin suggested.

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        • I read it ages ago, should probably revisit it in adulthood. Thanks!

          Yes I share your annoyance with that type of person – or the trend to do that, which seems to be ascendant in the social media age. A lot of people feel they can sound off – often unfairly without even knowing the truth of any given situation – on what anyone is doing or saying. And then they hide behind “I’m just being honest” or “I’m speaking my truth” or whatever. They certainly don’t appreciate having the tables turned, though.

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  8. I like this post–part of me recoiled from it initially, but there’s some truth here. (And Better Call Saul is a a great show!) As a teacher, I learned long, long ago to stop caring about the “honesty” of students’ excuses, mostly because I knew that, regardless of what they told me, they had a reason for their actions, good or bad. To them, I would say, “Ultimately, your excuses don’t matter: you have work to do and it must be finished to pass.” And I’m lying, of course, because I do make exceptions, and sometimes excuses DO matter. But a good teachers present their rules as absolute, and make exceptions when they have to.

    Another aspect of the power dynamic you discuss: people in power often feel like they don’t have to be honest. Whether that’s disrespect for those working under them or “ends justifies the means” thinking, I don’t know (but as the meme says, “why not both?”). Working at a college, I’ve seen administrators tell a variety of lies, often of the “you shouldn’t be lying about that” type.

    One minor quibble: When Umbridge had Potter writing “I must not tell lies,” he was actually telling the truth. His supposed lie was that Voldemort had returned, which was true. In my mind, her sin was bureaucratic fealty to power; she had a fascist streak in her: the ministry must be supported, even when Voldemort’s lackey’s took over. Is this a petty and pedantic point? Yes. I would say I’m sorry for making it, but that wouldn’t be true.

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    • I once read an interesting piece written by Bear Grylls (yes that survival guy) where he described the British system of education and military, when done properly, at least according to him. It was a strict set of rules, but that most of the people in charge understood that people made mistakes and circumstances sometimes made following rules impossible, and were willing to set aside the letter of the law in favor of the spirit of the law. They understood that it was in some ways, a kid’s duty to try and bend some of the rules and get by with as much as they could, and that sometimes soldiers in the field were put into situations where the rules simply could not apply. But there were always people who refused to understand the duality of the system – that the rules were both sacrosanct but at the same time, meant to be enforced on a case by case basis – like the Umbridges of the world, or Frank Burns, or Rimmer on Red Dwarf.

      You’re totally right that a lot of people in power absolutely lie all the time. It was a little beyond the scope of the piece, I guess. BCS really made me consider how many people in power are all about honesty because they can be – because they have no reason at all TO even lie and that was what was in my head writing it.

      Also right about Umbridge. My takeaway from her was how she used honesty as a weapon in a position of power (which I believe a good many folk with fascist tendencies do). I know Harry was telling the truth about Voldemort originally, but then the kids had to lie about Dumbledore’s army. It wasn’t the original “lie” (which simply reveals Umbridge’s obsession with lying) but the followup lies I was referring to. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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    • “But a good teachers present their rules as absolute, and make exceptions when they have to.”

      You realize that this lens is much like the lens administrators use to justify much of their lying, yes? I have a rule, I totally follow this rule and everyone should think this is a legit rule….. but obviously I’ll make exceptions when needed.

      I mean, you’ve basically ensured that students who have good excuses but believe in your honesty or in the world’s unwillingness to ever cut them a break, will not ever allow themselves slack in your classroom, or will fail or drop out without telling you why.

      As presented, anyway. I like you and I suspect you soften this and undermine it in ways you haven’t mentioned…. but I’ve also been in classrooms where teachers really said this and it really was a lie, and what really happened is that it differentially affected the most honest and dedicated students (or the most anxious and worried about pleasing the teacher) and screwed up their lives.

      (In my own department, the presentation is “this is the rule. if there are serious issues, yes, we can discuss whether an exception could be made. but it’s a rule for a reason.”)

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      • Perhaps not exactly the same thing you and Jason are talking about, but when I was a student, I had a few instructors whose official line was “no excuses for late papers.” I assumed they meant what they said. Fortunately, I never had an extenuating circumstance to test that, but I did live in fear that something bad would happen that would prevent me from submitting any given very important paper on time. There are of course greater things to live in fear of, but it was stress-inducing nonetheless.

        When I was an instructor, I wrestled with that problem and usually came down on the side of explicitly telling students exceptions can be made. Sometimes people interpret “no exceptions” strictly and it’s not fair, in my opinion, to know I’m willing to offer exceptions without making that willingness public ahead of time. (One could argue that students need to learn how to self-advocate for exceptions to rules too strictly applied or applied beyond their intent. But that just doesn’t seem fair to me.)

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        • I had the same experience, Gabriel. I was shocked, after having dropped a couple classes due to extenuating circumstances, to find that people had gone to the professor and complained about the workload and it was reduced in one case, and in the other, several people had gone to the professor and gotten extensions. I really felt like I’d been punished for following the rules while the people who didn’t respect the rules had been rewarded for it.

          (that was a lesson I should have learned then, but it took me many more years and several such situations before I did)

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      • “You realize that this lens is much like the lens administrators use to justify much of their lying, yes? I have a rule, I totally follow this rule and everyone should think this is a legit rule….. but obviously I’ll make exceptions when needed.”

        Umm, in my experience, absolutely not. I find that administrators don’t often lie about rules (or making exceptions) as much as they lie about facts, or they change rules (seriously, in one case our campus lawyer modified a policy in an attempt to show that the rule had always been X, and a professor had to point out he could see when the page was changed in the file–because the rule hadn’t always been X). I make exceptions to rules when it will help a student. If an administrator is making a rules exception to help faculty, staff, or students, that’s okay–I’m not a big fan of most “no exceptions” rules. However, they often seem to make exceptions to punish faculty or cover their own asses–again, just my experience at my institution.

        “I mean, you’ve basically ensured that students who have good excuses but believe in your honesty or in the world’s unwillingness to ever cut them a break, will not ever allow themselves slack in your classroom, or will fail or drop out without telling you why.”

        No. Let me elaborate: I mostly teach first year composition classes at a relatively small regional comprehensive university (you can probably figure out which one, Maribou). Beyond introducing students to the basics of writing and rhetoric, I often have to teach them how to be students. For example, we have a “no late work” policy. I explain to students that I understand that “shit happens” and if said shit causes them to miss one homework assignment, that won’t have a large impact on their grade because we have many homework assignments. For major projects (their formal papers), I remind them that we have drafts and that they can save their papers to google docs or even attach a draft to an email, so that they’ll always have a draft available (and multiple saves, etc). Even if they can’t print it out because all the printers in the world aren’t working, they can show me their draft, they can email me their draft, etc. I tell them that if they’re vomiting the morning a paper is due to send me their draft. If something happens and the paper isn’t fully finished, I tell them to give me what they have, because some points are better than no points. At the very least, they should have their initial draft. So yes, they can’t submit late work, but they have plenty of resources to prevent major trouble to their grades. I also tell them that allowing late work is bad for them because when one assignment is due we move on to the next.

        One problem many first year students have is that they think excuses somehow mean they don’t have to do their work. Any person who has had a job knows that’s not true. You’re sick? Either someone has to do your work while you’re out, or you have more work waiting for you when you come back. The work doesn’t disappear. (Ugh, I’m not responding to your complaint–forgive me, I’m being defensive here.)

        The students who believe my honesty won’t allow themselves slack? Good. Look, my classes aren’t that hard: show up, do the work, and you’ll do fine (and I tell students this). Students have room for a bit of slack, and the ones who are listening often don’t need it. We teach many first generation students and many students from poor families, so I know that they feel that the world doesn’t give them any breaks, and for most of them, that’s an accurate feeling. I continually remind my students that my policies are reasonable, and that they can follow them. I also tell them to talk to me when they have problems, that I’m there to help them, and that I’m not an adversary. And when I see early signs of problems, I intervene and will do everything possible, short of doing the work for them, to ensure they pass.

        TL;DR version: I have hard rules, but explain that they’re not really hard, and they won’t be hard for students to follow, and that I’m open to help them. This is an important point: my rules aren’t unreasonable. When students have serious issues, I make exceptions. How do I make those decisions? I have over eighteen years of experience–I’m pretty good at judging situations and choosing my battles. If I err, I err on the side of the students.

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  9. On the Harry Potter thing – there’s a moment (or a couple of moments) early on in each of the books I’ve read, where Dumbledore asks Potter “is there anything going on that you should tell me about?” and Potters says “no, nothing, everything’s fine.”

    If Potter told the truth at that point, the book would be a lot shorter, because Dumbledore is the deus ex machina, and invoking him early on would save everyone a lot of trouble. Potter’s dishonest with both the high-handed meddlesome adults, and the reliable and trustworthy ones who only intervene when it’s really necessary. I guess that’s because he’s had far more experience of the former growing up, and because there wouldn’t be much story to tell otherwise.

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      • I mean, those scenes could have just been left out altogether without the books suffering. As could an increasing number of the scenes, and paragraphs within scenes, as the series progressed.

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