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Personal Empowerment

Can we Stay Honest in a Dishonest World?

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Published July 13, 2015

Can we Stay Honest in a Dishonest World?
The biggest tragedy of the Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and gay marriage was not the decisions themselves. It was the perception, by both winners and losers, that these decisions were not reached based on legal principle but upon political ideology and personal bias.

Which means that, regardless of which side won, the country as a whole lost.

Not that this was anything new. But it may be the most noticeable example since the watershed moment of 2000 — the case of Bush v. Gore that determined the outcome of a presidential election.

After the Democrat-controlled Florida Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 in favor of Al Gore, the Republican-controlled U. S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling in favor of George Bush by a vote of 5 to 4. A constitutional crisis was avoided. But trust in the rule of law was gone forever.

No one believed that the case had been decided on its merits. In Florida, a Democrat majority sided with the Democrat. In Washington D.C., a Republican majority sided with the Republican. As far as the public was concerned, it was politics as usual.

The recent decisions on Obamacare and gay marriage are more of the same. And with the presidential primary campaign shifting into gear, the public will inevitably become more entrenched in its conviction that politicians and their appointees routinely trade integrity for ideology.

When that happens, the very ideal of integrity becomes threatened by extinction both inside and outside the political arena.

Guilt by association

Honesty has seen its market value tumble over the years with countless reports of plagiarism, factual carelessness, and blatant fabrication. Last year, Rolling Stone Magazine made headlines with the "Rape on Campus" story that never happened. The "dozens" of people interviewed seem not to have included some of the most crucial witnesses.

And if venerable news anchor Brian Williams can misremember being shot down in a helicopter by an RPG, then whose memory can we trust?

It's bad enough when such prevarication comes from the media. But what's really cause for alarm when it becomes the norm among our political leaders.

Alas, if only it were so.

Gone are the days of "Honest Abe." Gone are the days of Grover Cleveland, who was endorsed by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World for four reasons: "1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man. 4. He is an honest man." Gone are the days of Harry Truman, who could declare that "The Buck Stops Here," and mean it.

Last September, Senator Rand Paul claimed that John McCain had met with ISIS leaders in Syria. The Washington Post regretted not having more than 4 Pinocchios to award Senator Paul for perpetuating the absurd rumor.

Then we have Barack Obama's ever-famous, "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor." And, of course, Hillary Clinton's missing emails, only the latest deception from the woman condemned by the late New York Times columnist William Safire as a "congenital liar."

The sad truth is that truth from our politicians has become far more the exception than the rule. But the brazenness with which they conjure up easily verifiable falsehoods grows ever more astonishing. Indeed, scant attention was paid when former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defiantly refused to apologize for his outright slander of presidential nominee Mitt Romney; after all, said Mr. Reid, "Romney didn't win, did he?"

It's hard to argue with that kind of reasoning.

Once integrity disappears, the only motive not to lie is fear of not getting away with it — and get away with they have, in a society that has grown indifferent to lying.

We may not be able to stop the lying in politics. But here are ten ways we can prevent the erosion of our own integrity.

Don't exaggerate.

This past May, Congressman Pete Sessions claimed that Obamacare would cost the taxpayers $5 million per newly-insured person. The real figure is between $4000 and $9000 per person, depending on the data used. Either way, the congressman exaggerated the numbers by at least 50,000%.

You always say that! I'll kill him. He's done that a million times. These types of remarks are so common we don't even think about them. They may seem harmless, but every exaggeration subtly impresses upon us a disregard for accuracy and authenticity. Disciplining ourselves to speak accurately reinforces respect for the truth, both in ourselves and in those who hear us.

Don't embellish.

Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno included anecdotes in his memoir that actually happened to other people. But Mr. Leno defended himself, explaining that he had paid one friend to use his story.

How many popular motion pictures "based on" or "inspired by" true stories are guilty of wild embellishments that distort fact into Hollywood fiction? And how often do we ourselves add details to make a good story "better?" But consider what it says about us -- and what it teaches our children -- when the truth isn't good enough.

If you don't know -- or can't remember -- the details of a story, don't make them up. Again, it might seem irrelevant; it might even be irrelevant. But fabricating information to make the story sound better compromises the venerable institution of Truth for little benefit. So what if the details are fuzzy? If the main point of the story is worth telling, then that should be enough. If not, don't bother telling it at all. Presenting uncertainty as fact only adds fuel to the spreading wildfire of moral confusion.

Don't look for loopholes.

In Isaac Asimov's short story "Truth to Tell," a young employee is suspected of stealing from the company safe. His only defense is his reputation for impeccable honesty, and his repeated insistence that he did not take either "the cash or the bonds." In the end he is discovered to have stolen "the cash and the bonds."

When the truth is employed as a means of deception, it becomes an even more perverse form of falsehood. Remember the presidential defense of perjury that rested on what the definition of is is? The letter of the law becomes irrelevant when the spirit of the law is no longer valued.

Be a skeptic.

Last March, Congressman Paul Ryan told over the poignant story of a little boy who didn't want a free school lunch but his own brown-bag lunch like the other kids. Just one problem -- it never happened.

Have you heard some interesting news? What's the source? A forwarded email? Conservative talk radio? MSNBC? NPR? Most outlets have some bias or agenda. And some are outright fraudulent. Before repeating a story, do some research. Over time, it's possible to determine which publications and which reporters are credible. And remember that there are two sides to almost every story.

Admit ignorance.

It's okay not to know something. But to claim knowledge when you know you don't know is irresponsible -- and usually comes back to bite you. There's no shame in admitting a lack of knowledge, especially when followed up with a sincere promise to find the information and fill in the gaps.

Remember what Aristophanes said: The ignorant can be educated, but stupid is forever.

And remember what Mark Twain said: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Admit guilt.

Just this April, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake defended the way she handled her city's riots with the assertion, "I never said nor would I ever say that we are giving people space to destroy our city, so my words should not be twisted." Except that's exactly what she said.

We all make mistakes. Acknowledging error promptly and attempting to correct damage swiftly is one of the surest signs of integrity. How many personal and political crises blossomed out of momentary lapses that grew into scandalous cover-ups? When we admit guilt, we teach character and responsibility. We also help our own cause: by acknowledging guilt when we are guilty, we earn others' trust when we declare our innocence.

Avoid Liars.

Behavior is contagious. The more we associate with people who don't care about the truth, the more likely we are to stop caring about it ourselves.

Avoid Political Correctness.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't be civil. Good manners are always in order, and most people find profanity offensive.

But resorting to ludicrous euphemisms because someone somewhere might take offense is just another way of obfuscating truth. A janitor should be treated with respect because he's providing an essential service, not because he's a "sanitation engineer." There's no insult in calling things what they are.

When we reach the point where government workers in Seattle are instructed not to use the terms "citizen" and "brown bag," fear of calling things what they are has become an Orwellian exercise in the distortion of reality and collective mind-control.

Avoid Self-Deception.

We all recognize that it's wrong to lie to other people. But it can be even more dangerous to lie to ourselves. Once we start deceiving ourselves through selective memory and rationalization, there's no end to how far we can stray from the truth.

Look for the good.

The Talmud teaches that one should always say the bride is beautiful. Does that mean we should lie if she is homely? Well, she is certainly beautiful in the eyes of the groom. And there's a deeper beauty more precious and more enduring than external appearance.

Honesty doesn't require us to say everything we know or whatever we think. Sometimes, honesty is definitely the wrong policy, as in the case of malicious gossip or hurtful remarks.

However, with a little creativity we can avoid conflicts between truth and etiquette. Consider the case of the woman who thrust her newborn in front of her rabbi and gushed, "Look at my baby. Isn't he beautiful?"

The rabbi's eyes bugged out as he beheld the ugliest baby he had ever seen in his life. But he rallied quickly and declared, "Now that's a baby!"

True: it was a baby. And everyone went home happy.

A bit more caution with our own words might leave us less suspicious about those stories of little miracles and inspirational irony that make our eyes sparkle and our hearts swell. And if a more profound commitment to honesty helps us become less cynical and more easily inspired, then what do we really have to lose?

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. His new book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.

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