By Mohammad Badrul Ahsan
October 30, 2015
HONESTY is the best policy, but where does it begin? When leaders are liars, lawmakers are lawbreakers, teachers are tricksters and others aren't who they say they are, it's impossible to find honesty at its registered address. Honest individuals don't steal, lie or fail to keep promises. They are honourable people, who are comparable to goods made to specification or sold in exact weight. Nobody can be true to others unless, first, they are also true to themselves.
Thus being honest is all about being truthful, although it's not enough to speak the truth unless one also lives by its example. Anybody telling the truth but not practicing it is a hypocrite, while cowards hide the truth out of fear although they may not necessarily abandon it. Liars treat truth with flexibility and convenience. It is attire for them that must change with every occasion.
But how much honesty is humanly possible? There are many examples of people, who died for telling the truth. There have also been people throughout history, who lived within their means without indulging in any form of corruption. One can find examples of generous people, some of whom have given their entire fortune to charity. Misers are dishonest people; they live in wretched conditions to save and hoard money despite their solvent positions.
Average people exercise honesty in moderation. They tell the truth when it doesn't hurt, spend within their means, save according to their needs, and occasionally tweak their moral positions to avoid deprivation, harassment or threats of persecution and death. They are averagely honest, neither champions nor chumps but watch every step. Marginally honest and marginally dishonest, these people are reasonably ambitious without being excessively arrogant.
Honesty is one area where the haves are definitely the have-nots. Affluence is somewhat inversely related to honesty because beside hard work and talent, it also involves manipulation and deceit. French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon coined the slogan “Property is theft!” He argued that if he were asked what slavery is, he should answer in one word that it's murder. And, likewise, if asked what property is, he should answer in one word that it's robbery.
But material worth isn't the only battleground for honesty. People are also dishonest where neither money nor wealth is involved. Infidelity is dishonesty because it's betrayal. Influence peddling is dishonesty because it's unfair. Muscle flexing is dishonesty because it's coercion. Nepotism is dishonesty because it's discrimination. Election rigging is dishonesty because it's manipulation. Bribery is dishonesty because it's perversion.
When all of these phenomena persist in a society or a country, how can its citizens be honest? It's often asked which came first between the chicken and the egg. Similarly, one can ask if honesty can be the best policy before the best policy is honest. In other words, is it possible for an individual to become an island of perfection in a sea of distortions? Can a blotting paper avoid smudge when thrown in a puddle of ink?
One of the overriding goals of modern civilisation is to bring the rational out of the animal. The rational by definition is having or exercising the ability to reason. The animal, on the contrary, is behaving in a wild, aggressive or unpleasant fashion. Honesty is the pillar of rationality, because human character without it plunges into chaos.
Is honesty a divisible element? Can the same person be partially honest and partially dishonest? Can the same father take bribe and raise an honest family? Can the same leader cheat his followers and still adhere to his ideology? Can the same doctor neglect his patients, yet claim to follow his professional ethics?
Conscience is to honesty what nursery is to plants. It has been argued by scholars that the Greek term for conscience meant sharing knowledge with oneself. Each and every one of us is doing that sharing every wakeful moment. Each of us has the conversation with himself before he engages in conversation with others.
This is why honesty, like charity, begins at home. Unless one is honest with oneself, one can't be honest with rest of the world. And this is also why it must be mentioned that different types of crops grow on different types of soils. For example, root vegetables grow well in sand. Corn, squash, pumpkins, and okra do well in clay soil. Beets, cabbage, and carrots do well in alkaline soil.
In some markets child labour is essential, but illegal in many. Polygamy is prohibited in western societies but practiced in the east. Some societies have same sex marriage, although most frown upon it. Tax evasion is fun for some people, but taboo for the rest.
Humans vary from country to country. So does humanity. Honesty is humanly possible to the extent people are a function of their country.
Mohammad Badrul Ahsan is the Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org