Social truths

Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty

Sam Harris continues, in his essay “Lying”, by distinguishing sins of omission from sins of commission, using the example of stealing $100 from a cash register vs. not returning a $100 overpayment. Both cases are dishonest behavior, but the first instance requires a stronger intention to steal.

A common verbal sin of omission is to not correct someone when you know the information they are giving is inaccurate. This comes up so often, and usually in a way that is not seriously misleading anyone, that it can be a kindness to let it pass. For this reason, Mr. Harris focuses his examples on the temptation to active rather than passive lying.

From a section called White Lies:
Have you ever received a truly awful gift? The time it took to tear away the wrapping paper should have allowed you to steel yourself—but suddenly there it was:
“Wow…”
“Do you like it?”
“That’s amazing. Where did you get it?”
“Bangkok. Do you like it?”
“When were you in Bangkok?”
“Christmas. Do you like it?”
“Yes… Definitely. Where else did you go in Thailand?”
The careful observer will see that I have now broken into a cold sweat. I am not cut out for this. Generally speaking, I have learned to be honest even when ambushed. I don’t always communicate the truth in the way that I want to — but one of the strengths of telling the truth is that it remains open for elaboration. If what you say in the heat of the moment isn’t quite right, you can amend it.

I have learned that I would rather be maladroit, or even rude, than dishonest. What could I have said in the above situation?
“Wow… does one wear it or hang it on the wall?”
“You wear it. It’s very warm. Do you like it?”
“You know, I’m really touched you thought of me. But I don’t think I can pull this off. My style is somewhere between boring and very boring.”
This is getting much closer to the sort of response I’m comfortable with. Some euphemism is creeping in, perhaps, but the basic communication is truthful. I have given my friend fair warning that she is unlikely to see me wearing her gift the next time we meet. I have also given her an opportunity to keep it for herself or perhaps bestow it on another friend who might actually like it.

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Filed under Perfections, Speech

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