The Honest Conundrum

Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory is a character that is currently one of the best-known TV personalities (okay, all ya GOT fanatics, I concede there is a chance one of the 100 odd GOT characters might be well known in some circles, but …), to the extent that he’s become a trope. Terms like Sheldonish behavior are now heard not so infrequently. The character, commonly believed to be one exhibiting the Asperger syndrome (although denied by the creator),  is also considered to be brutally honest. The term is not new, of course, nor unique to him. We all know a person or two, whom we casually refer to as being brutally honest. It’s of course not easy being one such person in a society that pays lip service to honesty but institutionalizes many kinds of dishonest behaviors, in the name of “things you need to do for the sake of society/people/family/etc”.

But the term itself is quite interesting. What does brutal honesty mean? Why is the term even there? Language is the biggest barometer of culture, and the very fact that we have a term like that shows our instinctive aversion to honest assessment, especially when we are being judged. Consider for instance statements like, “this is what I honestly believe”. Can one really have a dishonest belief? One could hold a right/wrong belief, or true/false belief. But can one hold a dishonest belief? How does that even work? Does one “know” one is dishonest about what one believes? Or is one unconsciously dishonest about one’s belief? And if it’s the latter, then how is it dishonest?

Back to brutal honesty, then, does it mean we only want honesty from others when they think/feel what we want them to? Or, if we’re a bit more tolerant of criticism, and get ego kicks out of “taking criticism” when it’s mild, and/or sugar coated?  But the moment it’s unfiltered and stark, comes the label of “brutal honesty”. As if others owe us gentle honesty because our fragile egos need protection.  The way we treat those we brand “brutally honest” speaks volumes about our culture. And to be brutally honest, it’s not very pretty. In The Big Bang Theory, being fiction, one sees a benign exasperation as the worst case scenario, but in real life, Sheldon will have to be extremely lucky to have a caring circle of friends around him. He’ll be ridiculed, ostracized, and in not so rarified environments (unlike one where the theoretical physicists, and experimental physicists, are working/living in), will be lucky to even hold a job. That is the brutal truth.