About mentioning those dirty secrets, those elephants in the room!

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Dirty Secrets:  The Elephant In The Room

Why are we afraid to mention that there is an elephant in the room?  Is it a dirty secret?  Perhaps, if dirty secrets are the uncomfortable truths few dare to speak.  But usually they are also—to steal a line from the poet Leonard Cohen—”secrets all over the block”.  We’ve learned it is prudent to only discuss them in hushed tones with those we most trust, for to speak them aloud is to put oneself, and sometimes others, in harm’s way.  To express openly these ‘secrets’ one honestly believes to be true is often downright dangerous, and almost always detrimental to one’s well-being as a social animal.

Why, then, do some of us, some of the time, do it?  Sometimes the motive is profound moral or intellectual outrage at blatant hypocrisy or stupidity.  But usually, I suspect, it is for less noble reasons, such as our toes being stepped on by the beast.  (This is itself one of the dirty secrets.)   Revenge and indignation are strong human motives, as is the desire to feel brave and morally superior.

But of course relentless honesty is not always the best policy, for if it serves no purpose and only causes hurt, unquestionably silence may be the best policy.  Too often our tongues are loosened when our lips should’ve been zipped.  There is a wonderfully ironic beer ad that suggests their beer “is proud sponsor of things best left unsaid.”

Nevertheless there are many dirty secrets that should be spoken aloud, because they are important and deserve examination in the harsh light of day.  This is essential, not simply because truths should be out in the open to guide our behaviour, but also because if they are actually false, secrecy keeps them safe from being challenged and thus they can continue to have their deleterious effects because people tacitly accept them.

The hallmarks of civilization are our accomplishments in both the arts and sciences, accomplishments predicated on public scrutiny and evaluation.  Our great legacy from the eighteenth century Enlightenment was the conviction that expression of all ideas and beliefs is both the right and the responsibility of those holding those beliefs.  Unfortunately, the legacy of the twentieth century’s neurotic phobia about ‘offending’ has made exercising that right and accepting that responsibility personally hazardous.  This has often been to the surprise and astonishment of those who thought they were merely offering up empirical facts or plausible hypotheses for consideration.

The fact is that those who speak the dirty secrets aloud are rarely commended.  Whistleblowers, heretics, curmudgeons, finks, cynics, traitors, and misanthropes:  These are not popular folk.  You wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.  They may liven up a party, but you don’t want them sleeping over.  They are offensive.  And that should be no surprise, for that is what they do: offend!   They speak the name of Yahweh.  They draw a caricature face of Allah.  They point out that the emperor is naked as a jaybird.  They laugh and mock and seem to act all superior.  They are a disagreeable lot—these people who tell dirty secrets, who speak what many people think and observe but know better than to say aloud.

Furthermore, it’s a very mixed company the spiller of secrets joins, and one who chooses to join their ranks shouldn’t expect a lot of camaraderie and fellowship.  Their ‘brothers in arms’ are an unsociable lot and almost as likely to be critical as supportive.

Tell the truth, and one is surely going to be caught in flagrante delicto:  caught sleeping with strange bedfellows—and being found guilty by association.   Defend freedom of speech and you have to defend some pretty unsavoury speakers.  Oppose capital punishment, and you have to argue for saving the lives of some individuals who are truly monsters and who you, in your heart, wish had been stillborn.  Oh, so you’re a friend of Zündel?  You’re buddies with Manson, eh?

We live in more dangerous times than is commonly recognized.  I do not refer to nuclear proliferation or global warming or other things of which most educated people are well aware.  I refer to the dangers of censorship, self-censorship even more than state-censorship.  I refer to the fear of speaking our minds, which leads to a soul-destroying hypocrisy.  Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance, that condition where our actions and self-image contradict each other.

Good people inevitably do bad things, and then they don’t feel good inside.  Recent research indicates that by age three, most children have a sense of fairness and feel guilt if they behave unfairly.  Freud, for all his flakiness, did have some insights when it came to what he called “defence mechanisms”, and he definitely nails down the ways we usually resolve these cognitive dissonances.  Available as strategies are denial and repression and reaction formation.

Of course we could change either belief or behaviour to reconcile any contradiction.  But most often we choose the most popular strategy Freud identified:  we just rationalize. That is to say we make excuses for ourselves, rationalizations, which are not rational reasons but rather the lame excuses which we use to fool ourselves and try to fool others.

Many dirty secrets are nothing more than exposure of the real reasons hiding behind rationalizations.  Alas, you don’t make friends by ripping off someone’s ego’s protective clothing.  The Wizard of Oz took it better than most of us would.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  This is generally good advice, and what the tellers of dirty secrets sometimes do is no more than give out the addresses of self-righteous stone-throwers living in glass fortresses.  But of course none of us live in houses of solid brick, without any glass windows—and it may very well be that our glass windows are what allow us to see out.  But then are not the spillers of dirty secrets also vulnerable, also guilty of that of which they accuse others?  Yes, of course they are.  We are all guilty—and I do not say that because of some Catholic belief in Original Sin.  But discrediting the witness does not necessarily discredit all the evidence presented.  If that were true, only saints could bear witness.  And saints are in short supply.

We don’t like ‘big mouths’!  No sir.  We keep our mouths shut.  We bite our tongues.  We pay lip-service.  We do this way too often just because we know we are vulnerable.  We are not saints.  We are all guilty of sometimes telling others to do what we say, not what we do—or have done.  We all have our own personal dirty secrets we would not like exposed.  Never mind our deeds, we would be ostracized and exiled from the capitol if just our honest private thoughts were broadcast.  Our friends and spouses and children would be appalled—even if they in their secret heart of hearts shared our views.  We are primates, and we live in fear of losing our place, no matter how humble, in the social hierarchy.  For example, few get away scot-free after pointing out that the alpha male is a self-important nasty bit of business.

So dirty secrets are dirty business and those dealing in them are going to get their hands dirty.  Honesty as a virtue isn’t really valued that much in the real world.  Nevertheless, it still is a virtue: a cardinal virtue.  At least that is my sincere belief and my primary justification—and I hope not mere rationalization—for this website.

All I ask of the reader is that if some of these dirty secrets, some of the messages I’m delivering, are offensive or one believes are even wrong, don’t shoot the messenger!

D.  D’Sinope