One man's quest for truth, and a prize would be nice

March 05, 1998|By Richard O'Mara

Always up for a challenge, always slavishly eager to follow the orders of his editor -- and covetous of the medal of a naked man on a tractor -- Sun staff writer Richard O'Mara is entering the Great American Think-Off contest. What follows is his essay entry. For Sun readers who also would like to enter, the rules are on Page 4E. If you'd like to share your essay with Sun readers, please send to: Think-Off Essays, Features Department, Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore Md. 21278:

This year's Think-Off question: Is honesty ALWAYS the best policy?

4 Honesty is the nitroglycerine of the moralities.

In the world as it is, absolute honesty could annihilate human society. It is more ruinous than indiscriminate charity.

Total honesty in personal relations -- between wife and husband, parent and child, siblings, friends, lovers -- and in professional life -- in classroom or boardroom, on the job -- is immoral.

Why? Because honesty expressed without regard for circumstance or consequence is criminally reckless, like Russian roulette. It is cruelty disguised. It encourages that most common of lies: "This is going to hurt me more than it does you."

Total honesty thrives on the extremes, far removed from the mean where wisdom dwells, according to the Buddha, who was pretty smart.

In fact, the positive side of this proposition is so utterly indefensible (the Talmud even permits lies in certain circumstances, "for the sake of peace") that the presentation of it as the question this year suggests the admissibility of an

alternative. Almost requires it.

And where could that alternative exist but in the world as it should be, an equally valid place and condition. Don't say this is unreal because it exists in the mind. Mighty forces that affect the destinies of people and nations originate there. Religion and mathematics, to name just two.

Many people know this world. It was a shimmering reality for Plato, Jesus Christ, Thomas More, Karl Marx. People continually refer to it, believe in it, act on their belief -- people like Martin Luther King Jr., who had a dream. These people should not be dismissed.

Experience says such a world can never be. But logic says there is no way to prove it can never be. Which is to say, it could be.

But how?

Imagine a scientific breakthrough: An artificial gene is created then implanted at birth in all the children of a single generation, a device that makes them incapable of lying, relentlessly honest without fear or favor. This gene would be passed on to succeeding generations until the last of our kind stood alone. What would the world be like after the last liar died?

What a brisk thought! With honesty reflexive and inevitable, certain things would ensue as the world adjusted to transparency in all human relations. There would be no hypocrisy. The advertising industry would vanish, all the lawyers (except my daughter). Funeral eulogies would become an unremembered custom. False stories would remain untold. Euphemism, the slippery cousin of the lie, would leave town. The language would emerge pristine: People would mean what they say and could not do otherwise.

In this world honesty would indeed be ALWAYS the best policy. It would be the only policy.

What led me here? A memory of when I was a school boy.

Late one night, a friend and I climbed a fire escape and illicitly entered our classroom. We took down the three small American flags that jutted obliquely from the wall in the front of the room. Our Latin teacher, a huge, intemperate priest who always smelled of burnt tobacco from the half-smoked butts he kept in the pocket of his cassock, used these sticks to sting our heads with when our conjugations came too slowly: Thwaap! Thwaap! Thwaap!

It hurt; it produced headaches; it was humiliating. It made me hate the Roman Empire.

We cut through the narrow sticks with a hacksaw blade, just enough to assure they would break at the first thwaap! What a laugh that would be! We could imagine his pink, pie-plate of a face going blood red, the combustion of his rage. What a happy thought!

I never did see that. As we were getting away a light hit me in the face. I was nabbed. The cop never even saw my friend.

They grilled me. They demanded to know if I had an accomplice. I said no. They called me a liar. They were right. But there were codes to uphold, codes that found honor in lying. Thieves' codes.

Had we lived in the world described above I would have ratted out my friend. But I would also have been blameless and guiltless. Then he would have been subjected to the same threat of reform school as I was. Maybe he would have been frightened by the raw ferocity of the law as I was. Maybe about six years later he would not have held up that grocery store, or shot the old man.

They say you can't have things both ways. That's not true. I just did.

To enter the Think-Off

The Great American Think-Off is a two-part contest: first an essay, then a debate on this question: Is honesty ALWAYS the best policy?

If you win, you will be declared America's Greatest Thinker, and you'll receive $500 and a gold medal with a figure of a naked man sitting on a tractor thinking. The contest is designed "to bring philosophy down from the ivory towers of academia."

Essays: Must be based on personal experience, be free of academic language, be 750 words or fewer, be typed and include the name, address, phone number, occupation and age of the essayist on the front page. Mail to Think-Off '98, Box 246, New York Mills, Minn. 56567. Or e-mail to: nymillslink.net. Entries must be postmarked by April 1, 1998. There is no entry fee.

Debate: Four essay finalists -- two for each position -- will be announced May 18. The four will then come to New York Mills and debate the question June 20. Travel and lodging stipends will be provided by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.

For more information: (218) 385-3339

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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