a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.
Anthony Trollope - The Way We Live Now (1875)
Something seems to be going wrong with the modern world, creating an enormous temptation to give it a single name to haul it into the public arena. The trouble is it has too many names and a fragmented impact on our lives, particularly via news sources, current affairs, political opinion, economic opinion and so on.
It isn’t political correctness although that is certainly a major symptom, but political correctness is just too amorphous and multi-faceted to encapsulate whatever is dragging us down, maligning what was good about the past, what our forebears achieved, what our culture achieved. Our culture that is - our Western culture, our decent, tolerant civilisation. Not the mythical good old days, but merely what was good, what was done well, what worked.
Yet the problem seems to circulate around something very familiar, something so old and so simple that it often slips into the background. That something is honesty, a virtue which has become lost in the complex opportunities created by modern life. Dishonesty has become simpler, easier to live with, profitable, convenient, supportive, emotionally satisfying, exciting, exalting, even cool. Dishonesty has too much going for it and honesty is not cool.
In the past we have tacitly recognised the crucial importance of honesty by allocating special domains where honesty has to be enforced more or less rigorously because otherwise these essential domains would fail and damage the rest of society. Science, engineering, accountancy, medicine, history, banking and many others are special domains where honesty must prevail. Even if dishonesty gains some kind of foothold, honesty must be made to prevail in the long run. That is understood, if only tacitly.
Unfortunately these special domains never included politics and there are other more modern domains such as public relations where honesty is necessarily compromised. As governments have grown enormously in size and reach, they have invaded those domains where honesty must be maintained. As a direct result we are losing the capacity to remember that there really are vital activities where honesty must prevail.
Yet if we say such things or if we publicly approve of what was done honestly in the past, what counts as worthy achievement – then there is another problem. Honesty can be portrayed as dishonesty or dissent or politically extreme or politically immoral or just plain bad. An honest person can be portrayed as a bad person. An honest historical figure can be portrayed as a monster because we cannot be honest about the mores of the past. We are losing the ability to filter out dishonesty because honesty itself is under attack and honesty is the only filter we have.
In the past we have done many things well and have many worthy achievements, particularly scientific, cultural and humanitarian achievements. The past may have been unimaginably grim for most, but there were achievements and there were lessons. Yet it is no longer easy to say these things because to do so is to discriminate and even if done honestly, discrimination is no longer easy without the prickings of doubt. Am I saying the right thing? Not the honest thing but the right thing?
There are those among us who do not understand how their world evolved, do not feel part of that evolution with its many imperfections and absurdities. Some seem resent the whole idea of anything worthwhile achieved by their forebears and a few seem to resent it very deeply indeed. Yet with absurd irony they reap the benefits of what they are and where they are and pour dishonest scorn and bile on the source of those benefits past and present.
The problem of dishonesty presents itself as malice directed
at people who still wish to be honest, describe the world they see and the
culture they trust and value without being slotted into malign and dishonest political
In other words the problem of political dishonesty presents itself as identity politics and malice and political correctness and stupidity and intolerance disguised as tolerance and malevolence disguised as social justice and anti-capitalism disguised as egalitarianism and environmental activism and racism disguised as anti-racism and misandry disguised as feminism and fascism disguised as anti-fascism and pseudoscience disguised as science so on and so on.
Which takes us back to where we started because we still do not have that name, that single name with which to drag the whole foetid, destructive, uncivilised mess kicking and screaming into the public arena. Dishonesty it may be but as a name it won’t do. Ironically the name would be too honest.
And yet. And yet even without a good overarching name it is already in the public arena because it is being discussed and analysed by some very capable people who only a few years ago would have been dishonestly excluded from the public arena because there were no social media, no way for any but a tiny minority of honest and capable commentators to have their say and dissect the rot.
That may be all we are seeing, the battle for civilised honesty which has been going on for a very long time indeed. But honesty is not cool.