Honesty without Compassion is Cruelty

While in a meeting several years ago, I saw the words "honesty without compassion is cruelty" posted above the other person's desk. It so struck me that I paused the conversation for a moment to absorb the intent.

People like to say that honesty is the best policy, and many segments of society are increasingly focused on getting at the truth. Schools are obsessed with standardized tests. Companies want better metrics to measure, well, everything. Nearly everyone is connected to everyone else... and these connections produce data that provide an honest picture of reality.

I'm worried that these honest snapshots of the truth could lead us to a far crueler world.

For example, think about the last couple of years and ask yourself whether our public discourse is getting kinder or harsher?

(I rest my case.)

In a civilized world, honesty and compassion need to go hand in hand. You must use honesty to help other people, not to hurt them. And you must be extremely cautious not to accidentally harm others.

When you meet up with a friend you haven't seen in a year, you wouldn't immediately say, "You are 17 pounds heaver than you were last year."

Why not?

Doing so would be tactless and cruel, so instead you say something like, "It is so great to see you again," while you might think to yourself that your friend looks a bit on the heavy side.

Technology allows us to gather massive amounts of data on human beings. If you take a test online, a system is theoretically capable of not only revealing how many answers you got correct, but also whether it took you more time (or less) to take the test versus others.

You don't need to know that you were slower than 42% of the people who took that test... and neither does anyone else.

If we are going to gather more data about our collective lives, we will also need to muster more compassion.

What can you do to move us in the right direction?

  1. Be discreet. Resist the movement to document every aspect of your work or personal life. There are true advantages to preserving gray areas in which people can let their hair down and relax.

  2. Be human. Recognize that humanity is more important than the absolute truth. Use facts to help another improve his or her life, rather than to do something that might destroy their life.

  3. Be cautious. Recognize that the "truth" is always subjective. Each of us sees "facts" through a haze of beliefs, attitudes and experiences. No single test can judge the worth or potential of another human being.

  4. Be generous. Ask more of yourself. The best skill is bringing out talent in others, so rather than judging others, do your best to help them.