April 1, 2017 at 3:40 pm #1472Acharya Sujatin (temple host)Moderator
I was recently engaged in a conversation in which the issue of “transparency” came up. There are two contexts in which this idea mainly has currency these days – political and psychological. In politics there is much concern about corruption and it is widely thought that the way to overcome this is greater transparency. In psychology there is an idea that a transparent or “congruent” life is the most healthy and therapeutic. The popularity of these ideas has led to an assumption that transparency is a virtue in and of itself, rather than a means to some other end and that, therefore, it is always a good thing. I have much doubt whether this is so. Transparency is important and valuable in some situations, but not all, nor is it a panacea.
There was a time when the ability to keep a secret was regarded as a character strength. Lives were more private. We did not have the internet – no social media. There were no surveillance cameras on the streets. What went on behind the front door was nobody else’s business. I am doubtful that that society was notably better or worse than what we have today. The changes that have occurred all have pros and cons.
If we consider the political aspect. The advocacy of transparency is based upon the idea that if things are more transparent then it becomes more difficult for people to be corrupt. This, however, rather assumes that they are going to try to be so. If people do want to cheat then it is unfortunately the case that they will mostly find ways to do so whatever the “system”. It is always possible to “play the system” whatever the system is, if one really wants to. Ultimately, the antidote to corruption is not greater surveillance, it is the pervasion of an honourable ethos. It is generally a feature of groups that do have such an ethos that they also exhibit a good deal of mutual trust and do not spend large amounts of time and energy checking up on one another. They do not need to be particularly transparent. If there is more corruption it is not so much because the social police have been lax and more because standards in political life have dropped.
If we consider the psychological aspect, human communication is complex. I have argued elsewhere in a paper I wrote many years ago that there is an important sense in which there is no such thing as “congruence” – there are simply more and less complex communications. If a person tells me he is really happy, yet looks miserable, this is a more complex message than if face and voice are saying the same thing, but it is not a sin to convey a complex message – rather it is part of the human genius that we are capable of doing so and, in fact, are all doing so much of the time. The ability to decipher such complexity is, of course, sometimes a challenge, but can often be rewarding. Behind every element in a communication there is a reason. Perhaps this person’s face is telling us about his attitude to life and his voice about something that occurred in the past ten minutes, or vice versa, or some irony is involved, intended or not, or perhaps he is a man from the middle ages when it was levity that was considered a sin so having a cheerful demeanour was considered anti-social. There could be any number of reasons. Much of the time people are not transparent – they are opaque because their lives are complicated. It may take patience and empathy to understand that complexity but one is not under a moral obligation to have a non-complex life.
If we consider the matter from a social perspective, again it is not inherently a sin to have a secret. It is reponsible to make a judgement about who it is wise to divulge which information to. Some things one can tell everybody, other things should be for a more limited circulation and there are some things one should keep to oneself. Some things are better kept private. Sometimes it is, for instance, better to take responsibility for something upon oneself – to shoulder the karma of it – than to involve everybody else and thereby land them with a portion of the guilt. I remember once being involved in the care of a patient. The patient told me that they did not want a particular member of the care staff involved in their care because they considered that person rough. I understood the patient’s concern and arranged that the “rough” person was involved in other things. I did not tell the rough person the patient’s opinion of them. I did not explain why I had rearranged staff duties. I did not discuss the matter with the whole team and try to reach a consensus decision. I was not transparent. I still think that I did the right thing. There are times when transparency is a good policy and times when it isn’t. It is not an absolute virtue, it is a means to certain ends in some circumstances.
Is it possible that we have become more concerned with transparency because we trust less and because we assume that cheating and taking advantage improperly are now normal, – because of declining standards and increasing cynicism? If there are no thieves you don’t need to lock the door and you don’t need surveillance cameras in your garden.
Secrecy is also a dimension of intimacy. To be intimate means to share some things that are not going to be made public. To keep each other’s secrets is a precious trust. To not keep them can be betrayal. Intimates enjoy a psychological space that is opaque to outsiders. In taking the principle of transparency too far we are in danger of losing one of the most precious aspects of life. We are losing the notions of loyalty, honour, faithfulness and related notions, giving them up in favour of a supposedly more rational, but ultimately less trustworthy approach to life.
April 2, 2017 at 4:41 pm #1473Rev. Satya Robyn (temple host)Moderator
Namo Amida Bu. I know that sometimes in the past when I haven’t kept secrets it’s been because I’ve been driven by wanting to be popular or wanting to ‘share the blame’ as Dharmavidya says.
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