TRANSPARENCY ~ Can you keep a secret?

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.

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  • Yes, good questionTamuly;)....I think that in such situations  as being in front of a little child, an animal, or also being in nature ,we usually have not to deal with a conditioned mind. So we donot need to defend anything about ourselves. That is why I think it can be easier to be more transparent and more connected with simplicity.

    But dealing with our own minds or others ussually implies a state of defence which makes things more complex 

  • I agree with you, Carol, there are many points raised by Dharmavidya that are worth being studied. Since I was also involoved in the conversation refered to, I would also like to stress the difficulty in being transparent to oneself. When I reflect on that, I find myself quite often in a muddle of feelings, thoughts, emotions and so on. Sometimes, I sense genuine transparency only in a simple gesture towards somebody: as for example, sharing an outburst of joy from a child or even laughing at the funny behaviour of an animal. Could it be that If we try hard to work towards transparency we end up in more opacity.? .   

  • Yes, I think that the good person generally has little to fear in being transparent, but that is a different matter from whether beings so is the right or best thing in all situations. It appears to be a fashion to think so, but I can remember a time (before the arrival of many popular American psychological ideas) when (in Britain) to say that somebody was "transparent" was to denigrate them - it meant that they were shallow, just as with shallow water you can see to the bottom, but with deep water the depths are hidden. These fashions of thought change. As I've got older I have more and more come to think that there are many situations when it is better not to burden other people with knowledge of things that they, perhaps, can do little or nothing about and are simply one's own responsibility. This is, perhaps, a more old fashioned way of thinking on my part.

  •  It is very good to read about this. I agree with you, David, but I admit that, before this reading I had not questioned the benevolence of transparency in almost all cases: The more good you are, the more transparent you can be.

    Obviously things are not always like that. Thank you for offering another vision to expand mine!

  • Thanks, Adam. Yes, "interpret as intended" is an important principle in communication. At the same time, it is valuable to think things through as what is intended may not cover all dimensions. In the psychological field since the time of WWII it seems to me that there has been a rather different set of underlying assumptions operating on different sides of the Atlantic. The American side - more rationalist - assumes transparency is the goal while the European side - more existentialist - takes human nature to be inevitably complex and consequently more full of unavoidable angst :-) . So a good soul like rogers can happily talk about "unconditional positive regard" while many continental thinkers would have simply assumed that such a thing is impossible for humans. I think this makes the subject well worth reflecting upon because it touches areas that we all tend to make assumptions about that are not thought through - the things we think about congruence are often not congruent with our actual experience. The subject of transparency is not as transparent as one might at first tend to assume.

  • Here is the paper I wrote a quarter of a century ago on the topic of congruence. Most of it is, I think, still just as valid.

  • David, you have touched on so much in this article. Things I have been thinking about, things I have been living. It is a little bit of a sutra all in and of itself. It points to many truths of how we live our lives, how we choose to live in society, and how we choose our words and actions. It reflects not only on how we act but on how we interpret another's actions and words. The Buddhist precepts about proper speech, about not taking what is not freely given, about not lying..all come into play here. The complexity of our own sometimes conflicting thoughts and actions. A lifelong study and well worth reflecting on. Communication as a hall of mirrors?

    I would like to go further with this if you ever feel the inclination.
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