I think we’ve reached the time when we should ban the phrase “honest discussion” or related phrases, e.g. “talk honestly”, etc., from public discourse for one reason: it’s threatening to turn “honest” into an auto-antonym.
An auto-antonym is a word that means something and the opposite of that thing. The most obvious example is “inflammable” which both means some that burns and something that doesn’t burn. Other words I’ve seen used to mean both something and its opposite include “content”, “bias”, and “conversation”. I think that “liberal” and “conservative”, too, are now auto-antonyms.
What prompts me to make this plea is Fred Hiatt’s Washington Post column in which he makes a pitch for gun control without once mentioning that there are 300 million guns in the United States and something between 30% and 40% of American households have firearms. The reasons that no politician, Democratic or Republican, is willing to expend political capital on gun control are that it’s an unpopular subject and it’s obvious that no “commonsense reforms” will do much to end gun violence. That’s especially true when you take into account that any reasonably well-equipped machine shop can produce a very efficient firearm—it’s easier to make a gun that it is to grow pot or cook meth.
I’m in favor of enforcing the laws that are already on the books more strenuously, closing some loopholes in the laws that we have, and a few other reforms. Enacting more unenforced, unenforceable, or irrelevant laws are ways of signalling concern rather than ways of addressing the problems. And “honest conversations” that don’t take into account the basic realities of the situation are far from honest.
So, by all means let’s have an honest conversation. But let’s not have any more “honest conversations”. As Confucius said:
If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.