Keith Frankel seems like an asshole. The first time we Skyped—me on the floor in my bedroom, him in his well-appointed office in Boston—I found myself disliking him immediately. In fact, my distaste began with his first email, in which he boasted that his new life goal was to stop telling lies and asked Uproxx to cover his story.
I recently committed to a personal future without lying. To anyone. About absolutely anything. That’s right: Not at work. Not at home. Not even little white lies, such as false encouragement of a friend or family member, excuses for why I have to cancel plans, or reasons why I won’t give a homeless person spare change.
Still, as much my first impressions of Frankel irked me, he obviously caught my attention. Growing up in a household where truths were meted out in precious slivers, I spent years learning how to be a good fabricator. I can lie about most things convincingly and, on the average day, probably tell more lies than I should. The idea of a human, living in 2016, who can give up lying cold turkey seems unfathomable to me. Especially a human who wants to remain a functioning member of mainstream western society — where an ability to moderate your truth-telling seems to be the one thing holding everything together.
Which is why, in agreeing to speak to Frankel and shine some attention on his project, I also found myself eager to prove that the whole “never lie” thing was idiotic. If we’re being honest–and Frankel would insist that we always should be–I went into the interview with hopes of forcing him to lie. I wanted to ask questions that would make him squirm.
“What do you think of my beard?” I ask several minutes into our 90-minute conversation. “My grandma hates it and thinks it’s ugly.”
“Actually,” he says. “I’m more worried about your eye. What’s going on there?”
This response surprises me. I’ve had surgery only a few weeks before our chat to fix a retinal detachment, and while everyone around me has assured me that “it doesn’t look so bad,” Frankel openly admits that my eye looks ten shades of messed up. I know he’s right, of course, and it’s refreshing to hear someone else say it.
This begins a trend that continues throughout the conversation: I find myself getting sucked in by Frankel’s shtick. I feel charmed by him and his pop rocks of truth (they’re not quite truth bombs, or even truth M-80s). Perhaps that’s just because, like so many people who are willing to lie to preserve social graces, I desperately want to be liked. Sure, I’m brave on paper–taking notes about how I can find fault in Frankel’s philosophy–but when we’re face-to-face via Skype, I’m much less confrontational.
Would I be able to handle it, I wonder as we’re talking, if Frankel thought I was the jerk here? (Spoiler: he did, more on that later.)
Frankel is 28, makes six figures a year, and loves his grandma more than anyone else in the world. An Alabama native, he’s well-versed in the South’s special brand of honesty, in which you might say something nasty followed by a “bless her heart,” and he doesn’t think it’s healthy. Nor does he think that the people around him deserve to hear anything but the truth.
He tells me that since he’s started his anti-lying campaign, he’s seen how that honesty can change lives. As an example, he shares a story of a colleague who didn’t seem happy with his job. While others might have let the matter go, or fester, Frankel called a meeting, brought the matter to the fore, and began talking about ways that the colleague could focus on the parts of the job he didn’t find soul-sucking. The other stuff, the stuff the colleague didn’t like, could be passed to someone who didn’t mind it.
This might just sound like solid management, but for Frankel, it’s a lesson in how honesty can lead to a resolution. He’s not wholly unfamiliar with feeling morally bankrupt—he tells me he used to work in reality television, which he calls “a grimy business”—so being as direct as possible with others has become hugely important.
“In the South,” Frankel says, “everyone feels so open and warm and welcoming, but it’s all artificial. It’s all surface level. None of it is genuine. As a kid growing up, I was fairly direct. My household was fairly direct.”
When he got into reality television, the person Frankel most respected was an executive producer who didn’t build compliment sandwiches when something was wrong. “We would sit around a boardroom of 30 people and you would put something on and if he didn’t like it, he would stop the tape and say, ‘What the fuck were you thinking?’ Frankel says. “Others found that incredibly scary and nerve wracking. I found it so liberating because it was a true meritocracy. When I made the transition to tech, it shocked me that this doesn’t exist in the tech world.”
So, Frankel set out to change that, but in a way that he feels is more practical than academic. He’s not writing policy; he’s simply telling the truth more and snowing others less.
“In the last two years, I’ve become more concerned with the threats we face as a society, not as individuals,” he continues. “Particularly over the last six months, I’ve started to worry about what role I can play in this. We’re the generation that is going to affect the future. If we want to check climate change — it’s you, it’s me. It’s my neighbor. It’s the people I went to school with. It’s the people I’m friends on Facebook with.”
I find myself nodding along with Frankel when he’s saying all this—if he were to become a politician, he wouldn’t suffer for votes—but afterwards, I find myself recoiling against the idea of radical truth telling. I just don’t think it manages to take issues of privilege into account. For Frankel, a conventionally attractive, straight, white man with a good job and a prestigious educational background (Yale, Tufts), being 100% honest carries much less risk.
That doesn’t mean that Frankel is reckless with his truth telling. “A commitment to honestly,” he tells me, “is not a commitment to detail.” That sounds less like George Washington, whose mythology suggests that he “cannot tell a lie,” and more like the title of a book by Mary Ladd Gavell: I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly.
“Do you have any prejudice against any other races?” I ask. At this point, I’m only partly in asshole-detecting mode. I’m beginning to buy into Frankel’s good intentions, but I also want to be sure that he can navigate the same uncomfortable conversations which he claims will make the world a better place. He asks me to give him a few moments to think. I agree that it’s a difficult question, one that I’d have trouble answering publicly, too.
“If I’m uncertain about something you’ve asked, and I want to respond. I believe it’s my obligation to inform you of the degree of uncertainty,” Frankel finally says. “If you say, ‘What’s with those waves and the whole tide thing? How does that happen?’ I’d say, ‘Yo, it has to do with the moon.’ Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you. I have an idea, but I know it has to do with the moon because I’ve learned that before. I can’t tell you anything else.”
Where are you headed with this?
“Is the sun bigger than the Earth? Yeah, it’s definitely bigger than the Earth. How much bigger? A lot bigger. I honestly don’t know. I remember someone telling me it had a 9 in it, 90 million, 90 billion. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the distance. I don’t know. It’s much bigger, though.”
Okay, so back to the other thing…
“I feel obligated to tell you the degree of uncertainty. I do believe that’s part of this when I decide to answer. When you ask this, my first response to that is to say, ‘I’m uncomfortable.’ What was the exact wording of your question so I can replicate it?”
I repeat myself. “Do you knowingly have any prejudice against any other races?” It’s not the exact wording, but I want to be as clear as possible.
“My response would be, I am concerned about the core ideology of some groups,” he responds.
“Can you give me a specific group?”
“I would just say like, ‘I fear radical Islamism.’ Muslim is not race and I don’t believe all Muslims are bad people. I don’t believe that whatsoever. Yes, I do fear that a large percentage of Muslims believe in some version of Islam that is anti-modernity or anti-progress. I believe there are radical jihadists and conservative political Islamists who don’t believe in the sort of basic human rights that most of us support and defend — namely the equal rights of women, gays, other races, and, most importantly, other ideas.”
“Ideas have the potential to be harmful and damaging, and thus those people who hold these [anti-equal rights, etc] sorts of ideas scare me. However, sans these ideas, I’m not against any person based on biological reasons.”
Okay, respect. I’ve asked him a tough question and he’s delivered an honest answer. Not everyone would be able to do that.
“I think it’s something worth talking about,” he continues. “When I look at people, the incorrect thing would be to say, ‘I don’t like them brown people.’ That’s ridiculous. I don’t feel like that. But it would also be a lie to say, ‘There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between radical Jihadism or radical Islam and a certain type of person.'”
Frankel tells me he’s not being cagey because he doesn’t want to talk about race. It’s because he’s uncertain of what I will write. After all, we aren’t friends; I’m just a writer who was interested in his story. Ahh, there’s another rub of truth telling: your brazen honesty might get misinterpreted.
As dubious as Frankel is about me, he holds the people in his life to even higher standards. In one post on his blog, Frankel discusses no longer wanting to hang out with a friend who doesn’t believe in his project. In another, he bemoans the fact that sometimes we reflexively tell people it’s nice to see them again, even when it isn’t. I tell him this sounds whiny. I also tell him (in the spirit of honesty) that I’ve often perceived his blog posts as arrogant.
“Arrogance is really strong claim and it’s one that’s affected me,” Frankel says. “I’ve had to sit and consider. Am I arrogant? I don’t feel like this. When I first received those comments, my initial reaction was to say, ‘I’m not arrogant.’ Being honest has made me direct and I feel that’s good because there’s a certain degree of urgency here.”
“Then last night at 10 p.m., I’m walking around just blowing off some steam and I came to this realization that maybe I am arrogant. In order to be honest with others, you have to be honest to yourself first. Then I had a conversation with my two best friends […] one of my friends said, ‘Arrogance seems to imply that not only do you view yourself or hold yourself or perceive yourself to be on a higher level, but that you think no other people could get to that level.'”
That’s exactly why I struggle with encouraging everyone to only tell the truth: because not all people can do it. At least not in our current political and social climate. A person who’s closeted, for instance, may not enjoy the luxury of being as honest when asked about their relationships. The same goes for someone who’s living in a household where the unwritten rule is that interracial relationships are taboo. Truth requires safe space. Not all people exist in Frankel’s same truth-favorable position
I think about my own experience: As a gay man and the son of immigrant parents (who insisted for decades that coming to America was what changed me, because there’s no homosexuality in Russia), I sometimes regret how early and how quickly I came out. Shortly after my 18th birthday, after several years of banning me from family trips (because everyone would know), and asking me to eat with separate utensils because they believed that all homosexuals were infected with HIV, my parents politely asked me to either abandon my sexual orientation or leave the house.
I chose the latter, but I was privileged, too. I live in San Francisco. I had access to resources that a kid in a rural community might not have. You gonna tell that kid never to lie? I’m not.
My case isn’t uncommon. It’s not even close to being the most extreme. The worst thing my mother did was tell me she’d prefer I was a drug addict to being gay. Other parents have driven their children to suicide or killed them themselves. For someone who hails from Alabama — a state where bigotry has a well-established history — it’s strange to think that Frankel hasn’t already given this some serious thought.
That, for me, is the real issue here: Not so much Frankel’s expectation that others join him, but that he can’t see why they shouldn’t. Or how the people who have the most to lose aren’t likely to stick their necks out in the name of “truth” if it’s not guaranteed to come with a side order of actual social justice.
Which explains why, for all his admirable ideas, I can’t bring myself to believe that Frankel’s project is going to make us more honest as a species. No, I think it’s mostly for his own benefit. Which is fine. Self improvement is a great cause — of course, if you blog about it, post to social media about it, and try to get publicity for it, you’re inviting a dialogue.
You’re opening the door for writers like me to take a critical approach to your project. Which I obviously did and Frankel obviously felt. From his blog:
During the first 20-30 minutes of the interview, I started to realize that the journalist came into the interview expecting me to be a Martin Shkreli level asshole, and he was excited to get the opportunity to vilify me as such. From questions regarding my prejudice against other races (I don’t believe I have any) to subtle criticisms of the tone of some of my past articles (much to his credit, he actually read them), the interview was certainly not going as planned. Quite simply, he knew I was an asshole, and one of his main goals was to determine just how much of one.
Well…this stung to read. But he’s clearly right, it’s right there in my first paragraph. Despite the warm (even protective feelings) I develop towards him by the end of our interactions, there’s no denying that our relationship and my excitement about the story was initially predicated on “exposing him” and making him see the error of his ways.
The real twist — more than me coming to like Frankel — is that I find myself beginning to agree with him. Maybe not on the big things, but on the fact that not telling lies may give us more time to focus on other things. According to research, we lie all the time, even when we don’t have to. Even when the lie won’t be of any benefit. Even when it isn’t fun. And there is some benefit to being honest. A small 2012 study suggests that when people chill on all the lying, they improve both their mental and physical health.
I think of Frankel a week after our first talk, during a conversation I have with one of my friends. He’s been invited to a party and doesn’t want to go because the host, someone neither of us particularly like, has sent out an email asking people to contribute towards food if they plan on coming. “What kind of bullshit is that?”
“One of us should say something,” I say. “Maybe this person doesn’t know they’re behaving like an asshole.”
We both laugh. It’s a good thought, but the idea of being branded monsters, merely for pointing out the gauche behavior of another human being, is too anxiety-provoking for us to handle.
Bad behavior is bad, yes, but you know what’s worse? Being a dick.
This is a sentiment Frankel vehemently disagrees with. The second time we talk—this time on the phone in February—he points out that there’s a misconception that being mean is somehow an accepted version of being honest. There are people out there, both Frankel and I agree, who attribute their bad behavior to “telling it like it is” or being “brutally honest.” Incidentally, these are the same people who need to be on the receiving end of honest talk more than anyone else.
“If your friend is behaving badly,” Frankel says, “It’s probably because they’ve been allowed to. Why is it wrong to tell them that it’s not okay?” Not a bad point. Why is it that we can’t be honest with those who claim to worship at the temple of honesty 24/7? What would be the worst that could happen? We might lose a friend, but, Frankel points out, “Your friend might also change how they interact with you.”
It’s something that I’m thinking of trying. Something I know I should try, but still don’t feel ready for yet.
During our second talk, I realize that a few weeks have changed Frankel considerably. He sounds less rehearsed. His ideas have become more personal rather than global in scope. I no longer feel like I’m talking to someone who’s a well-oiled soundbite machine. While I want to talk about why he sounds so defensive on his blog—he’s forever bringing in friends to counter the criticism lobbied against him—he wants to tell me about how much it hurt when a friend of his, someone he respected, didn’t respond to Frankel’s mass email about going on a prevarication-free diet in 2016.
“He’s in this other group chat we’re on,” Frankel says, noticeable frustration coloring his tone, “but he’s not responding to my email about something that’s incredibly important to me.” I want to tell him that I wouldn’t respond to such a mass email, either, but I’m feeling surprisingly protective of Frankel at this point. He’s talking about moving away from responding to criticism and just living his life lie-free, documenting it to record the changes it’s made.
As the project goes on, Frankel is looking further inward and getting in touch with his emotions as opposed to continuing to fixate on how compulsive truth-telling will change the world. In doing so, he’s found something truly transformative about the project: an improved ability to be honest with himself.
A few days after my last conversation with Frankel, a friend texts to ask if I’d like to go out for dinner.
“Not tonight,” I tell her. I’m vaguely sick, but not unwell enough not to go out. I just don’t want to. For a second, I worry that the rejection might ruin our friendship, that I should take a shower, throw on some jeans, and leave the house. But then I realize that I’ve been honest enough. I don’t have to explain the minutiae. I just have to say no, tell her another night would be better, and live with the consequences.
It’s not easy for me. I want to call my therapist to discuss it immediately. But I survive.
I see Frankel’s initial pitch to me of EVERYONE SHOULD BE HONEST ABOUT EVERYTHING as a facade. His claims about a possible utopia where all -isms are somehow eradicated with perfect honesty are interesting, but they’re not what’s most important. It’s the change that’s going on inside Frankel that’s noteworthy. The personal evolution.
If the growth Frankel experiences by being at the center of his project is transformative, maybe people like me really ought to join the movement in some way. I hold fast to my belief that Frankel’s ideas aren’t ready to be applied in all situations, but if the focus is narrowed and we stop being dishonest about those little things we all feel so bad lying about–why the dishes aren’t done, whether anyone actually likes Goldfrapp–perhaps we could start building a foundation that could get us closer to the honest-utopia so many of us claim to long for.
Mark Shrayber is senior Life writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.