Friday, September 03, 2010

Bluntness and Subtlety

Conservatives – to engage in wild generalisation – prefer bluntness. When this goes wrong, it becomes tactlessness. Progressives admire subtlety in phrasing. When this goes wrong, it becomes evasion.

People admire both. “Plain speech” is not only a Quaker virtue.
Yet it is also a compliment to say of a person”He can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the journey.”

There are certainly personality characteristics to this split, and perhaps those who naturally prefer plain speech are drawn to conservatism while those who are subtle by nature lean liberal – one factor among many, and not an overwhelming one. More strongly, various subcultures stress one or the other, and this has political effect. For, a person who will not answer yea or nay, but must give you an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand answer arouses suspicion in some on the right – he talks out both sides of his mouth - while bluntness is interpreted as dullness on the left – she is unable to understand complex material. And confirmation bias will keep that idea firmly embedded in your skull throughout your life, if you let it. In a wide world, one can always find stupid or dishonest people on the other side of the divide.

So. This hardly helps going forward in the national conversation, does it?

While we can all pretty readily identify the bad effect the two styles have on hearers. Regarding someone as stupid – as if he is unable to attain the lofty heights of cleverness of my good tribe – merely because he is blunt is, in itself, stupid. Jumping to the conclusion that someone is being dishonest – as if she is intentionally evading the question – merely because she wants to give due weight to all sides is, in itself, dishonest. There is also the unfortunate effect that indirect people can too easily find a home on the left even if they are dishonest, which direct people can to easily find a home even if they are dishonest.

I am more interested at present on the effect the two styles have on the speaker. We become what we pretend to be, but there are different ways that can happen. We might become gentle souls, mindful of the feelings of others and eager to persuade them only as much as they can absorb at the moment. We might also become arrogant souls, appearing in gentleness only for the added insult of condescension. And if the latter, we will hardly be the ones who see it. We can say “perhaps” because we are genuinely humble and curious, willing to be corrected or challenged; we can say “perhaps” because it is polite and we wish for others to contribute freely or at least save face; or we can say “perhaps” while meaning none of it, questioning none of our assumptions and enforcing our will on others whenever we have the power, while maintaining plausible deniability that we are in any way the divisive, confrontational ones. It’s those other people, the blunt ones, who are stirring the pot. All our friends know that.

To enjoy indirection with its constant qualifying and tempering, to spend one’s life with people who reward it as socially advanced, is to move from tact to avoidance, from avoidance to evasion, from evasion to dissembling, from dissembling to lying. This is not only a possible trail, it is the natural one unless we guard actively against it. Am I sounding like Screwtape? Perhaps. (“Perhaps” meaning I’m pretty damn sure but am willing to consider an alternative; and I’m not claiming to be quite as good at this as Lewis, but not miles behind either. So my “perhaps” is closer to sincere politeness than to real gentleness.) It is an especial danger on the religious left, but in my limited experience, they seem to encourage it there rather than warn against it. We all do tend to lean every further out one side of the boat, don’t we? Fundamentalist colleges and seminaries encourage their students to be more bold, after all, as it that were the problem.

There is a second possible consequence – usually related to the first but sometimes independent – of endlessly hedging one’s conversational bets by hedging: we may actually become fuzzy in our thoughts. Bright conversationalists know that forever supposing, positing, it-is-possibling, sounds bad, so they move instead into empty words. The ability to make important distinctions atrophies, as words like justice, peace, American, humane, fair, biblical, and now missional take the stage. All are ideas one could not possibly object to, now used to justify things far more suspect. This is not mere PR, though there are those who use such terms with intentional manipulation and deception in mind. But for most, the sweetness of the word biblical or justice, applied gradually to all our pet theories, is too much to resist. Even better, we get to apply their opposites to those who disagree with us. So we have an interest in not thinking too precisely.

Alert readers will notice that we have moved into territory as dangerous for conservatives as for liberals, as my choices of great gaseous words illustrates. The individual variants are myriad, but conservatives generally arrive at this fuzziness from a different direction: not because they have hedged and qualified too long, but because their bluntness is unsustainable.

If we make pronouncements because they have more dramatic effect, we run a separate danger. Because a single counterexample can undermine an inflexible claim, blunt people often use the categorical statement as a pre-emptive strike. It is a declaration so emphatic that the hearer is warned it will be uncomfortable to even enter a discussion. People who dislike confrontation (or dislike wasting their time) will simply decline to respond. They may make a parting shot as they walk away, challenging the idea of certainty more than the content, or reserve their complaint until later, with those who might listen. Yet the speaker, who for all his bluster may be eqully uncomfortable with heated discussion, has been rewarded for his declarative nature. He will be drawn to repeat the technique in other settings, spreading his definiteness over wider and further pieces of intellectual real estate. Biblical will come to mean “whatever I think, because no one’s stopping me.” Public speakers are especially prone to this – who, after all, is going to attend a political rally or evangelism crusade where the speakers shilly-shally? - but it is common in conversation as well. (Not so common with me around, but even I let a lot of stuff go face-to-face interaction. I don’t like contention, I don’t like picking on unarmed people.) As with the tact-to-lying progression, there are intermediate steps from plain speech to bluster.

Relatedly, refusing to qualify statements can make you gradually stupid. We come to believe that it is that simple, that there are no mitigating circumstances or exceptions, that our prism is culture-bound in any way. Smart people can make themselves stupid over time by prefering the tidy and narrow construction to the messy reality on grounds that are aestheic or convenient.


Donna B. said...

Veddy interesting. One of the things that keeps me from writing more, or as much as I used to, is that I feel the need to do so much qualifying of every statement.

That bogs me down, makes writing tedious, and I think makes the end result boring. I'm never pleased by anything I've written like that.

I don't really know why I started doing that because I don't really enjoy indirection and I don't want to be indirect.

Anyway... yeah. Add some analogies :-)

karrde said...


I found that when I spent a lot of time in the University, I did tend away from bluntness in communication.

Now that I spend a majority of my waking hours employed as an Engineer in a firm full of Engineers, I don't temper my bluntness and directness.