Sunday, October 11, 2009
ethics of falsified pleasantries
During my last while teaching, I became entrenched with the idea that most public interaction is absolutely dependent on the perpetual exchange of pleasantries between the same people on a daily basis. It was observed that a substantial amount of the time these were falsified statements or falsified interests, both on my own part and on the part of others towards me and others. The more that this was observed the more it was rejected. Once something in a sociological realm is noticed, it tends to make itself prevalent on a regular basis, it is like if you buy a car then you notice all of the other cars like that one on the road.
The ethical question arose: is it better to go along with these falsified interactions without regard to their existence or to partake in the common conformity that is this way of behaving? It would be hard to argue for a situation that encourages people to only say what is really going on in their mind at all times. Society as we know it would crumble, showing how much we are dependent on these pretenses. Resentment would abound, cooperation would be hindered, etc. That is the extreme that you argue on would be self defeating.
What I am proposing here is an openness to speak one's mind in a constructive way when confronted by someone and in a situation that presently subversively demands the exchange of falsified pleasantries. When someone finds oneself interacting with someone who has just spent time and money on altering one's appearance (new hairdo, piercing, tattoo, etc.) or walking by someone on the street who you are acquainted with but not particularly care for, which is the way to go? The falsified route or the honest route?
In the case of the new hairdo: if someone is really either flat-out asking or you can read on their face that they are fishing for compliments or opinion, what do they gain by saying that they look improved. For something like a hairdo, something semi-permanent, what is the harm in saying that it is not flattering, that it clashes with the shape of their head, or that bright orange is not a hair color that one is typically drawn to? Would it not be more of a service to be honest, critique the alteration, after all it is only a single opinion, and we know what they are like....
But then that is the truth in your eyes, who he/she looks to you to relay any other information would be untruthful. I do acknowledge that much of society is based on white lies, this falling into that category.
In the case of passing an acquaintance on the street: instead of stopping and asking how their sick cat is doing, why not just say "hello" and keep walking? Chances are that the other person does not want to have the awkward conversation any more than you do. You both would be doing each other a favor. It is not rude but more efficient than the waist of time that would be the conversation when neither party has any interest in the blabber coming from the other side.
Is truth the ultimate end to an ethical evaluation? If so, refusing the norm of exchanging pleasantries when the exchange itself is not a pleasant experience would refute the principles behind this brand of ethics. Is the ultimate consideration the feelings and outlook that are generated by the opposite party during the exchange? If so than the falsified angle would be the correct choice. I am in the camp that the little white lies of some pleasantries are a small scale version of the oppressive natures that are found within human society. This is to say to continue to avoid malicious interactions and to maintain a sense of civil interaction but not constrain oneself to expressing falsities when the receiver of such information would easily decipher it as such. But in reality that is this established system of hollow praise and interest, the easiest thing is to just go with the flow of what people expect even when their expectations are to give the predictable answer that does not lead them anywhere challenging or intriguing.