Mutual dishonesty by agreement

We’re all familiar with the romantic image of charming arrogance; the ideal of the well-educated and witty entertainer whose biting remarks and razor-sharp sarcasm add some depth and intellectual exercise to our otherwise dull and down-to-earth conversations. We rely on their presence to occasionally challenge and question, dissect and illuminate, so that we can return to the comfort of our everyday lives with a sense of absolution – safely assured that we have consumed a healthy amount of honesty and insight, justifying the apparent banality of the things that otherwise dominate our own intellectual efforts. What to eat, what movie too see, where to work… all the less elevated concerns that seldom leave room for commitment to higher causes. Public personifications of this ideal have had a given place in society for ages – from prehistoric animal rights activists preaching the immorality of dinosaur-based diets, through rogue greek philosophers, Voltaire and his brothers of enlightenment and Oscar Wilde, to this day and age, where the task has been roughly equally divided between the Noam Chomskys and the Eddie Izzards of our global village.

While the above outlined public figures have significance in their own right, I’m quite sure we are far more influenced by the ones we find among our own acquaintances. The question is whether this influence is warranted; is the local agent provocateur really worthy of being held in such high esteem?

To be able answer this, we have to know the who these individuals are, and what drives them to take on these roles. In my experience, there is a story that many of them have in common. Gifted with intelligence and clarity of vision by birth or circumstance, they often find themselves alienated and sometimes even dysfunctional when it comes to social interaction. The dense, impenetrable layers of convetions, etiquette and unspoken rules seem confusing and pointless, producing a strong feeling of being out of place. At this point, one of two things can happen. The budding instigator will either turn introvert, concluding that he is the freaky exception from the norm, or learn to channel his abilities in a positive way. The latter involves deciphering the rules of social interaction, utilizing the above mentioned insightfullness and intelligence to good effect for ones own purposes. Accurately assessing the intentions, weaknesses and desires of his peers puts him in an excellent position to successfully manipulate others to achieve his own goals. Having been alienated and out of place, these goals tend to gravitate towards gaining acceptance, popularity and appreciation. He masters the art of flattery and ego-massage, while skillfully exposing the characteristics that are most revered in his given social context.

At this stage, another choice of direction is made.

Some will continue on the same path, excelling at being Mr. Perfect – the altruist, always willing to lend a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on or to provide remarkably insightful advice. The dependable constant, who amazingly always seems to know the right thing to do or say. The hypocrite, who will gladly lend a listening ear to expand his database of useful information about the people he manipulates for the sole purpose of being liked. The other group is the one we’re looking for. Bored and unsatisfied with always saying what they know people want to hear, they venture in the opposite direction of saying what they know people don’t want to hear. In an enlightened enough environment, they surprisingly discover that the reactions are positive; people seem to appreciate being told the truth!

Instead of using the knowledge of what goes on in people’s heads to elegantly travel the high road of the social game, he starts to selectively bring what boils underneath to the surface, creating obviously much needed turbulence. Turbulence makes people insecure, making their need for support even stronger. Adding fearlessness and honesty without compromise to his list of carefully selected virtues, our hero reaches even greater heights of esteem among his peers. Pushing secret buttons and asking uncomfortable question raises his social status and respect, while easing the burden of his own conscience; opening people’s eyes, bringing the evils of the world and their own lives to their attention, is far easier to justify than aiding them in self-deception and denial. Finally, all his unique talent is being used for a truly higher cause! He’s obviously doing people a favor, ridding them of the illusions and lies that obscure their faults and the intrinsic misery of their existence. Or is he?

Much has been said in defense of moderation, and even honesty can be taken too far. Yet again, our hero must choose. If he stops here, he has a bright future as described in the opening lines of this article – as the thought-provoking entertainer, bringing a fresh air of eye-opening observations, stirring up emotions in need of stirring, balancing the functions of catalyst and confidante.

The second alternative, by contrast, has far less desirable consequences. In this case, he proceeds digging deeper and deeper, brutally exposing every piece of dirt he can lay his hands on. Confronting people with their innermost regrets and fears, still under the assumption of the unconditional good of absolute honesty, he soon finds himself having passed the height of appreciation. Instead, people are turning away from him, increasingly reluctant to confide in him. Refusing to realize that he’s pushed things too far, he develops contempt for his peers, viewing them as weak individuals who ungratefully shun the essential truths he, and only he, can offer them. As they abandon him, one by one, he simply shakes his head knowing that it’s really their loss. Before long, he has found himself facing the same isolation that he once rejected by learning the rules of the game.

So, what went wrong? The first error our hero made was back when he learned the rules of the game. He studied and copied the behavior of the people around him until he mastered them to perfection, but never stopped to think why they behaved the way they did. He accepted the conventions of social interaction as arbitrary rules, no different from the artificial rules of chess. Obviously, this is not the case. The second error was to underestimate his peers. In our hero’s view, he was surrounded by superficial vegetables who go around unaware of what’s really going on. He was the only one with the special ability to see beneath the surface, thus making it his responsibility to inform everyone else of those findings.

People are polite for a reason. While our hero probably has an above average ability to spot connections, getting to heart of matters and judge character, he is certainly not the only human aware of everything that isn’t talked about on a daily basis. Most people put on different faces, as much for others as for themselves. Most people have moments of deep self-assessment, when they open the lid and face their demons. Then they close the lid, so that they can function normally until the need arises again. Many of the unwritten rules of society are based on a mutual understanding of this. A silent agreement stating “I’ll keep my hands of your lid if keep yours off mine”. People close their eyes, and assume that the next person is well aware of every brutal truth you might have to offer, but has chosen not to deal with them at this time for a good reason. When they do confide in you, you treat that confidence with utmost respect. Ideally, you confide in them in return, if not for any other reason than to keep the “lid-opening balance” between you.

So, if this is the case, and the social game works perfectly just the way it is – why is our hero successful when moderate? Well, people are of course imperfect. They don’t open their lids nearly often enough, simply because it’s too uncomfortable. Usually, they only do so when it’s too late. By breaking some of the social conventions, offering a moderate amount of brutal honesty, you give them a chance to blow off some steam at regular intervals, which makes them feel better, and making people feel better is generally appreciated. So, there it is. The origin of the charmingly arrogant agent provocateur. A dysfunctional freak that learned the rules, and knew when to stop. Since most of us lack the discipline to face reality as often as we should, we appreciate him for helping us do so a little at a time.
The question is, who should learn from who?


6 Responses to “Mutual dishonesty by agreement”

  1. elmindreda Says:

    You make lies and denial sound so shiny, but real people are getting hurt by the agreement not to discuss and deal with the unpleasant parts of life.

  2. gammawave Says:

    I’m certainly not advocating lies and denial. If anything, I’m making the observation that it might not always be a good idea to dig too deep into the unpleasent parts of other peoples lives if they don’t want you to. Still, sometimes it might be a good idea to dig a little.

    What I’m saying is that there is a blurry line, and that it exists for a reason.

    The agreement is not “don’t burden me with your problems, and I won’t burden you with mine”.

    The agreement is “don’t force me to deal with things I’m not ready to deal with, and I won’t force you to deal with what you’re not ready to deal with”.

    That’s a really big difference.

  3. elmindreda Says:

    I don’t see the difference, but then I’m not talking about some random personal issues. If you are, then we might be in agreement.

    There are plenty of things that are too important to wait for people to feel good about them. If they don’t want to be confronted with what they said to their aunt ten years ago then I don’t really care, but that same mechanism is what keeps people inside institutions, lets eugenics programs continue and prevents ableism from being addressed, to mention a few examples I personally soap box about.

  4. gammawave Says:

    The difference is between saying you shouldn’t say…

    “I’m really unhappy with my weight and need to talk about it”.

    …and saying you shouldn’t always say

    “You really need to stop pretending you don’t have a weight problem. You have to start eating better and excercise”

    In the latter case, there’s a good chance the person is well aware of the problem and you’ll only be doing more harm by confronting him or her with it.

    I suppose what you refer to as “some random personal issues” is exactly what I’m talking about. Mind you, the “usual” issues – things like low self esteem, fear of failure, insecurity, anxiety, romantic problems etc. – are rarely particularily random.

    I would be the last person to advocate keeping the lid on uncomfortable topics that hurt or do unjustice to people.

    If I’ve understood correctly, you’ve interpreted my post as saying something like…

    “If it makes them feel better, let people pretend there are no starving children, molested women or rapists out there, and that the holocaust never happened”

    …and I most definitely am not. I’m having a hard time seeing how it could be interpreted like that.

    Yes, there are plenty of things too important. Then again, there are plenty of things that aren’t, and these are the things I’m talking about.

    If someone’s done something wrong, something to hurt someone else, they should of course be confronted.

    If someone is feeling miserable because they’re not the person they would like to be, they might not enjoy or benifit from being told so.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting discussion. I’ll probably have to write another post about how you really can’t compare the gravity or magnitude of someone’s own personal hell to anyone else’s. Wether we like it or not, we have to accept the fact that the physical pain and psychological suffering experienced by a poor little rich girl when she breaks a nail can’t be trivially discarded as far lesser that the pain of a tortured refugee who has seen his family brutally killed by invading forces. The only thing that really matters is how it’s experienced by the individual.

    It’s a different story when we ask the question “do broken nails have a greater negative impact on a larger part of the global population than war does”, but I’m not asking that question.

  5. elmindreda Says:

    I think it was possible to interpret that way since you didn’t give any concrete examples of what kind of unpleasant truths you were speaking of (until your last comment above).

    However, it seems we are in agreement, so all is well.

  6. Mike Says:


    Still weak.

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