Whenever I watch reality TV, I am struck by how often reality TV participants explain their bad behavior as “truth-telling” or “just being honest.” Since when is rudeness and bad behavior excused as “truth”?
Reality TV “stars” find all kinds of ways to excuse their poor behavior. I am continually fascinated by the lengths people go to in order to explain how their poor behavior is acceptable. It is like listening to a 4 year old explain their way out of a bald-faced lie. Or a college student do the same. Or a co-worker or friend or family member. I once had a history professor who thought that all of human history was made up of excuses for bad behavior: I wasn’t cheating, I’m biologically engineered to have multiple partners. It wasn’t murder, it was war and survival. It wasn’t stealing because that person had too much and I had too little. It wasn’t fair. I may have destroyed her with my words but I was just being honest. I may have been mean, but he was mean first.
The excuses are elaborate and endless, aren’t they?
But when did telling the truth mean that we should make rudeness and malice normal and acceptable? At what point did American popular culture decided that “truth” was a more important commodity than kindness when speaking?
I finally got around to reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, and was convicted over and over by her descriptions of Americans, experiences of immigrants, and especially her articulation of humility. Adichie is an example of someone who beautifully articulates so many things I notice but fail to clearly articulate:
“People often told him how humble he was, but they did not mean real humility, it was merely that he did not flaunt his membership in the wealthy club, did not exercise the rights it brought–to be rude, to be inconsiderate, to be greeted rather than to greet–and because so many others like him exercised those rights, his choices were interpreted as humility. He did not boast, either, or speak about the things he owned, which made people assume he owned much more than he did. Even his close friend, Okwudiba, often told him how humble he was, and it irked him slightly, because he wished Okwudiba would see that to call him humble was to make rudeness normal.” (40)
Adichie nails this false humility that I see all around me in American culture and in American Protestant church culture. Do we really think that not bragging is the same as humility? Or that our leaders, pastors, teachers, politicians, athletes, people who excel at their craft should be confident and boastful because they are good at what they do? We even seem to think pride is admirable and are willing to find ways to excuse all manner of prideful bad behavior.
Is self-deprecation the same as humility? So often self-deprecating humor is really just a pretense for humility because the speaker is simultaneously praising themselves but appearing to act humble.
Like many others, I was embarrassed to see President Trump make rude personal comments to journalist and TV host Mika Brzezinksi. Then again, this seems to be a pattern of behavior for President Trump as he has been rude to many other people over the course of his life, his presidential campaign and tenure in office. His explanation? They said nasty things about me first. I’m just defending myself. If you come at me, I’ll hit back harder.
No one said humility was easy. In fact, it may be one of the most difficult parts of living in the world but not of the world. But I would rather make mistakes and missteps in a continual effort to live a life of humility than to succumb to a larger cultural push to tell the truth at the expense of treating others with gentleness, kindness, and respect.