Little White Lies and What They Mean

Back on my post about society lying, I mentioned a category of untruth that we might generally consider “little white lies”.

In our society, these lies are generally feel-good statements, like, “everyone is beautiful,” or “don’t care what others think–be yourself!” If you believe these things too literally, you’ll get in a lot of trouble, because reality doesn’t work that way. But if you try to point out that these are lies, you’ll meet a lot of resistance–people are very committed to their lies. Sometimes large chunks of their identities or interaction with the world rest on these sorts of lies.

So what’s up with that?

I mentioned in the previous post that I was over-simplifying, and I am. You see, I have only explored the situation so far from the POV of someone like me–someone who takes things literally and prefers factual analyses over emotional ones.

Most people aren’t like me.

Most people, (as far as I can tell,) do most of their functional thinking via their emotions, and use words not in precise ways to convey actual facts about the world, but wield them like the blobs of paint in an impressionist painting to convey the emotions they feel on a subject.

Confusing one approach for the other leads to great miscommunication. The facts-and-numbers person misunderstands the feelings-person, and starts rambling off about a bunch of irrelevant fact-things that the feelings-person either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about. The only thing that is clear to the feelings-person is that the facts-person is a humorless jerk who keeps saying their feelings are wrong. The only thing clear to the facts-person is that the feelings-person makes no damn sense because they keep saying stuff that is wrong.

Let’s use the Trolley Problem as an example. Suppose a trolley is about to kill a bunch of children who have accidentally wandered onto a railroad track, but you could save them by pushing another person in front of the trolley. You know the problem.

Present this problem to a feelings-person, and imagining trolleys killing children will make them unhappy and sad and the alternative of murdering someone will also make them unhappy and sad. The feelings-person concludes that you must be a terrible person because you asked them this question that made them feel so terrible. What kind of monstrous person goes around thinking about trolleys murdering children?

The facts-person, meanwhile, has gotten totally annoyed at the feelings-person for not answering the hypothetical and turning this nice, reasonable discussion of utilitarian calculi into a flame war about their totally irrelevant feelings.

So when dealing with feeling-people, the important thing to remember is to try to understand what they mean, rather than what they say. When a feelings-person says, “Be yourself!” what they actually mean is, “I think society should be generally more accepting of certain forms of quirky and essentially harmless variation, and people should be generally less concerned with what others think. I pledge not to be too judgmental of people who are a little different in ways that aren’t too weird or disruptive, and may myself be a little quirky.” This is a fine message; you just have to understand that this is what “be yourself!” actually means, and not mistake it for actually encouraging you to go to work naked (or whatever you would do if there were nothing stopping you.)

(Likewise, feeling-people, when dealing with facts-people, they aren’t trying to be kill-joys. They just require a lot of tolerance and clarity.)

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