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Speak Out Or Keep Your Mouth Shut? When Disaster Looms.

Updated on July 21, 2015

The problem defined

Sooner or later it happens to us all. We run into a situation where we know or suspect that someone is incompetent, untrustworthy or even flat out evil. Maybe it's a youth leader in a church who puts out a pedophile vibe. Maybe it's a manager with a drinking problem. Maybe it's an untrustworthy contractor with mob connections. Maybe a technician who doesn't seem to know his stuff. But he is well liked and respected, maybe even politically connected, maybe even a blood relative of the boss. Maybe even an entire group is doing something that you know will lead to disaster, but they don't seem to see it. If you say anything, you may not be believed, and you will suffer ostracism. But if you say nothing, something horrible will happen.

What makes it worse is that there is societal conditioning telling it's socially unacceptable to mouth off. It's arrogant. "We've known this person for years! What do you know?" Or, "if you've got nothing nice to say then don't say anything at all."

If you say something you'll face the disapproval of family, of friends, or of broader society. And you probably won't be believed anyway, so what's the point?

If you say nothing, the ugly truth will come out much later, and much more damage will be done. If people find out that you knew, you will face the question: "Why didn't you say something?" This is the double bind of polite society.

If you're lucky, they'll never realize that you knew, but you'll still have your own conscience to deal with. That, and the consequences of the disaster.

The evil of niceness

Many of us are raised with the ideal "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." We all learn from experience that it's extremely risky to say things that people won't want to hear, so we get shy about certain things. This is one of the many compromises to our integrity that fall under the category of socialization.

Why is this necessary? Because people don't love the truth. The truth can be ugly. It can hurt. It's a bitter pill. And it is a medicine. The truth can save us from countless evils, but only if we have the courage to swallow it.

And we can't make others swallow it. So we withhold the truth. We tell people what they want to hear and they accept us. Those who are the best at telling people what they want to hear rise to prominence. They are rewarded with power and authority. Should we blame demagogues and con artists for doing what works, even if it leads to disaster for everyone down the road? Only if we can come up with a better way.

The worst of both worlds

Actually, being nasty can be socially acceptable - even valued - if you choose your victims wisely. Many of the people who boast how how kind, openminded and tolerant they are can be quite vicious toward out-groups. They do this to flatter the ones who have power. To flatter the in-group is to insult the out-group by implication. Why not make it explicit? Niceness is deeply hypocritical, and it's not hard to see why. Niceness does not value truth very highly.

It's tempting to say that niceness is the opposite of truthfulness, but the reality is they have nothing to do with each other. The distinctions of nice-nasty and true-false are orthogonal to each other, like the X and Y dimensions on a grid. A nice thing to say is nice regardless of whether it's true or not. A nasty thing to say is nasty regardless of whether it's true or not.

There's a lot i could say about the inherent hypocrisy of civility, but that's best saved for another article. Let's move on.

Why people value niceness over truth

Niceness is for the weak, but who is not weak? We are all born children, with the personalities of children. We are all born liking what feels good and hating what feels bad. Love for truth is not something we born with. We have to learn it. We learn it by seeing the awful things that happen when we don't face up to the truth. Some of us learn it more slowly than others.

To learn to love truth we must battle only ourselves. To take it to the next step - sharing the truth with others - we must battle society. We simply cannot function smoothly in society if we blurt out the awful truth, for we are surrounded by people who do not love truth. In a way, the lover of truth is the grownup in the room, and he is not in charge. We must pander to others. But if we pander too much, the disaster will come.

We must speak the truth, somehow. We will be hated for it, but we must speak it anyway. This is the hard meta-truth - the hard truth about hard truths. There are many objections to this course of action. Let's deal with them one by one. Along the way, we can see how to manage the various risks that come from honest communication. We cannot eliminate the risks, but we can manage the damage. The sharing of truth is a minefield. We must traverse it carefully, but we must must traverse it.

"But what if you're wrong?"

This is a real concern. You don't want to be the boy who cried wolf. You want to be known as someone who knows what he's talking about. And remember, they're prejudiced against you as soon as you start speaking unpleasant truths. You can be dead right nine times out of ten, but all they will remember and focus on is that one time you were wrong. They want to believe you are wrong, and will latch on to any pretext whatsoever.

Even worse, if you are wrong and they should believe you, you could be the one who does the damage. However, human nature being what it is, the odds are that the unpopular opinion is the right one. Still, it is your responsbility to do your due diligence. Do as much much as possible to double check that the way you see things is the way they are. You're human too.

Beyond that, don't over-think it. Once you've done all that is in your power to make sure you're right, the question to ask yourself is no longer "what if I'm wrong?" but "what if I'm right?" The burden of proof has shifted. You can second guess yourself into paralysis, or you can take action. Don't be too quick to say something, but don't be too slow either.

Whether you speak out or remain silent, you're taking a chance either way. Calculate the odds as best you can and then place your bet.

Tell the awful truth?

If there's enough at stake, should we tell the unpalatable truth?

See results

"But no one will listen!"

It's true that most people won't listen. But some might. You have to find people who will listen, if you can. And even if no one listens, your own conscience will be clean, and no one can blame you for what happens later.

You don't need to belabor the point. If someone just isn't listening, stop trying to tell him. You only need to tell him once. But try to make the most of that once. Here are some suggestions:

People will be more likely to listen if you don't have a reputation for mouthing off. Don't gain a reputation as a complainer or easily excitable. That will give them an excuse to tune you out. Choose your battles. Only speak up if it's really important. Let small matters slide. Don't let big matters slide.

Try to find intermediaries - people who will hear you out, and who have the ear of the people who make decisions. A good intermediary is someone who has been in the group long enough to have gained acceptance, but who has maintained some independence of mind. In other words, someone you should aspire to become some day.

Also, if you're not pressed for time then try leading people stepwise to seeing the problem. Here's how it works: build a chain of links in your mind that leads from what they currently believe to the awful truth by many small steps. Each step should involve a trivial expansion in the listener's thinking. Lead the listeners slowly, one step at a time. Don't proceed to the next step until your audience has fully accepted the previous step and had some time for it to sink in. This way you gradually unravel the cognitive and emotional defenses that cloud their judgment. This may take a long time, especially if you're facing groupthink (more on that later.) You may reach a step that they simply won't accept. They may even get angry if you press. When this happens, you're pushing them too fast. Back off for a while. And don't even consider this approach if there's any urgency. You could fall into the trap of mitigated speech, which I'll discuss later.

If you try all these things and nothing works, then when the disaster comes you can walk away with a clear conscience. And who knows? One of these things might work.

By F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

"Someone else will say something."

You see an outrageous situation and you think to yourself, "I can't possibly be the only one who sees that this is crazy. Surely someone else will say something." Don't count on it. That someone else may be assuming that you will say something.

The longer a situation has being going on, the less likey it is that someone will say something. Think about it: if it were going to happen, wouldn't it have happened by now? Maybe somebody did say something and was ignored, but it's very likely that no one ever said anything.

There is a phenomenon called groupthink. Groupthink is when everyone in a group thinks the same way as everyone else precisely because everyone else thinks that way. Many people haven't the self confidence to think independently when everyone they know agrees on something. never mind expressing dissent; they can't even formulate dissent in their minds.

How do you know when this has happened? Talk with the others in the group. Do they all seem to be reasoning from the same unexamined assumptions? Do they seem to take a perverse pride in believing what they believe, as if believing is a virtue in itself? Do they speak harshly of those who disagree with the group's consensus? These are all warning signs of groupthink.

But the biggest warning sign is when they make an assertion and then say "everyone knows that!" as if this is incontrovertible proof that only an idiot would fail to recognize. If this happens repeatedly, you're looking a groupthink. Groupthink takes conventional wisdom as unquestionable truth.

If you say nothing in a groupthink situation, it's almost guaranteed that no one else will say anything. No one else will even think, let alone speak. But don't expect that just saying something will solve the problem. You have to use all the techniques I've described in the section above to deal with groupthink.

It’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. - Jiddu Krishnamurti

"I'll be a pariah!"

If you speak up, you risk becoming an outcast, regardless of whether you're right or wrong. If you make a habit of saying what people don't want ot hear, you will be rejected by most people. Is this the worst evil?

Let's talk priorities. If you keep quiet while a disaster is looming, you will be in solid with the doomed. You'll be the toast of the Titanic, and you can go down to the depths surrounded by friends. Or you can steer a few to the lifeboats, and live a long life with a handful of survivors who genuinely like and respect you for who you are. It's easy to have many friends, but it's better to have a few quality friends.

Not everybody is truth averse. There are always some who will listen. They comprise a society of their own within the larger society. You can please the masses, or you can please the few. Don't judge your social success by numbers - quality counts more than quantity.

But remember, truth is not the exact opposite of niceness. Make sure you know what you're talking about. Otherwise, you'll find yourself with a small circle of friends who are as deluded as you. A collection of alienated cranks is the worst of both worlds, neither popular nor right. The only thing worse than a popular delusion is an unpopular one.

In case you can't prevent the disaster, you have to ready to escape from it. Save those you can, but save yourself. What will you do if they don't listen? In case the company goes under, do your networking so you can find a position elsewhere. In case the church erupts in scandal, don't be so emotionally attached that you can't just find anotheer church. In case the family disintegrates, be ready to cut ties and get on with your own life.

This is where a small circle of quality friends can help. Instead of pandering to the doomed, nurture relationships with survivors.


"But couldn't you have said it in a nicer way?"

This is a common thing. You say what needs to be said,and point out that it needed to be said, and someone says "couldn't you have phrased that differently?" Generally, this turns out to be a sort of bluff. Call him on it. Ask: "how should I have phrased it?"

One of two things will happen. either he will have another, nicer way you could have phrased it, or he won't. If he doesn't have a nicer way you could have said it, leave it at that. There's nothing more that need be said. But if he has an alternative phrasing, he may actually have a point.

Than again, he may not. Mitigated speech is when you try to say something indirectly, so as not to hurt the other person's feelings. In 1982, Air Florida flight 90 was getting ready to take off from Washington, DC. The wings were icing over. the co-pilot expressed his concern - sort of. The pilot was a prickly sort who didn't take criticism kindly, so the co-pilot phrased his concern in very delicate wording. He did so repeatedly, hinting that perhaps a de-icing would be advisable. He never did say plainly and forcefully what was on his mind. The pilot did not de-ice the wings. The plane crashed.

Perhaps the co-pilot was trying to lead the pilot by steps to the correct conclusion. This might have been a good idea if there had been plenty of leisure time to do. There was not. It was not a time for indirectness.

There is no nice way to say something that your audience doesn't want to hear. It won't necessarily help to rephrase. It may even hurt. If you tone it down enough not to hurt, you might tone it down so much that your point doesn't really get across at all.

Does this mean we shouldn't try to phrase things in less than the crudest form possible? It depends. How much is at stake? It's a matter of priorities. If you absolutely need to get your point across right then and there, then you'd best err on the side of clarity. If less is at stake, or if you have time to spare, then you can give some consideration to the other person's sensibilities. It may even help you to be heard. Mitigated speech isn't always bad. But it can sometimes be fatal.

Various religious and ideological objections

There are two major subcultures that make an idol of non-offensiveness: mainstream Judeo-Christianity and political correctness. I could write an entire article on this, but for now I'll just sum it up.

The Bible has countless examples of bold prophets and teachers speaking uncomfortable truths - often in harsh language - and paying the price for it. Churches tend to downplay this. They even portray Jesus as a milquetoast, whereas the Jesus in the Bible was anything but. Supposedly this religious tradition is derived from the Bible, but in this regard it has strayed very far indeed from its origins.

As for political correctness, just what is politically correct evolves and shifts over time. There's no fixed target, merely an attitude: thou shalt not offend the current designated victim groups. You either accept this attitude or you reject it. There's no common ground on which to meet for a dialogue. You either value niceness over candor or you value candor over niceness. One cannot have a frank exchange of views with someone who rejects the very notion of a frank exchange of views. Better to part ways as amicably as possible.

There is also one ideology that would argue that we don't owe it to others to make the effort to save them. Social Darwinism maintains that it is the way of the universe to destroy fools, and it's not our place to interfere. But people evolve as individuals, not merely as a species. We are not born truth loving; we learn that over time. Shouldn't we give others the chance to live long enough to become wiser? There is a point at which you should just give up and walk away, but first let's at least make an effort.

Besides, it's not always best to walk away even from a self-preservation point of view. Suppose you're on the Titanic, and you see the iceberg coming. If you run to the nearest lifeboat, you might save yourself, but even in the lifeboat your survival is far from assured. It's worthwhile to make at least make some attempt to avert the collision, even if you don't care about the others.


There's no easy way out, if you're at all ethical. You can just decide you don't care, but then you have to live with yourself. You can just decide to tell the awful truth, but then you have to live with others. Such is life. We can't escape the dilemma, but we can manage it.

Just do the best you can. Who can ask anything more?


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    • maggs224 profile image


      3 years ago from Sunny Spain

      I tried four or five times to edit my comment, but it would not let me. Learn should be learned

    • maggs224 profile image


      3 years ago from Sunny Spain

      An excellent hub, interesting to read, and I learn two new words orthogonal and milquetoast.

      I like and agree with your conclusion "Just do the best you can. Who can ask anything more?"

      Voted up and hit the relevant buttons :D

    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 

      3 years ago from Brookings, SD

      Agreed. I would venture to guess that most views of "niceness" tend more toward "getting what I want."

    • Gordon Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Gordon Wright 

      3 years ago

      I'm certainly not categorically opposed to kindness. But what most people call niceness has very little to do with genuine kindness.

    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 

      3 years ago from Brookings, SD

      Very interesting topic - thanks for sharing! "Niceness is for the weak"? Hmm. Perhaps that depends on the particular definition of "niceness" under consideration. If we're equating niceness with self-motivated manipulation and mindless flattery, then sure, that's the weaker (easier) way. But what if we're talking about kindness... honest, genuine, "because I care about you as a human being" kindness? That kind of kindness takes a measure of strength most of us do not instinctively possess. It's not natural for us to respond graciously; it's natural for us to lash out or run for the hills. What if the question about whether or not to speak up was motivated by concern for others' wellbeing rather than self-centered anxieties? Might change the criteria a bit.


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