That Moment We Saw You For What You Really Are

That Moment We Saw You For What You Really Are September 4, 2012

The “Welcome to JT” thread has digressed into a number of interesting discussions (parental authority over children, what to make of data that suggests the people you think are wrong are doing better than you, etc).  And I do want to throw this less wrong post on envying “irrational” choices into the mix, but the comment I want to highlight is on a different subject.  Clarissa wrote:

Yeah, JT presents himself as a nice guy, but he can turn on a dime into a vicious attack dog.

I don’t trust guys like that, and it has nothing to do with atheism v theism or any other ism. I think people like that are just showing their true colors.

First, let me make an important distinction between prudence and philosophy of identity.  It’s quite reasonable for Clarissa to be on guard with someone’s who’s flown off the handle in the past or to cut off contact for her own safety.  I wouldn’t pulled this comment out for a post if it weren’t for the last sentence.

It’s a pretty wretched pessimism that thinks our moments of virtue are just a mask for something nasty underneath.  One slip wipes their previous good behaviour off the ledger.  I hate talking about authenticity, since I don’t care very much about who I am, just who I ought to be and how to get there.  If pressed, I’d say “true self” is the mask we choose to put on when we’re dressing up as Christ.

But you can leave “true self” as an unanswered question or a hopelessly incoherent one and still think the assumption in Clarissa’s comment is pernicious.  If our worst behavior is our truest portrait, then it’s hard not to get impatient with good behavior as artifice, something deceiving you until the other shoe finally drops.  And once your friend finally slips up, you get to feel vindicated in your skepticism and get to write the other person off as not really good.

Instead of trying to help you friend strengthen and celebrate what’s best in themselves, which is low-reward, every day work, you get to be free of your obligations, now that you know what they really are.  This is one of the failures of charity that I’m most susceptible to, and I’m still pretty sucky on this one, though I’m trying to become stronger.  Some of the triggers I use to spot when I’m going wrong are noticing myself thinking anything that includes: “true colors” “So, all that [good thing] was a lie” “Well, at least he’s honest about it!” and (except in the context of My Cousin Vinny) “I’m done with this guy.”

I’d be screwed if my friends treated me the way I’ve treated other people.  When someone lets me down, I try to think about error modes and trouble shooting instead.  What happened that made it harder for my friend to respond in their natural, loving way?  How can s/he recognize this class of weakness in the future and what can s/he do about them?  It’s better for me and better for the people that I love when we think of our weaknesses as bugs in the system.

I liked the way a parish priest put it when he said, “Sin is what you’re not.”  It’s not in accord with your true nature, and remaining in sin is an act of self-annihilation.  That means we get on with the urgent business of burning off the dross off our souls by reaching out to the truest part of our friends and ourselves.  (If you’re a L’Engle fan, it’s the difference between loving Charles Wallace and being X’d).

— — —

In this post, I focused mainly on how thinking other people’s stumbles reveal their true selves hurts me, but I previously wrote about how this idea does serious damage when you apply it to your own actions.  The post is titled “In Ira Veritas” and here’s a pull-quote:

There’s no authentic you that gets revealed in moments of high stress. You’re not a latter-day Hyde, and your nastiness isn’t some profound revelation about the nature of Man. It’s just the same old you behaving badly, and maybe you’ve just learned something about who you’re most likely to lash out against, so you can guard yourself more closely now.

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  • The propositions “X presents himself as a nice guy” and “X loses his temper easily and attacks on what I consider inadequate provocation” are mutually exclusive if the speaker’s conception of “a nice guy” means the guy in question is patient, levelheaded, and polite. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position to take. Of course people try to give a first impression of agreeableness and reasonableness. It isn’t unfair, on receipt of an unprovoked attack, to say that you see what he really is. All it means is you’re revising your first impression in light of subsequent discoveries, and that’s just common sense. A person who has found a someone to be pleasant when agreed with but aggressive when challenged HAS seen what he really is: pleasant when agreed with, but aggressive when challenged.

  • Owlmirror

    It occurred to me that if Clarissa were consistent, she would definitely distrust Jesus (and maybe she does distrust Jesus). The bible records that Jesus viciously called people a generation of vipers, said that he came to bring not peace but a sword, condemned the Pharisees as being the blind leading the blind, narcissistically told a young man that he should abandon his dead father (rather than respectfully bury his body) and follow Jesus, told people to hate their families, narcissistically and selfishly encouraged that money be spent on himself rather than on the poor, and, most infamously, violently attacked a group of small businessmen. Jesus’ true colors were very ugly indeed, by that standard.

  • deiseach

    Yup. I hate when people push and push and push to aggravate someone, all on the basis that “You only know the real person when they’re angry and it all comes out.”

    No, that’s what that person is like when they’re angry. It doesn’t mean their politeness is all a facade to cover up the real them underneath. Or is you being a jerk who tries to make other people fly off the handle the real you, all along?

    This notion of “authenticity” can be the biggest pain in the butt; it often involves a degree of selfishness because “I have to be true to myself and my dreams” and if that means letting other people down or shirking my responsibilities, well, so be it.

  • JRM

    Leah, I am a Catholic, but I often wonder: What was it that led you to choose Catholicism over Buddhism? I know that the existence of moral law probably had something to do with it, but I would love to know more about your ideas on this subject. This post seems particularly relevant to my question, so I thought I’d spring it.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m not Leah, and I don’t play her on TV, but would a cradle Catholic answer do?

      Buddhism is my second favorite religion. I have studied the Sutras extensively. Here’s the main sticking point for me that causes me to choose Catholicism over Buddhism: Works of Mercy.

      Buddhism preaches that the way to happiness is to adjust your internal expectations of morality until they match reality. Catholicism calls us instead to an outside objective morality, expressed in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

      I know for a fact my internal sense of morality is skewed far from the human norm. I have Myers Brigs INFP rating and an Autism Quotient score of 39 to prove it. I could easily adjust my internal expectations of morality to handle any culture from the Taliban to the Bohemians. But none of that would leave the world a better place than I entered it.

      There is a reason it took European Catholicism to invent science- and why when science developed in every other culture on the planet, it was quickly squelched.

  • I was just about to bring up the fallacy of the “Façade,” to bring in a musical 🙂

    I tend to judge these apparent aberrations in civil behavior more harshly when they appear in a context that reflects what I see as unhealthy or unfair cultural prejudices. (It’s definitely true to say that this response doesn’t come from a desire to have my religion treated as others are instead of being categorically dismissed.) For example, I’ll be more sensitive to a spurt of negativity against a woman, a person of color, or a frequently an acceptably maligned ethnic or religious group. I see it as part of my responsibility to follow the Golden Rule on a social level, as well as to not offend the “little ones” – in short, the idea that we shoul treat others better than we want to be treated to correct for subjective error.

  • Ted Seeber

    I am a later day Hyde.

    For good or evil (ok, mostly for evil) my Asperger’s means I miss the clues early on that I’m irritating somebody, and my worldview is so internally consistent that I have problems telling it from reality. The combination means I not only do not suffer fools gladly, I can and will outright practice scorched earth tactics if and when I get out of control.

    My entire life, thanks to the bigotry of neurotypicals, is a play (Shakespeare was right for me!) and the only thing keeping me in check at this point is my Catholicism. I’m intelligent enough not to do anything physical about it (and even if I become atheist again someday, if I did something physical about it it would be to use automated processes with log burns in such a way that nobody would be able to tie it back to me- leave no evidence behind is key to such anger). But I do worry about the type of meltdowns I often experienced as a teenager- especially since I work in a city that has a reputation for the police shooting and killing the mentally ill.

    Every one of my coping skills is an act. Every scene in my life is not who I really am. But that, in and of itself is liberating- for every scene in my life that I beat the demons back, is a scene of who I want to be.

  • It’s a pretty wretched pessimism that thinks our moments of virtue are just a mask for something nasty underneath. One slip wipes their previous good behaviour off the ledger.

    I can’t speak for Clarissa, but I don’t think she was saying that at all.

    The impression I got from her was something closer to this: someone (JT in this case) presents themselves as being nice and amiable, but in fact they become nasty and furious pretty quick. And I think the ‘presenting themselves’ part is key. It’s one thing if a person is nice sometimes, but now and then (or even quite often) they slip up and are vicious. It’s another if a person tries to present themselves as reliably nice and kind, when in fact (and a moment’s introspection would show that) no, they’re not. In one case, you’re drawing conclusions based on watching their behavior. In another case, you’re being given an appraisal of their personality and behavior by themselves, when in fact it’s a load.

    I do think it’s not a good idea to judge someone exclusively by their worst moments. On the other hand, especially online, yes – people can be two-faced.

    • To vaguely roll it back to a previous discussion had on this site: if I donate charity to a cause largely or almost entirely because “Hey, this is good PR”, and I really couldn’t give two craps about the people I’m supposedly “helping”, that in itself isn’t a case of being a good guy sometimes, a bad guy other times. It’s a case of dishonesty in a single act, a false presentation.

    • I mostly agree. I don’t think Clarissa was intending to say that it is true broadly speaking that we see the truth about people at their worst moments; I got the impression that she was saying that JT was truer in those moments when he was aggressive than when he played polite. Something in his politeness, or his self-description as polite, was perceptibly false, at least in contrast with the perceptible truth of his aggression. This may not universalize; in others, perhaps rudeness is false and kindness true.
      At which point, the question becomes one of whether that perception of truth or falseness is accurate or fair. Perhaps one way of measuring this is to see if JT acknowledges any inconsistency in his actions, or has ever apologized for rudeness or error. Which kind of action does he seem to think is representative of his true self and which is representative of his false self? (But I don’t really think that these distinctions are always helpful anyway. I’d say our true selves are composite, inconsistent, and always fluctuating, but nonetheless true.)
      Now, I haven’t read JT’s blog to see where he’d fit in this. But this is roughly my heuristic.

  • Mitchell Porter

    This post reveals Leah’s true character.

    • I agree. Merciful, gracious and humble… or at least trying to be. 🙂

  • I think what Clarissa was getting at, and what seems to be typical of the internet New Atheists is that when it comes to considering and interacting with theists/Christians/Catholics, not only does JT refrain from making any kind of nuanced distinctions between religions, types of belief and practice, formal belief versus actual practice, etc., but that he also generally acts like an a** towards anyone who believes in God, in some form or another. Since that happens to include 95% of the world it means he acts like an a** towards almost everyone. You, Leah, seem to be the exception to that, I think probably because of your previous relationship as fellow internet atheists.

    That’s one of the reasons that reading Unequally Yoked as an atheist blog was so refreshing. You were never an a** towards people you disagreed with, even when you were attacked for your beliefs (or lack of belief). Your conversion has made it difficult to find an atheist blog I can stomach enough to read regularly to keep my ‘open-minded’ credentials. 😉

    • To be fair, as I read my comment, it’s not particularly charitable and only reflects a brief sojourn on his blog so anyone reading this, don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself.

    • sorry for the multiple comments.

      It also occurs to me that much of my frustration with JT, Hemant, Maher and others is that they spend so much of their time poking holes in the silliness that is the American fundamentalist subculture (with which poking I can get on board) and then turn around and just lump Catholicism in with the fundies. That’s the failure to distinguish a reasonable tradition (Aquinas, Augustine, the university system, etc.) from an unreasonable tradition (scripture alone, in King James English, etc.). Without making that distinction it’s hard to impossible to have any sort of real dialogue.

  • rachel

    I tend to see personality not as a series of masks but as a series of facets on a crystal. So in this case, it might not be a matter of whatever facet JT shows second is the “trve facet”. They might both be the “trve facet”. I have never read his blog so I shouldnt really be saying too much but maybe one facet of the chrystal that is his character is indeed “nice man” but a more complete appreciation of his character is that he is nice but pugnacious. I would argue that the pugnacity per se is neither good nor evil but it is hwo its used that determines its moral quality. Is it turned against people or ideas, that sort of thing. Sorry im probably not being very coherant right now
    i am glad that I have run across your blog. You are a thoughtful young lady

  • There’s no authentic you that gets revealed in moments of high stress.

    True for some meanings of “authentic,” but not for others.

    Habit is a kind of “second nature”, and it sometimes overrides a first nature. So, the habit of kindness overrides a natural instinct to act out of anger or selfishness. Virtue is indeed choosing to “dress like Jesus” or to put on a mask of goodness until my face conforms to the mask – but crisis situations test my habits and convictions and do in fact reveal the faults or imperfections in my progress in virtue. Both the virtues I pursue and my actions under stress reveal something about my character. Neither is completely the “true” person, but both give information that others rightly use to alter their relationship with me.

    So I’m not going to discount someone’s angry outburst – especially not if it seems a frequent response to stress – because a person is quite understanding when not under stress. Likewise, I’m going to credit someone’s particularly graceful action under stress as a sign of well-developed virtue.