Hurt and truth

One of the more odd rules of social interaction is that the person in pain gets to own the truth and those without pain adjust. Think for instance about the words used to describe undesired traits that some people have to bear their whole life, such as low intelligence or high BMI. As they are the ones in pain, their needs dictate the wording of the debate and more.

Decades ago you could thus use the word ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’ in a technical sense. The term ‘moron’ once denoted mild mental retardation and would be associated with an IQ in the 51-70 range. An idiot would have an IQ between 0 and 25, and an imbecile between 26 and 50. These terms then got displaced by varying levels of ‘retardation’, but that term itself has of course become laden as people now know what it means. The ‘euphemism’ treadmill has thus more recently lead to terms like ‘mentally challenged’ and a variety of more specialised mental issues, like autism. No doubt that term will also go the way of the dodo as soon as it is commonly understood and thus seen as a form of stigma.

You get the same issue when it comes to ‘indigenous’: apparently one cannot even use the term ‘Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander’ any more in Australia, but need to say ‘first Australian’.

Though irritating, I can see the point of the euphemism treadmill: by owning the terminology, the sufferers or their representatives basically force the audience into acknowledging them as a problem worthy of subsidy. It conforms to the logic of ‘if I can dictate the terms of our conversation on an issue, I get to talk solutions, which of course means you pay and I receive’. As such it’s a straightforward power-play and at least does not by necessity need to be untruthful or lead to dysfunctional policies. It’s a simple tug of war using language as the rope.

Things get worse and more intricate when the persons in pain feels aggrieved by the truth itself and thus demands you start denying a truth. The best modern example of this is probably the causes of obesity. Not long ago, it was deemed ‘obvious’ that obesity was caused by overeating and under-exercise and as such associated with some lack of mental self-control. Nowadays, that completely obvious truth has gone the way of the moron. Many obese people want you to pretend that their condition is caused by anything other than their eating and activity behaviour: with great gusto will you hear the furious demands of some obese people that you believe their condition to be entirely genetic or the result of the evil machinations of the food industry, or even that they just ‘didn’t know’ the immediate causes. Note that the same is not true for the ex-moron: the ex-moron or her representative still acknowledges that the ex-moron has a mental issue and is basically dependent on understanding and help of others as a result. The re-labelling is just a way of demanding respect, not of distorting the truth. This is not true for the genetically obese though.

Intuitively, we all ‘get’ what is going on: the person most in pain feels most sensitive about something and hence to keep the peace we go along with the bull-shit and keep our mouths shut about the nonsense uttered. By the same token, few walk up to a raving evangelist and tell them what they really think about the deity being raved about; few nay-say a retard who pretends to be ‘about average’; almost no-one will say ‘nonsense’ when a bankrupt person says they have just been unlucky ten times in a row with their brilliant business ventures. Many of us may not believe the nonsense that the sufferer propounds, but it’s considered good manners to at least pretend to go along with it. Until they ask you for a loan of course!

Lots of policy goes along with the truth-ignoring road of least resistance, basically out of sympathy. Many a policy maker thus pretends to believe that obese people ‘really’ did not know fast-food made them fat. They then publicly subsidise dieticians who then go around talking about healthy food choices or they insist on calorie counts being clearly advertised, with of course almost no behavioural effects on eating habits at all because the bullshit was, after all, just bullshit. Similarly, government departments spend lots of time pointing out to the unemployed that in order to get a job it is handy to look for one, or they devise school history curricula pointing out how nice the proclaimed history of the current sufferers is and how evil the history of the non-sufferers is.

Whilst we all seem to ‘get’ this intuitively, it is actually a very strange phenomenon when you reflect on it. Think about it: in order for such ‘good manners’ to make sense, one firstly needs to buy into the idea that people derive actual pleasure from something untruthful, ie that the truth is secondary and that false beliefs have their own payoff. One leaves the realm of most of economics at that point.

It gets worse: in order for this politeness to make sense, the listener has to have little own regard for the truth and be willing to submit his own beliefs to whatever is needed to keep the peace. Hence the listener needs to care about the false beliefs of the other and be willing to give up something himself. He needs to be somewhat weak.

The basic mechanism is thus one of an internal balance and is therefore an artefact of ‘equal’ societies: by showing hurt, a presumed right to an equal outcome is upset, and an automatic sense of entitlement to the truth on the side of the sufferer is seen as a ‘natural’ way of restoring parity. This also shows the public use of the mechanism: it generates conflict-minimizing language and hurt-equalising subsidies. Of course, because the subsidies are given as a result of hurt, and not on the basis of any causes of hurt, there is the great likelihood that the subsidies will be dysfunctional and even hurt-increasing in the longer-run, but that is another matter.

Note how this mechanism completely changes the dynamics of open debate in an egalitarian ‘polite’ society, with or without politicians (!!!): open debate on causes and consequences of policies will quickly be hijacked by ‘hurt’, ie will degenerate into a shouting match as to who hurts the most and hence who has the right to say what is true and what is not true on a particular topic. As a reaction to this hijacking, real debate is forced to take place behind a wall of euphemistic jargon that avoids hitting the nerve-ends of those who feel the most hurt on a topic and thus who think they own the truth. By playing the ‘I am hurt’ card, the hurt occupy more of the public sphere in a polite egalitarian society and successfully argue for a balancing subsidy, but they also become enemies of the truth when having the real debates.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

One thought on “Hurt and truth”

  1. I don’t know what the data says, but I know that I for one have adjusted my eating habits based on displayed kilojoule values. Having a particular kJ budget gives you a concrete, achievable goal to aim for, rather than just some vague “eat less” target.


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