Now, Don’t Get Me Wrong: Truth, Hidden Agendas, and Subway Phatics

Yesterday afternoon in the subway, I overheard one fellow say to another: “Well, you know me, I…

Why is it that when I hear phrases like this – phrases intended to make doubly sure that the listener knows who one is and/or what they’re up to – my reaction is to feel doubly certain that some serious dissembling is afoot. Know you?…I thought so, but now that you have to remind me, I’m not so sure.

Take another phrase: “Well, to be honest with you,…” Whenever someone leans in and says this to me, I shudder. Yikes, I wonder, what were they up to before they decided to be honest with me…and for how long was it going on?

To tell you the truth, I…” is the same idea…but different. It has more of a confessional ring to it. We all know that Truth is a difficult concept; forgiveness must always be near at hand. But Honesty?…that’s bottom line stuff, right?

Here’s another opening gambit guaranteed to steer a conversation into a dangerous turn.

Now, with all due respect,…” Respect?…dollars to doughnuts, that left on the night train, long before this conversation even got started.

Then there are the ones intended to draw you in close.

Of course, you and I know, he’s just a…” The “just” is bad enough; the poor fellow in question is on his way to being eviscerated of his multi-dimensionality as a human being. But the fact that I’m being enlisted as an accomplice is even more worrisome.  And then there are all the unanswered questions that follow on this: why was my interlocutor so sure I knew this when I hadn’t a clue?…perhaps I should have known this?…maybe, behind my back, my interlocutor and the poor guy we’ve relegated to Flatland think that I’m “just a…”? It’s at moments like these that, with a self-effacing chuckle, even I fall into the trap, “Well, you know me,…” I say, praying to God that he doesn’t.

Now, as Ruminations is wont to do, there may be some overreaching here. These phrases are akin to phatic expressions – the good linguist might argue – “used to establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas.” (OED). Poppycock. To paraphrase the late Jacques Derrida, there’s no such thing as text – spoken or otherwise – without subtext. It’s only a matter of how well the information is encrypted.

So the next time someone waves the palms of his hands at you, and reassuringly utters: “Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve no hidden agenda, but…“, tell him to roll up his sleeve, then watch the cards drop out. Phatic Shmatic. Hidden agendas abound.

Nevertheless, Moral Realist philosophers have it right when they wonder what civilization would be like if we were always transparent to one another. The hiddenness of our agendas is surely an important part of both private and social life. Hidden agendas are not so bad,…only more or less so. I just wish we weren’t so obvious with them.

I’m sure you understand what I mean when I say this

No, I’m not.

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