Friday, July 18, 2014

Thick Skin is a Defense for Self-Loathing

I think the advice to have "thick skin" is terrible advice in the pursuit of human virtue. Every time that I have heard it given, it came from people who were clearly themselves both unhappy and not virtuous, or it was given in circumstances where honesty could easily have led to a much better solution to conflict.

American culture is actually very unique in the world for being one of the only places that has turned insults and sarcasm into a form of compliment. Jokes made at the expense of another person are justified by a narrative of fraternal love—e.g. "He and I are good friends, so I can do this to him or say this about him." Somehow we have the notion that being friends justifies what in most other societies would be taken as a form of hatred or abuse.

It is in this same culture that we have the saying that one ought to have "thick skin" so as not to be disturbed by the rudeness or selfishness of others. But this solution is self-deceptive and stems from pride. The proper reaction to rudeness or selfishness from a purely human point of view cannot be to somehow stifle, suppress, or ignore what is done to us and how we feel about it; such a view presupposes that the emotions are evil and that a truthful encounter with them is likewise unacceptable. The proper reaction to rudeness can be only the honest assertion of one's dignity, of which no circumstance may justify its abuse. Hence, for example:
Offensive person: You're an idiot.
Honest person: I may be ignorant about certain things or wrong in this situation, but your insulting my character is hurtful and unjustified. If I'm wrong, correct me. There is no need to insult me.
It doesn't matter how the offensive person reacts. If he apologizes, then all is well. Most likely, he won't. Either way, contrast this response of honesty (1. stating one's feelings; 2. pointing out the injustice of the act openly) with one of dishonesty:
Offensive person: You're an idiot.
Dishonest person: Only idiots themselves call other people idiots.
This is only one example of how a dishonest person might respond. Any response that does not bring to light the injustice of the offensive person's act without being judgmental (e.g. saying, either directly or indirectly, that a person is somehow "evil" for doing something wrong) or does not state one's feelings in reaction is a dishonest one.

A dismissive response, equally dishonest, would be like the following:
Offensive person: You're an idiot.
Dishonest person: Whatever.
In trying not to take seriously the offensive person's insult, the dishonest person deflects any possibility of forgiveness, of bringing the injustice to light so that it may be repented, of reconciliation, etc.

In such cases, good-willed persons might recommend to the victim to have a "thick skin," but how can this advice, as it is commonly given, be in any way healthy for an individual? Thick skin implies the opposite of an honest encounter and expression of one's internal state.

Why is this issue important? Because most people suffer from an unconscious (and in many cases, conscious) belief that they deserve to be treated poorly, that they are not worthy of being treated well. They unwittingly invite abuse into their lives in one form or another and do not stand up to it because for one reason or another they think that such abuse is justified. Such people do not think that they possess an inherent dignity (or they may intellectually believe this but not act on it accordingly), and hence they do not assert their dignity.

The assertion of dignity must follow upon the honest belief in one's self-worth, and the assertion of dignity must always take a form of honest communication: calling out the evil for what it is and extending the opportunity for reconciliation by the honest stating of one's feelings.

Hence even people who advise thick skin themselves reveal how much self-loathing they unconsciously harbor because anyone who actually values himself could never encourage another human being of practically measureless dignity to act in such a way that would compromise that dignity.

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