The Tyranny of Politeness

Politeness is a great thing and not surprisingly is considered a desirable trait across most cultures. It greases the wheels of communication and makes everyone feel more valued and more respected. But, there comes a time when politeness becomes tyrannical. A case in point: When Barack Obama was asked in the third and final debate if Sarah Palin was qualified to be President of the United States he did not say “no”. Instead he spoke around the issue, even complimenting Palin on various qualities. So, what are we the viewers to conclude? Does Obama think Palin is qualified (but didn’t say it directly because he didn’t want to build her credibility) or does he think she is not qualified (and he was just being polite)? With such indirectness, it’s impossible to tell. And very likely each person—depending on his or her political beliefs—will conclude something different. Isn’t the Presidency of the United States important enough to give direct (and yes, even impolite answers) to a question that can have world wide implications? At what point is this brand of politeness equivalent to lying? At what point is such indirectness unethical? The problem, of course, is that Obama had no choice; he was forced by the culture of politeness to use indirection and avoid attacking Palin’s positive face.
Politeness is a great thing, but when issues are as important as the Presidency of the United States, it seems a little less politeness and a little more directness would help.

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