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Making Rudeness Normal

Whenever I watch reality TV, I am struck by how often reality TV participants explain their bad behavior as “truth-telling” or “just being honest.” Since when is rudeness and bad behavior excused as “truth”?

Reality TV “stars” find all kinds of ways to excuse their poor behavior. I am continually fascinated by the lengths people go to in order to explain how their poor behavior is acceptable. It is like listening to a 4 year old explain their way out of a bald-faced lie. Or a college student do the same. Or a co-worker or friend or family member. I once had a history professor who thought that all of human history was made up of excuses for bad behavior: I wasn’t cheating, I’m biologically engineered to have multiple partners. It wasn’t murder, it was war and survival. It wasn’t stealing because that person had too much and I had too little. It wasn’t fair. I may have destroyed her with my words but I was just being honest. I may have been mean, but he was mean first.

The excuses are elaborate and endless, aren’t they?

But when did telling the truth mean that we should make rudeness and malice normal and acceptable? At what point did American popular culture decided that “truth” was a more important commodity than kindness when speaking?
I finally got around to reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, and was convicted over and over by her descriptions of Americans, experiences of immigrants, and especially her articulation of humility. Adichie is an example of someone who beautifully articulates so many things I notice but fail to clearly articulate:

“People often told him how humble he was, but they did not mean real humility, it was merely that he did not flaunt his membership in the wealthy club, did not exercise the rights it brought–to be rude, to be inconsiderate, to be greeted rather than to greet–and because so many others like him exercised those rights, his choices were interpreted as humility. He did not boast, either, or speak about the things he owned, which made people assume he owned much more than he did. Even his close friend, Okwudiba, often told him how humble he was, and it irked him slightly, because he wished Okwudiba would see that to call him humble was to make rudeness normal.” (40)

Adichie nails this false humility that I see all around me in American culture and in American Protestant church culture. Do we really think that not bragging is the same as humility? Or that our leaders, pastors, teachers, politicians, athletes, people who excel at their craft should be confident and boastful because they are good at what they do? We even seem to think pride is admirable and are willing to find ways to excuse all manner of prideful bad behavior.

Is self-deprecation the same as humility? So often self-deprecating humor is really just a pretense for humility because the speaker is simultaneously praising themselves but appearing to act humble.

Like many others, I was embarrassed to see President Trump make rude personal comments to journalist and TV host Mika Brzezinksi. Then again, this seems to be a pattern of behavior for President Trump as he has been rude to many other people over the course of his life, his presidential campaign and tenure in office. His explanation? They said nasty things about me first. I’m just defending myself. If you come at me, I’ll hit back harder.

No one said humility was easy. In fact, it may be one of the most difficult parts of living in the world but not of the world. But I would rather make mistakes and missteps in a continual effort to live a life of humility than to succumb to a larger cultural push to tell the truth at the expense of treating others with gentleness, kindness, and respect.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Rosalyn De Koster says:

    Thank you.

  • William Botts says:

    Amen. Well stated and totally on point.

  • Rowland Van Es Jr says:

    Romans 12:3 says “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment. ” This seems to be what is lacking which is why 12:2 says “do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” another thing that is lacking now

  • mstair says:

    “The meek shall inherit the earth. In modern American society, being rude and self-centered is relabeled “assertiveness.” “Let the buyer beware” is the ethical umbrella covering the right to sell and collect as much profit as possible, regardless of the customer’s ability to pay. Moreover, in twenty-first century America, certainly the most valuable members of our society are athletes, bankers, and C.E.O.s because our culture compensates them the most.
    If the meek are the kind of people to: “let others go first,” “watch out for the other guy,” and “take and use no more than is needed,” then they are assuredly in the minorities of our contemporary society. Yet, they are Our Lord’s choice for the heirs of creation.”

  • Kim Van Es says:

    Thank you for holding up the values of politeness and civility. Both seem somewhat dependent on the ability to empathize, one of the most important skills to teach our children and to keep developing in ourselves.

  • Randy Buist says:

    Great thoughts — I do wonder if we have preferred humility without enough truthfulness within our churches however? We’ve lived in a nice bubble of reformed humility of sorts that fails to recognize our wealth and isolation while wanting to be kind to one another… we even require our leaders to send their kids to schools that the majority of the nation can’t even imagine affording… thoughts?

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      You raise some good points, Randy. I think the definition of ‘humility’ could apply to groups as well as individuals. But either way, it seems to me that most of us still care more about appearing humble than being truly humble. Or we want everyone to notice our humility, which undercuts the whole premise of humility. What do you think?

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