Frequently Abused Phrases: “Tell It Like It Is”
The other day I heard a fella give praise about another fella because he “calls a spade a spade,” meaning that he’s blunt enough to address things how they are. We value the qualities of plainspokenness, forthrightness, conversational grit. We don’t like it when people beat around the bush when they have something to say. We don’t trust people who always seem to speak in code or tread through every statement as if scared to offend someone somewhere. I get that.
Describe things as they are. Don’t sugar-coat it or call it what it’s not. Tell it like it is.
But we would be mistaken to assume that things are always as they appear unless there are clearly obvious grounds for doubting this. We would also be mistaken to assume that things really are how we personally like to see them.
It is a mistake to assume that there are merely two kinds of people in this world: Those who “tell it like it is,” and those who don’t. The world we see through a mirror dimly, and our hearts are full of imaginings. It’s too complicated to assume otherwise. Sometimes the best way, the more honest way, to tell something is to tell it in a more complicated way than most people think it is.
A stupid man is completely unaware of his own biases. What he sees he will too often assume is the fulness of what is perceived. He will say, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” But when we have these discussions, we’re not likely dealing in mere ducks.
“You know, black people are bad at math.”
“You know that sounds offensive, don’t you?”
“Hey, I call it like it is.”
Here we have a case of someone assuming that how they see something is how something is. In some states, you may find that a certain demographic of children displays a habit of low performance in a subject. Notice what I said. They display a habit of low performance. It doesn’t mean they’re naturally bad at the subject. After all, the data would only show that they earn lower grades. There are all kinds of factors to consider, poverty and prejudice among them. Poverty affects education, and a system exploiting bias against a certain demographic will harm that demographic. Assume black kids will do poor in school, and chances are they might. Tell black kids they will do poor in school, and chances are they might.
So to look at the data of low performance and assume this means black kids are just bad at math is to not really tell something like it is, but to tell something how it looks like it is. Black children performing bad at math doesn’t actually prove they are naturally bad at math. This is a perception perpetuated by the ignorant.
But when you’re ignorant, a complicated world is frustrating. So what’s an easy solution to make yourself feel justified? Conclude that the world is simpler, and that people who address its complexity are untrustworthy, or have some trick up their sleeve.
There is no universal law that states that you are justified in believing a proposition is true because it appears to you that it is true. You need more than your own unexamined (and perhaps unwarranted) assumptions to back up your claims.
Wishful thinking is not “telling it like it is.”
“That man’s nothing but a criminal. Hang ’em.”
“But he also should be given a fair trial and—”
“Tell it like it is! None of this fluffy talk! Skip a trial and just go hang ’em.”
“But everyone deserves a due process—”
“Don’t you try any of that rhetoric with me. Tell it like it is. He’s a criminal. I hope he rots in hell.”
Remember, anyone can relabel something and then say “hey, I’m just calling it like it is.”
There is a difference between perceiving something as your eyes see it and perceiving something as your wishes interpret it. Even when your eyes do see it, they may only be seeing part of it.
And then there’s the charge of being too politically correct. We might praise a politician because they “tell it like it is” and aren’t tied up with being politically correct, but what do we really mean when we say that? Are we praising someone for addressing issues honestly, or are we shortcutting our way through critical dialogue so we can refashion the world the way we see fit, regardless of how it really works? Does a leader get a free pass at being insulting and offensive because they’re telling the truth?
The apostle Paul was known for asking if telling you the truth makes him an enemy. He was a man who could “call a spade a spade,” call sin sin. But he was the same man who wrote, “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may known how to answer everyone.”
So if I meet a guy who speaks the plain truth, but does it without grace, without seasoning his words well, I really don’t care much what he says, and I’d rather him not speak much at all. I believe this to be true wisdom. That, my friends, is how I tell it, because I believe that is how it is.
So next time you use the phrase “tell it like it is,” are you really encouraging people to call something by its true name? Or are you just encouraging them to see something by the way you see it fit to be called based on your unexamined assumptions?
I suggest that we replace that phrase with a more accurate one: “He tells it like he sees it,” or “I tell it like I see it.” Yes, it’s good to be forthright about any situation. But we must also have the humility to recognize the limitations of our own perspectives. I call things as I perceive them, but my perception is incomplete. And so is yours.
And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with calling a spade an entrenching tool.