On Being Rude

More and more “rude” is used to refer to actions that are flatly disrespectful



“That was rude.” So said the love of my life and not for the first time. She was addressing me! It was, sad to say, a fairly familiar accusation.

And yet we should hold fast to the legal maxim that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. As is a philosopher’s custom, I will begin by making some distinctions and employing a few examples. In the end, I will reach a verdict.

Initially, “rude” referred to the uneducated. Its Latin source is rudis. Consider the rude and crude country bumpkin. Think of the fellow who is, well, decidedly undomesticated.

Over time, “rude” has come to mean impolite. One might variously be “sharp” or “awkward” or even “blustery.” So used, “rude” is both an evaluative and a descriptive term. It applies to observable behavior, whether private or public. We can’t arbitrarily dismiss as rude someone with impeccable manners.

So far, so good. The meaning of words tends to shift over time. But of late the shift has become worrisome. More and more, people use “rude” to refer to actions that are flatly disrespectful. Here I have in mind the cruel insult, constant in-your-face hectoring, and even the bald-faced lie. To refer to such actions as “rude” lets them off far too easily. Deliberate abuse isn’t just a lack of social graces.

But judgments of good and evil call for discernment. Two cases involving Elizabeth Anscombe, one of my favorite (modern) philosophers, come to mind. On one occasion, Philippa Foot, her Oxford contemporary, told Anscombe, in the company of friends, that at times she was plainly rude. Anscombe, in turn, glared fiercely and walked out of the room. Thereby she illustrated Foot’s point.

Now comes the second case. Anscombe contended that anyone who condones the execution of the innocent doesn’t merit a hearing. Of such a one she said, “I do not want to argue with him: he shows a corrupt mind.” As it happens, John Henry Newman said much the same about anyone who argues that cruelty is good. Neither Anscombe nor Newman, in my view, were rude.

And what of Jesus? Was it rude to urge a hesitant disciple, worried about his aging father, to “let the dead bury the dead”? (Matthew 8:22) Or consider the time when someone asks him about his mother and brothers. Was it rude of him, straightaway, to point to the disciples and say, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50). No, his words evidenced parrhesia, the boldness of speech proper to truth-telling. And, of course, “whited sepulchers” is just right for the Pharisees.

To be sure, philosophers on soap boxes (who, me?) can oscillate between truth-telling and self-serving pretense. So, I’d best return to my spouse’s most recent charge. Yes, I was rude. How so? Well, I was curt and blustery in demanding an appointment at the right time and on the right day.

In short, I was guilty as charged. Mind you, I’ve apologized to the well-meaning therapist. So there. Still, when she replied, “No problem,” I had no choice. “You should be more sensitive,” I countered. Hmm. Was I rude, again?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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