Meaning Well: Anti Irony #1

One of the worst things you can call someone now is “well-meaning.”

A well-meaning person is always doing the wrong thing. The phrase encompasses many sins. The well-meaning person is presumed to be ignorant of the world’s harsh ways, naive, gullible, and full of an unwarranted optimism especially about human nature. Arrogance or at least hubris is implied too, in that well-meaning people have an exaggerated view of their own ability to improve things.

One thing is certain: well-meaning people always make things worse. They’re always trying to feed babies when the real problem is that parents won’t work. Or getting in the way of a war because of the horrors thereof when the real problem can only be solved by winning the war. Or providing shelter for the poor when the real problem is the oppressive system that keeps them poor. Well-meaning people always seem to have band-aid solutions and don’t see the picture. Their attempts to make things better always result in disaster because of something called the Law of Unintended Consequences which says that every time you do something that seems to mean well it will mean more trouble later on, in the larger scheme of things.

The answer to the problem of the well-meaning is to accept that the world is a harsh place and embrace that harshness. In fact, one is supposed to embody the world’s hard ways. If someone misbehaves, punishment and force must be used. If there is a problem between governments, then it will inevitably result in war and it’s best to prosecute the war as soon as possible. If there is a social disaster like a famine or an economic crisis, it’s important that this “run its course”; mere half-measures like handing out food or shoes will only drag out the problem.

If a problem resists solution by bombing or jailing or some other harsh measures, then it is considered to be insoluble and part of the human condition. To say otherwise is, once again, to be “well-meaning.” Tough-minded hard-nosed adults understand how unforgiving and full of suffering things are and don’t try to change it. Only the very young and the fatally naive believe that things can be improved.

This is a place where Social Darwinism, Marxism, and Malthusian pessimism meet after having been thoroughly dumbed down into one idea: don’t try to be good. The task is impossible and will make you into a victim yourself. Worse still, it will obstruct the natural way of things which eventually resolves conflicts. The Tao of this worldview is cruelty, and you must flow with it.

This attitude is everywhere in my country. The admirable person is said to be hard-nosed, realistic, rational, sober, and tough. His opponents are softies, Pollyannas, illogical, giddy, and weak. It’s as though the Churchill-Chamberlain dichotomy was applied to every part of life: politics, religion, law, medicine, the arts, everything. You’re either a heroic bulldog war fighter or an umbrella-waving idiot appeaser.

The word “aggressive” is entirely positive in all contexts. It has come to mean “effective,” and anything labeled “passive” is by definition a failure. One roots out crime aggressively, and also treats disease aggressively, and even an aggressive prose style is given the seal of approval.

I urge you to resist this. Mean well.

Feed babies. Use band-aids on wounds. Give poor people 20 dollar bills and places to stay. Solve arguments without violence. Oppose cruelty and war. Be passive rather than aggressive. I urge you, in fact, to be a complete weenie and wussy, who can’t see that what’s needed is a short sharp shock. I urge you to think of criminals and drug addicts as salvageable improvable humans. I urge you to lose an argument more often and to resist an opportunity to destroy an enemy.

It’s true that our conscience doesn’t know how to manage a central bank or create a national water policy or stop the warmongering of dictators. And our conscience is naive about realpolitik and the tragedy of the commons and the necessity of breaking eggs to make metaphorical omelettes.

“Well-meaning” is our attitude when we listen to conscience. I am not ashamed.

40 thoughts on “Meaning Well: Anti Irony #1

      1. Re: Thank you.
        I nearly didnt get to the bit where you said to be well meaning I was so annoyed. *grin*. Though I think theres a bit of room for saying its the serious end of generalisation. There are some individuals who clump through life making things worse and others who do a lot of good.

      2. Re: Thank you.
        Yeah, it’s a great icon. I think I was just looking for something of Abbie and that one just jumped out at me. šŸ™‚

  1. yeah I’m with you here – I think most people also are, it’s just that it’s hard to make good copy with this sort of stance: much easier to i.d. a villain/opponent and call him/her out
    I take the long view though: cultures, especially western ones, go through phases about this sort of thing

  2. A quick look through the OED shows that well-meaning seemed to get its negative connotations pretty quickly.
    Up until the mid 17th century we’ve got a bunch of examples where “well-meaning” seems completely approvable, a nice, virtuous thing:
    1387-8 T. USK Test. Love II. v. 117 Right as see yeveth flood, so draweth see ebbe, and pulleth ayen under wawe al the firste out-throwe, but-if good pyles of noble governaunce in love, in wel-meninge maner, ben sadly grounded.
    1555 EDEN Decades (Arb.) 124 And albeit that he were not lerned, yet was he a vertuous and well meanynge man.
    a1557 N. GRIMALDE in Tottel’s Misc. (Arb.) 106 That nothyng hynder your welmeanyng minde.
    1579 W. WILKINSON Confut. Fam. Love Bij, Take this briefe freindly and well meaning aunswere to your exceptions in good part.
    1593 SHAKES. Rich. II, II. i. 128 My brother Gloucester, plaine well meaning soule.
    1649 MILTON Eikon. xvii. 158 What a Cordial and well meaning helper they had of him abroad.
    …but then we’ve also got negative ones developing mid-17th century and sticking in for the rest of the OED’s examples:
    1673 True Worship of God p. iv, Some out of a well meaning mistake, thinking that which they call Preaching, the only means of Salvation.
    1697 DRYDEN Virg. Georg. Ded. 1 ‘Tis the fault of many a well-meaning Man, to be officious in a wrong place.
    1712 ADDISON Spect. No. 299 3 She..treats me like a plain well-meaning Man, who does not know the World.
    1828 LYTTON Pelham lxxxi, The annuity we have agreed upon, is only to be given in case of successnot merely for well meaning attempts.
    1857 A. MATHEWS Tea-Table Talk I. 342 The well-intentioned but injudicious actions of what are called well-meaning people.
    …it’s not an absolute thing, of course, and the OED is spotty, but it’s interesting to me that “well meaning” was pretty positive in the late middle ages.

  3. Well said, sir…
    It has been odd to me, how the term “do-gooder” has become something of a perjorative… I think you correctly identified the wrong-headed cognitive frames that make people think that “well meaning” and “do-gooder” is actually a bad thing.
    Thank you for coming down on the side of “good.” We need all the help we can get right now.
    mojo sends

  4. Well said. But I have a slight reservation regarding the terms “passive” versus “aggressive.” To me, this would seem to applaud inactivity in the face of monstrous wrongdoing. Better antonyms for “aggressive” would be “peaceful” or “laid-back,” I feel.

    1. I agree — the problem is that “passive” doesn’t really oppose “aggressive”. It opposes “active” and I think we want active solutions, just not always aggressive active ones. “Compassionate” might better oppose “aggressive”.

      1. I stand by “passive.” Sometimes it’s best to let the other guy hit you, right in the face. Sometimes it’s best not to intervene even when you feel a sense of righteousness. Sometimes passivity is a virtue. I think we are being told too often that it’s never appropriate to be passive.
        There’s a medical maxim for dealing with abdominal pain, which is mysterious and often resolves itself, and may get far worse with “aggressive” treatment. Young doctors are told: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

      2. But the word is still limited, in that it doesn’t express the very active principle behind this kind of standing still. It is still one half of a problematic duality. What about Active Receptivity?

      3. Sometimes it’s best to let the other guy hit you, right in the face.
        Why? I wouldn’t let him hit some other guy in the face, why am I different?
        If it was a case of destroying him or destroying yourself, maybe there is a moral dilemma there (although very slight). But there are more options than fighting back directly.

  5. I think “well-meaning” may have picked up negative connotations because the concept of “meaning well” is encompassed by the words we use to describe good actions that don’t fail or backfire. If someone does something compassionate, charitable, kind, generous, etc., adding “well-meaning” would be redundant. I don’t think it’s logical to take the current usage of that phrase as proof that good intentions are universally looked down upon.
    Also: The word “aggressive” is entirely positive in all contexts. In political or business discourse, maybe, but “entirely” and “in all contexts”? I might have a disproportionately high percentage of neo-hippies and/or educators of small children in my social circle, but that line strikes me as flatly untrue.
    I do agree quite strongly with the gist of your argument, but some of the linguistic observations seem shaky.

    1. I was referring almost entirely to what I see in mass media, especially on television and radio. I can’t think of a situation I’ve heard lately in which the “aggressive” option wasn’t simply assumed to be the best.
      I do think that we’re being encouraged to drop our consciences and stop trying to mean well, and that the motivation is uncomfortably close to fascist.

      1. The mass media is not “all contexts.”
        Sure, but that doesn’t follow logically from (or even necessarily have anything to do with) the modern usage of the term “well-meaning.”

      2. Well, I was talking about publicly shared speech. I didn’t mean to imply that each conversation each person was having in the country was following those rules; that would be impossible.
        I guess we just disagree, but I’m not entirely sure about what.

  6. My friend put me up to this
    You used the phrase “prosecute the war” and I was pretty sure that prosecute meant to seek legal punishment. I checked The Merriam-Webster Dictionary and it would appear that prosecute has two meanings. One is to seek legal punishment and the other is to follow an investigation to the end.
    I must apologize, but I am one of those annoying people who is bothered by grammatical errors. I pointed this one out to a friend of mine and he absolutely insisted I comment about it. He said you’re going to destroy me and it will be hilarious.
    Let me assure you that there will be no need for you or anyone else to fill my email box with comments denouncing me and everything about me. If you can show me that I am mistaken, that I somehow misread The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, I will gladly apologize and hopefully we can leave things there.

    1. Prosecute (v)
      1. To follow or pursue with a view to reach, execute, or accomplish; to endeavor to obtain or complete; to carry on; to continue; as, to prosecute a scheme, hope, or claim. [1913 Webster]
      Perhaps the use is now considered archaic. If so I don’t care.

      1. Re: Prosecute (v)
        Mine was in an actual book. Copyright 2004, it says “New Edition” on the cover. I might have misread it, as this all happened at roughly 2:00 AM my time.

  7. Damn, I’m glad I stumbled upon your LiveJournal. I like the way you think.
    (Signed, she who remembers when the Right succeeded in redefining “liberal” as a dirty word in political discourse, and has been pissed off about it ever since)

  8. Boo to binary choices!
    Let me out myself as a gray-ist. Reality is rarely digital, but analog. It presents a spectrum of choices to us.
    Like you, I’m sicken by the wave of rigid-thinking bullies who posit that listening to the opposition is a form of date-rape. You can find folks of this mindset on both sides of the political aisle.
    I also agree that it is often a good idea to do nothing immediately, but accumulate additional information about a situation before choosing a course of action.
    However, I wouldn’t like to exalt passivity as an unalloyed virtue. Forebarance and thinking in broader contexts are better paths to Eudamonia.
    It isn’t OK to let yourself be abused. It isn’t OK to let bullies have their way all the time. Your response needn’t be physical reprisal, of course, but it should be a clear. Not every opponent is enlightened enough to see a passive response as morally superior.
    Sadly, a good deal of our savage animal ways presist in the modern human mind. On a bad day, I fear that civilization is a maladaptive mutation.
    I agree with your supposition that “well-meaning” is descriptively used to connote failure or incompetence, as in:
    “America’s Global War on Terror is a well-meaning foreign policy that has only increased global terrorism.”
    “Paul Tsongas’s campaign platform of raising taxes to pay off profligate government debt was seen as well-meaning, but fundamentally unappealing to voters.”
    Keep on, keepin’ on.

  9. me ditto too
    nothing substantive to add. I agree you should send it to the Op Ed page. Then anywhere it can officially see print and have itself copyrighted. Where it should finally wind up is in writing and journalism textbooks. It’s so teachable.

  10. A tangent to your point. At Google, “we’re being aggressive” means “we committed to an impossible deadline, and everyone in the room knows it.” Depending on the context, it can be a statement of pride, since only winners attempt to do the impossible.

  11. sarcasm?
    Is sarcasm really the best tool for making this particular point? It’s a bit of a tightrope walk. How ironic would it be if some irony slipped into your anti-irony essays? I’m being sincere.

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