A Critique of Tact

Sachin Meyer '18, Contributor

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Tact • /takt/ n. a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense.

A recent class discussion in English Lang AP brought to my attention the pervasiveness of tact in all political and even casual conversation. This, of course, is an obvious, well-known fact for most people who regularly engage in conversation, but what is neglected, is the root cause and far-reaching impacts of this style of talk. In this case, I would differentiate Tact from politeness in that Tact is the avoidance of not just crude words and actions, but views and disagreement more generally.

From a young age, our parents, teachers, and books tell us, “Honesty is the best policy.” Adults employ dozens of similar clichés an attempt, mostly in vain, to raise honest, faithful children. However, those who are instilled with principles of honesty often, at a young age, run into the problem of being too honest. Every parent has stories of their children stating the embarrassing obvious. As such, as children grow older, the many clichés are contradicted and discarded by children, so as to stay out of trouble, to avoid offending others, and to reinforce others’ self-esteem.

This being the case, a critical analysis of the use of Tact is in order. Is the sacrifice of honesty of this worth “good relations”? From the definition, Tact has as its goal, the maintaining of good relations and the avoidance of offense. While the first clause is an honorable pursuit, if conformist, the second clause, the avoidance of offense, is far more malicious, and indeed the more common implementation of Tact in conversation. However, Tact, like its more specific cousin Euphemism, is a morally, philosophically bankrupt technique. (Politics, being morally and philosophically bankrupt, makes great use of Tact and Euphemism). The moral imperative of those* committed to civil discourse is to act on and advocate for their beliefs, for a belief not expressed or acted upon hardly exists.

Beneath the many layers of justification for Tact– Politeness, political correctness, avoiding offense– there lies social lethargy and/or cowardice. When someone declines to discuss a topic, voice their belief, or expose an argument, they either do not care about their belief (a betrayal in itself), or they fear doing so because of social repercussions– the two most powerful repercussions being making others uncomfortable and losing one’s reputation.

However, Tact obviously has some benefit. Telling a co-worker they are balding, or that their attire is slovenly, is hardly constructive. In the event of seeing a disheveled, balding co-worker, I would in fact strongly advise the utilization of Tact*. This said, there is a profound difference between personal, largely irrelevant opinions, and political/philosophical beliefs. The former scarcely ever justify conversation. Discussion of the latter is a moral imperative, but as most would disagree with this statement, it need not be a moral imperative for the critique of Tact to stand. When Tact is employed to avoid a politically debatable topic, it dilutes and insularizes our civil society.

As someone who frequently finds himself enraptured in political and philosophical debates, I have, on several occasions, found myself debating a controversial issue, such as NFL protests or Immigration, in the Fish Bowl. The debate escalates quite naturally, only to suddenly extinguish upon the arrival of other students or faculty. Afraid of offending others, those who believed wholeheartedly in their cause a moment before, now fall silent, no longer willing to stand for what they believed.

To me, there are three possible explanations here: Either said debater never believed his argument in the first place (not an unusual occurrence), or they implicitly or explicitly consider their cause racist, sexist, or otherwise unjustified. The third possibility is that they value the amity of the entrants over the expression of their beliefs.

All three of these possibilities are rife with irrationality. Racism and Sexism are the most blatantly irrational, but so is (on a lesser level) the belief that a friendship reliant on political silence is friendship. A respectable political person can never have personal enmity towards another for political reason. Thus, if friendship, or any relationship, is built on solid foundation, there exists no necessity for Tactfully dodging issues.

Thus, in the true, if limited, sense of the word, Tact is but a moral equivalent to servility and flattery, both noxious attitudes in a respectful relationship between equals. Politeness will always have its place, as will humility. Humility is vital in discussion though: Asserting one’s opinion is critically different from asserting one’s opinion as fact, or morally supreme. But challenging one’s own views and beliefs, as well as the views and beliefs of others is a valuable contribution to society and the individual. As Socrates, the first social gadfly, said, “The Unexamined Life is not worth living.” In the same way, the unexamined belief is not worth holding.










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A Critique of Tact