Speech & Responsibility: Offering Advice

NoteI understand that every situation is unique and cannot be replicated. I am not creating a universal law here. Instead, I am trying to set a broken bone and offer a dialectic response to the current aura around this issue in our culture (written on December 16th, 2018).

I’ve noticed that people today, especially those of us that are younger, have a large aversion to giving or receiving advice. We often are afraid to receive advice from those around us, and we’re even more afraid to offer it to others. There are layers to this way of thinking, and I don’t believe that I will be able to peel them all back in this post. On the other hand, this issue has been brewing in my mind for some time now, and I wanted to explore it some. Since this topic is so vast, I’m going to focus this post on offering advice. Maybe if times permits, I’ll do some more writing on ideas that are formulating in my mind around speech and responsibility (e.g., the relationship between speech and responsibility with faith, existential participation, rhetoric, and education). In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this piece, and I look forward to hearing some feedback from you all.

People often refrain from giving advice for a two main reasons. They either fear that their advice will be unhelpful or even potentially harmful for to the recipient for certain reasons or they fear imposing their opinions on someone else for certain reasons. Since this first reason is more easily addressable, I’ll cover it first. When I speak of advice in this post, I’ll be referring to advice that deals with issues of ethics, religion, relationships, and life decisions in general. I’m not concerned with someone refusing to offer advice about issues related to the mechanics of a vehicle or how to recycle. I’ll also be referring to advice chiefly through the medium of relationships. I’m not concerned with giving advice to strangers or the population in general. I hope this is clarifies my intentions.

Specialization & The Marketplace

Some of the fear revolving around giving bad or unhelpful advice is related to the level of specialization that is present within modern society. Today there is a specialist for anything and everything. You can easily book a life coach, professional psychologist, pastor, or consultant that specializes in whatever type of issue you are facing. This modern phenomenon makes it difficult for average people to consider offering encouraging advice to those closest to them because they believe they need to be “experts” in order to even feel qualified enough to mention it. Why offer your close friend advice about his or her situation when you can outsource that responsibility to the marketplace? In many ways, the marketplace has taken on the responsibilities of our family, friends, and neighbors. Abdicating this responsibility can become problematic because you will miss the opportunity to potentially help and serve those closest to you. Since the expectation now is often to outsource this to a specialist, as a friend or family member you’re left with just finding solidarity with the individual. While there are times when solidarity and “just being there” is vitally important, I fear that is often not enough for the advisee, the advisor, or the relationship between the two at certain times.=

The Fear of Error & Vulnerability

Another reason why people often decide not to offer advice is that they simply are afraid of being wrong. Being motivated by fear, in this instance, may not be helpful. Instead of being chiefly concerned about the individual in need, someone may be more concerned about their own reputation and their potential mistakenness. Although I realize that someone can be motivated by their care for the recipient to not offer advice in a situation, often people are too heavily influenced by the fear of error instead. If we become compelled by fear in these moments, then we risk sharing the potential helpful (or even life-saving) advice that we could offer those closest us. We also risk the opportunity to grow with the individual at this crossroad in their life. Furthermore, there is also an educational aspect to this fear of being wrong that should be addressed. If one lives under this “fear,” then they risk never learning to truly voice their opinion (in this instance as advice) because they never give themselves the opportunity to. If we never allowed children to do this, how could we expect them to learn and grow to become responsible adults? Although we all may be adults now, I’m sure we all can agree that we are stilllearning. Learning to clearly articulate and communicate what you believe in a certain situation is something that must be learned through practice. So, why is it important to offer advice? Because the lives of the recipients depend on it, because your relationship with the recipient depends on it, and because your usefulness in the world as an intelligent, responsible, and competent citizen depends on it. We cannot let the fear of being wrong keep us from participating and potentially helping those around us that may be in need.

Advice & The Fragile Advisee 

This fear of being wrong is exacerbated by the assumption that individuals (specifically adults) are inherently fragile and can be easily damaged by someone’s advice. Although this is sometimes true, this problem is not only centered upon the responsibility of the person giving advice but also on the responsibility of the one receiving advice. I believe this is the crux of the issue. A responsible adult (if he has been properly educated and integrated into society) should be able to discern and appropriate good or bad advice. Seeking to prevent “breaking” someone by refusing to offer potentially helpful or life-saving advice can often in the long term be more damaging. It should be the responsibility of the recipient to weigh the words of the advisor just as much as the advisor should be careful with his words of advice. I fear our society has placed all of the responsibility on the advisor instead of the advisee, making it impossible at times to say anything at all for fear of damaging the listener. This is particularly frustrating when you are young and are learning (as we all are). We’re all on this journey together and our advice will never be perfect. To summarize, placing too much responsibility on the advisor is irresponsible and heavily discourages people from sharing their compassionate care in the form of advice or recommendations that could be beneficial to the recipient. The argument that you should not share helpful advice because you could potentially damage the recipient (which is sometimes true), is in essence an ethical argument. Although I agree that this is a discussion about ethics, I disagree with the idea that it is more virtuous to not advise than it is to advise in most instances. We shall now turn to this issue

Virtue: To Advise or Not Advise 

I’ve often seen people practice “virtue signaling” when it comes to this discussion. Virtue signaling is when someone carefully uses rhetoric in a discussion to show that they are vitreous or are “a good person.” It usually goes something like this, “Oh, I don’t want to give John advice because I’m no expert…I only offer advice when someone asks for it.” Here, the person is mentioning the reason why he won’t offer John advice just so that he is recognized for his virtue. In this instance, I wouldrecognize this person for a virtue, and that virtue would be apathy. I know, apathy is not a virtue, nor should it be. The question remains, why should we praise this person for his apathy in this instance? I could easily give some ridiculous situations where this person could potentially end up in prison for his “virtuous” apathy because he refused to advise someone (I will not divulge this here). My fear is that many people today have been convinced that it is more virtuous to not offer advice to someone and that this should somehow be celebrated. Now, I am not saying that you should go offering everyone advice. It should be dispensed wisely, thoughtfully, and probably not that often. On the other hand, it shouldbe dispensed. I find that the praise of inaction in the name of virtue in this instance may be a guise for a lack of courage. Fear and cowardice are often disguised as “virtue.” Although I believe I’m beginning to get closer to the core of this issue, there is another aspect that should be addressed—that of the autonomous individual.

The Lie of the Autonomous Individual 

Now that we’ve considered whether inaction in the realm of advice is virtuous, we must address yet another fear. Although people fear being wrong about their advice or fear potentially damaging their advisee, many also fear that they will wrongfully impose their beliefs or convictions onto another individual by offering advice. Much of this idea revolves around the belief that people should be completely autonomous individuals (i.e., they should not be directed by anything or anyone but themselves). Although this is not true for a number of reasons especially if you are a Christian (reasons which we cannot address now), this idea unfortunately bleeds into the realm of advice. Since our culture believes that people should be categorially individually directed (unless you’re a child, and even this is changing and obviously problematic), they also therefore believe that giving someone advice is impinging upon their freedom as autonomous individuals. This is simply not true. This would onlybe true if the individual did whatever anyone told them to do (i.e., they were a robot). The idea that offering someone advice is imposing your beliefs upon them or impinging upon their freedom is ridiculous. An exception to this would be some form of chauvinism, physical or psychological manipulation, or brainwashing. With the exception of these, this is simply not true. I’ve gotten a bit “ranty” in this last paragraph, so I will attempt to bring this to a close by humbly offering some advice : )

Brotherly Advice

I just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov this morning, and I was reminded of the words of the Elder Zosima,

“Thus, there can be no brotherhood of men before all men become each other’s brothers.”

Maybe we should begin to treat those in our lives as brothers/sisters and humbly offer our advice when it is needed instead of giving into fear or some unfounded notion of the virtue of apathy, inaction, or the autonomous individual. Sometimes this will be when it is not asked for. Sometimes this will be when it’s not heard. Sometimes this will be when it is effectual. What is important is that we treat one another like brothers and sisters—even when this may mean reluctantly offering advice.

P.S. Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazovis one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life. I would highly recommend it.

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