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Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 17: The Use of Flattery

Thomas Edison was perhaps the greatest inventor of modern times. He was the man singularly responsible for ushering civilization into the technological age by producing devices that made possible the widespread use of electricity, incandescent lighting, sound recordings and motion pictures, and to whom the U.S. government awarded over 1,000 patents.

It is said that Edison could be sitting with family or friends in the middle of a meal, a conversation, or a family celebration when suddenly he would rise, excuse himself, and go to work in his laboratory, not to be seen for days. I am sure this did not endear him to his wife or friends as he sustained criticism for his anti-social habits. When I try an E.D.T. (an Edison Disappearing Trick) my good wife, Pam, finds me working on some project in the shed or hiding under the stairs with my laptop. Promptly, she orders me back to the living room to sustain the flush of chit-chat and flattery with relatives about the past, their new car, or the pulchritude of our latest grandchild’s smile — for at least another three hours.

After considering Edison’s accomplishments and his famous line about success being 1% genius and 99% perspiration (or perseverance), I concluded that what he accomplished for civilization was the result of a life that abhorred flattery and empty praise that built up his ego, and demanded real physical evidence that built up society. For Edison, accepting praise that did not result in success would have been flattery. Yes, he would accept accolades, but only for good reason. His life was at the service of humanity. His laboratory had no room for flattery.

Appeal to Flattery

This series of articles is about the role of reason in the discovery of truth, particularly as it relates to faith. We arrive at truth through the application of reason and faith, which Pope John Paul II wrote are like “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth, and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio). Truth does not come to us by faith alone, nor does it come by reason alone. Reason reinforces faith, and, in turn, faith advances reason. To rely on one to the exclusion of the other is to fly with one wing, mostly in circles, as we misapply the ordered rules of one or the other and introduce fallacies into our thinking. How that happens is the focus of this series.

This article briefly examines a fallacy called Use of Flattery, which falls under a broad category called Irrelevant Emotional Appeals. Use of Flattery occurs when compliments are paid in place of the use of objective evidence in order to persuade a group or a person to adopt a position or take an action. Undergirding the use of flattery are elements of selfishness, greed, egotism and a general lack of concern for what is true. For it is through flattery that people are manipulated for the benefit of others.

Flattery is not chivalry, which is a combination of masculine virtues that includes courage, honor, loyalty, and consideration for others, especially of women. Flattery is selfish. Chivalry is selfless. Flattery is when you receive compliments without a rational basis. It is flattery when you are kind to someone else in order to help YOU feel good about yourself. Flattery is very close to doing the right thing for the wrong reason — you are not serving out of selflessness, but are manipulating another for your own selfishness.

This is not an issue of being like more like Martha (the doer) than Mary (the adorer). Martha may have misunderstood Mary’s action of sitting at Jesus’ feet as flattery. But, Mary’s preoccupation with Christ was not rooted in a selfish desire to manipulate Christ for her benefit, but rather in a selfless awe of Christ as she prepared to serve Christ and those in her community. In that understanding we see the difference between building relationships that are true and right, and the use of flattery that is fallacious and wrong.

Insincerity

The giving and accepting of flattery is, at its core, a selfish act of insincerity and greed. In its most subtle form, a person will use flattery to gain a social acceptance and hide insecurity. It happens when a person is critical of another’s life decisions behind their back, but to his face overflows with gracious compliments about insignificant accomplishments. One person in my life is convinced that in my conversion to Catholicism I’ve forsaken my Christian faith and am now worshiping idols. Yet, to my face she will give me gracious compliments about how she enjoys my articles — that defend Catholicism. At one moment she will tell me how smart she thinks I am, but behind my back she tells others that I brainwashed my wife into becoming Catholic. The paint in a room may be peeling off the wall with age, but a person given to superficial flattery will gush about how wonderful the new room color brightens your home.

Sexuality

I embarrassingly remember when as a young man I was smitten by the beauty (and, ah, … personality) of a young lady who was totally out of my class. By chance I found myself in conversation with her, and the only thing I could say to her, as I starred dumb-struck into her eyes, was: “You are so beautiful” over and over and over. I had no clue what else to say. I had no car, no money, and no idea why she should even be talking to me, a pimpled-face, naïve kid. She was in college, I was a freshman in high school, and well, the only tool in my adolescent arsenal was flattery. Today I shiver at the memory … and I can’t even remember what she looked like.

Unfortunately, some men never grow out of their dependence on flattery, even as women never lose their thirst for it. Taken to its tragic extreme, a pornographer will use flattery to entice insecure women into the sex trade, and in turn it is flattery that the prostitute uses to seduce her lonely johns.

Beware of Charlatans Bearing Gifts

You’ve heard the adage, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” Whether the story is legend or true is debatable, but when the Greeks could not conquer the city of Troy (now in Turkey), they built a large wooden horse and filled it with soldiers. The Trojans, being convinced it was a gift, rolled the horse into Troy, where at night the Greeks let themselves out and slaughtered the city’s inhabitants. When someone gives you a gift and you can’t figure out the motivation, especially if the week before they were trying to take over your city, there’s probably a catch.

A couple of years ago my wife and I were at our favorite restaurant celebrating our wedding anniversary. We were in the process of complimenting each other on our successful marriage thus far (some 38 years at the time). As we neared the end of our dinner, into the room walked a nationally known Christian businessman and minister who I had had a slight acquaintance with years earlier. With him was an attractive and much younger lady. This man had done me a big professional favor years earlier and I was indebted to him. I also had been thinking of asking his assistance again, and so I felt some form of “thank you” and “flattery” was in order. I greeted him by his table, told him how much I appreciated his work and ministry (which I knew very little about), and then, secretly, I paid for his dinner with the young lady I thought was his executive assistant. I figured the cost of his dinner would grease the skids for my upcoming request. When a few weeks later he ignored my attempts to get in touch with him I was curious, and wondered if I had offended him at my overt attempts to be nice. Was I too nice? Did I step over the bounds of propriety and had he seen through my flattery? Perhaps. But then I found out he was involved in a little overt flattery of his own. The minister was married, and the young lady was his mistress. Ooops!

Not too long ago, and it may still be going on, Venezuelan president Hugo Rafael Chávez, through his state-controlled oil industry, was heavily discounting heating oil to the residents of New York City’s Harlem and a few other economically depressed communities. Some evaluated Chávez’s actions as a form of flattery that attempted to manipulate U.S. public opinion against our Federal government’s political position and attempts to marginalize the dictator’s regime and his control over a portion of oil reserves in this hemisphere.

If true, Chávez’s decision is similar to the ploy to the gangster’s “insurance” scam, where shop owners pay the mob for protection against the mob ransacking their shop. It begins with the collector’s flattery of the shop owner about how important his business is for the community and how they (the mob), want to protect his good work. Right!

When Flattery Is Not

Sometimes it’s hard to detect when compliments and related actions are inappropriate and fallacious or logical and acceptable. At the heart of the matter is the difference between actions that are selfish or selfless, and whether the activity builds up a selfless relationship or is focused on building the ego of an individual. The key word in that last sentence is relationship. Our goal should be to engender good relationships out of substance (selfless kindness) and to avoid relationships out of connivery (selfish lust or greed).

Healthy and righteous relationships build up both parties out of an attitude of service and giving, not taking. Flattery subverts relationships by focusing on what it can get out of a relationship for the selfish needs of one of the parties. While the overt actions can often be seen for what they are — irrational, selfish flattery — the more important key to understanding the fallacy is hidden and unfortunately cloaked in sheep’s clothing covering the wolves that are behind it (Matthew 7:15). When Valentine’s Day rolls around and I buy my wife clothes (that I like to see her wear), get her flowers (that I dislike), a card (which I never do), and treat her like a queen … she may think it’s a wonderful thing, but the more important question is, “Why am I doing it?” Is it to build her up and build our relationship through selfless service and admiration (on my part), or is it to break her down and have her fall into my arms for my own selfish interest, even if it is only once a year?

Okay, so I’m being a little sarcastic. Two decades ago I began writing a book titled Masculine Holiness: Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? I still have a file drawer dedicated to the research and incomplete drafts. I began writing it for therapy to improve my marriage after realizing that I did not understand something important about life that my wife understood all too well: that the natural law of peaceful co-existence, happiness and joy was based on the selfless establishment of relationships — something women inherently understand and men do not. I was asking my reader (and there was only one — me) Why a man cannot give selflessly to his mate and forget about what he’s going to get in return. I’m sorry if the men reading this are not like that, but I am. And so, that book was trying to get me to understand that charming my wife had to be out of selfless service, and NOT selfish “gain.” If what I did and said was for her betterment, I was being a gentleman. But, if what I said and did was for me, it was flattery.

Attacking the Fallacy

In the context of this discussion, if charm out of a deep appreciation for an individual is the opposite of shallow flattery, then how can we change our attitudes to be charming and to abandon flattery? For us men, one of the great things we can do is to study John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem on The Dignity and Vocation of Women. The Great John Paul reminds us that man’s most intimate connection with God came through a woman, Mary, and her singular ability to put her relationship with others (mankind) and with God (her spouse the Holy Spirit) above herself. At the end of the document, John Paul writes:

The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine “genius” which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness.

This is not flattery. And neither is it flattery that I bought T-Shirts for my wife and business manager, the two women in my life, that on the front say “Feminine GENIUS” — which these two women are. (The T-Shirts are available from my friend Sam’s T-Shirt company at Total Catholic.) Men, this explains how our words toward a woman should be — thick with appreciative charm for who they are and their lineage via Mary, the mother of Christ.

No, I don’t totally understand women, but neither do I understand everything about the holiness of God, Christ, or His Church. But it is in that “feminine holiness” that we men should be wanting to learn from women and in terms of their genius and holiness be more like them. That is not flattery, but it is what God, Christ’s Church, and our popes have called us to. All of that should be our mindset when we bestow compliments on a woman.

Now for women (and for men) here is another tip to guard against being taken in by flattery, and thus manipulated either by a greedy business associate or one who views us as a potential object of lust.

Ask yourself, “Is the compliment just, short and sweet?” If so, then accept it, humbly and say no more. But, if you did not earn the compliment, reward, gift, or if what you receive is over the top, be very suspicious and hold the person and their subsequent requests of you at arms’ length or even further. There is no need to insult the person, but be not hesitant to correct the person that flatters, for it is dishonest for you to accept a compliment that is unwarranted. Damer gives this advice: “Even if you are convinced that the praise was designed to manipulate a particular response, you could still thank the arguer for his or her remarks and then proceed to ask the questions appropriate to a careful evaluation of the merit of the view.”  (Attacking Faulty Reasoning, T. Edward Damer, 4th edition, p. 76.)

Finally, a short story that you should remember: Once a young preacher, just out of seminary, was greeting parishioners as they exited the church on a Sunday morning. An older man shook the young man’s hand and said with a sincere smile, “Reverend, that was an excellent sermon.” The young pastor, not taken to what he falsely considered flattery, was quick to correct: “Oh, sir, it wasn’t me, it was the Holy Spirit.” The older man’s smile quickly faded, and sternly he looked into the young man’s eyes and said, “Son, it wasn’t that good.”

Accept compliments with a humble and grateful heart, and do not praise yourself. But with flattery, be quick and gentle to correct.


Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. is executive producer for SWC Films, an independent film and television production company. He is the author of the motion picture screenplay writing guide, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, as well as owner of media distributor Nineveh's Crossing. He can be reached at sdw@StanWilliams.com.