Faint Praise

“To provide praise that is so minimal or inconsequential as to actually amount to criticism.”

 Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damn_with_faint_praise) uses that as the definition upon which to build its discussion of damn with faint praise.  The esoteric website www.funtrivia.com opines about the origin of damned with faint praise that many believe Alexander Pope’s originated the phrase as we understand it today, writing of literary critic Joseph Addison in “Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot” about Addison’s technique:

Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer
And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.”

It continues, “It means to give someone a bad name by uttering what appears to be mild approval but will certainly be interpreted differently. For example, we don’t usually take ‘He’s so well-meaning’ as a complimentary opinion.”  They mention, and others also give credit to, William Wycherly as an earlier user when he wrote in “The Plain Dealer”,

“You who scribble, yet hate all who write                                                             And with faint praises one another damn”.

As recorded in the Holy Bible, the 8th Commandment prohibits giving false witness against your neighbor.  Martin Luther’s Large Catechism (http://www.cph.org/p-17539-luthers-large-catechism-with-study-questions.aspx, Paul T. McCain, Editor) goes into substantial detail to explain applicability of this Commandment throughout the broad range of life situations one may encounter, with references to Biblical texts to substantiate his writings.  In keeping with Isaiah 5:20, he states that all people “…must not pervert anything by their tricks and technical points, turning black into white and making wrong out to be right.”  The obverse application also seems appropriate – do not make “right” out to be “wrong” by your “clever” words.

So, “damning by (or with) faint praise” is a form of slander with intent to remove honor and a good name from someone, doing harm with the tongue whether the statement about them – even only an innuendo – is true or false! Such action is very often collateral to a desire to prevent the victim from realizing a gain or to help undermine their position in order to gradually obtain what they already possess.  Instead, as Luther exhorted, one must “always…explain things for his neighbor’s advantage and to put the best construction on all he may hear about his neighbor (if it is not notoriously evil)”.

Faint Praise often rises out of coveting something the neighbor has – even reputation – and even “if only” by casting a cloud on something good to avoid another looking better than one’s self – whether or not one merely considers or intends to get something out of it (at the expense of the neighbor).  Seeking revenge for real or imagined hurts is the same, and the offense is real even for the slightest infraction!

Sometimes, the “damning with faint praise” can be as subtle as a roll of the eyes or a sarcastically spoken “how wonderful for them” upon hearing of someone’s good news.  Sometimes it is sectarian – if one employee does something good they receive glowing affirmation, but if a less favored employee does exactly the same thing they receive “faint praise” through patronization, condescension or just outright silence – “it IS expected of them, after all” or “We don’t want them to get a big head, do we?”.

“Look in the Mirror” Time

Are you guilty of using Faint Praise?  Are you counting coup, or amassing life-time scores, that result in investing faint praise in someone’s good work, belief, apology – or anything?  Spouse, child, parent, employer, employee, “peer”?

Easy Rule   

Put yourself in their shoes and apply the faint praise you intended for them as if it were given to you, instead.  Also be honest with yourself.  Do you publicly apply this false-humility remedy to yourself to draw  sympathy, to  demonstrate that you have been hurt or misunderstood by others?  Doesn’t it hurts to sucker-punch yourself like that?

Just DON’T Do It!

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About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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