The more I’ve learned about social norms, human psychology, and related subjects over the years — not to mention what I’ve learned through personal experience — the more I’ve settled on exorcising the word “ugly” from my vocabulary when physical appearances enter the picture.
I think this is worth doing for more than just the popular wisdom of how “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” As I see it, this phrase is not as insightful as some think. The implication often concealed behind it is that beauty is graded along a spectrum, and so the opposite of beauty is also in the eye of the beholder. It’s a difference that not infrequently boils down to the difference between expressing “You’re ugly” and “I think you’re ugly.” That is, it’s a pretty inconsequential difference in terms of how it makes people feel and the social norms we’re contributing to with what we say.
If I were to tell someone today that I’m not attracted to them, what I’d say is just that. I wouldn’t say they’re unattractive, full stop. I would say I don’t feel that kind of attraction to them. This is notably not the same thing as using a term for someone that is commonly associated with disgust and a lack of value. Still, I can imagine some cynics claiming this is a half-truth aimed at sparing someone’s feelings. But we shouldn’t conflate considering someone else’s feelings with sparing their feelings, since these also imply different things.
The former can actually suggest reconsidering our own behavior and attitude in stopping to think of someone else’s feelings, which is a healthy and productive approach to take in human interaction and relationships. Meanwhile, the latter seems to be more concerned with filtering what we say, without any presumption or expectation of real reflection or introspection. However, there is also more to consider here than how a word makes someone feel.
To me, the word “ugly” carries too much risk of harm to be used for describing someone’s physical appearance. Historically, it’s been used to demean members of various minority groups, to dismiss people’s contributions in countless ad hominem attacks, to normalize arbitrary standards of beauty, to exact revenge on people we’ve been hurt by, and so much more. By contrast, “beautiful” has been used in some similar ways, yet an evident difference is that it lacks the demeaning, dismissive, and/or vengeful attitudes frequently on display where “ugly” is used.
On the other hand, I’ve specified that physical appearances matter in this for a reason. I think it can be appropriate and maybe even beneficial to describe some behaviors, character traits, objects, etc. as ugly. Good examples would even include what has already been mentioned. Uses of a term like ugly that attack, ridicule, demean, and dismiss others are instances of behavior we might rightly describe as ugly.
If the difference isn’t obvious, calling someone ugly typically implies something unchangeable about them, even if we make a tenuous distinction between being ‘universally ugly’ versus ‘relatively ugly.’ Calling a person’s behavior ugly, or even calling a certain character trait like rage ugly, doesn’t imply this, for reasons I’ll get to below. In the latter context, I’d go so far as to argue that using “ugly” in this way can reinforce positive social norms, reminding us to be good to one another, to consider another person’s feelings, and so forth. And whatever your personal beliefs are on the subject of free will, I’d suggest that there is plenty of merit to be recognized in valuing and encouraging such positive social norms in our environments.
Admittedly, there is still a challenge in here because of a tendency we have to label the person engaging in hurtful or ugly behavior as physically ugly. It’s that myth many of us have a hard time letting go of that tells us what’s on the outside must resemble what’s on the inside, and vice versa. So I think we should also be careful with what behaviors, traits, and other things we choose to label as ugly. It helps to remember that it is in fact these behaviors, traits, and things that we have the problem with and not necessarily the person exhibiting them.
Is this “Love the sinner, hate the sin”? I don’t believe it is.
Setting aside the issue that sin is a dogmatic religious concept with a questionable basis in reality, one of the bigger complaints I have against this little turn of phrase is that it separates two things that don’t seem so easy to separate theologically or philosophically. What is a sinner exactly, and how do you hate a part of their so-called sin nature without also hating some part of who they are? Apologists and theologians talk about being transformed in Christ, born again, and leaving behind their old lives. Either this implies that the unrepentant sinner is of a different value than the sinner who’s been saved, or it raises troubling questions about how even redeemed sinners talk about their salvation and sinful past.
I don’t believe that telling a white lie makes you a liar, or that committing one criminal offense, such as driving without insurance, makes you a criminal. There are some behaviors and actions that are in keeping with one’s character, but there are also those that we can reasonably say are out of character for them. This means we can’t always ascertain someone’s character from our own limited experiences with them.
Some Christian theologies obliterate these sorts of conceptual distinctions when it comes to sin because unless sin is built into the fabric of human existence and behavior, there would seem to be no real explanation for why everyone needs to be saved. But these distinctions are worth keeping in mind when we deal with others in our day to day lives because we do not often have good reason for concluding that the person being awful to us right now is just an awful human being in general. Nor should we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of labeling ugly behavior as part of an “ugly soul,” let alone an ugly exterior.
“But,” you might ask, “do you think a term like ugly ever can really apply to anyone’s physical appearance?”
Of course, this seems like a different question from what we say that we’re willing to openly express, doesn’t it? However, I think in some cases we might benefit more from ceasing to ask ourselves these sorts of questions in the first place. Sometimes the way we talk about and approach things can give them the illusion of having an objective reality, like merely engaging in a debate with a conspiracy theorist can have the unintended effect of lending an unwarranted sense of legitimacy to their position.
I think the order is better off reversed here. Our standards of beauty and ugliness are not our own. They are shaped in the cultures, societies, and eras we live in. So even when we say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or express our personal feelings about someone’s appearance, what we are communicating is never that simple. And if we feel that familiar need to be our own person, along with its often attendant desire to not be criticized for it, there is no better way of achieving these ends than by bringing a thoughtful awareness of those standards and where they come from into who we are and how we act.
Accusations of language policing and taking easy offense seem to inevitably come up in a conversation like this. No one likes to be told what they can and can’t say, nor do most of us like being judged for what we say. These are my personal reflections on why I’ve made this decision for myself. You may or may not agree, and I won’t be thinking you’re a horrible person if it’s the latter. But it should come as no surprise that I do think there is a lot worth considering on this subject. Declining even to do as little as this is unfortunately a common part of the problem, though, and by no means does it deserve to be exempt from criticism.