Why being laid-back may not be a virtue

Being “laid-back” has become something of a buzzword. Roommates are laid-back. So are managers–good ones. And boyfriends–the ones worth holding onto anyway. Apparently, being laid-back is a great virtue.

About what topics are those who profess to be laid-back truly laid-back? About another person’s actions or behaviors; about her choices in life; about his values and commitments; about her way of life more generally. Also about certain local or interpersonal states of affairs.

The laid-back person, then, claims to be laid-back in interpersonal affairs about which reasonable persons can disagree. (Pull the lint out of the dryer after use, or let the next person pull it out before the next use?) But the laid-back person would hesitate to say that she is uncommitted to issues of greater importance: hate speech she would frown upon; global warming she might worry about. So, she is not-laid back to the point of being uncaring about ultimate matters.

We’ve been surveying the ways we use the term “laid-back” with a view to  understanding the scope of its applicability. This survey leaves me feeling puzzled rather than clear-headed, more befogged rather than less so. When I think more about it, I can’t understand why being laid-back would be a virtue today. Why is that? But, first, I want to determine what we mean when we use the locution “being laid-back.”

  1. Being laid-back = being tolerant of others. Not insisting, therefore, that another person conform to your model for living well. Not being authoritarian then.
  2. Being laid-back = being generally indifferent to others as in “I don’t care either way about this or that.” Laissez-faire then. Or: not nit-picky.
  3. Being laid-back = being willing to suspend judgment. It appears that doing X is not such a good thing, but, for all that, it may be a prudent and reasonable thing to do.

I take it these are the 3 shades of meaning of being laid-back as the concept is commonly used today. (If you would like to review my work, you can trawl Google or Craigslist.) In what sort of social world, though, would it make sense to value being tolerant, laissey-faire, and moderately skeptical? In ours, you sot.

The modern west operates under the sign of pluralism. A pluralistic society is one where everyone is free to live according to his desires so long as he or she doesn’t harm someone else. The legal system sets forth the “ground rules” we shouldn’t violate in our pursuit of our own self-interest. (Don’t go outside the lines, and you’ll be fine.) Pluralism invites us to imagine a universe in which strangers interact with one another and “get on nicely,” where acquaintances pass each other by but not without saying hello, and where we’re related to each other chiefly by loose connections.

To maintain a pluralistic society, it seems to follow that we should cultivate the virtue of being laid-back.

I have my doubts, however. We may be able to “make nice” with each other, doing our best as perennial subway riders (so to speak) not to get in each other’s way, but wouldn’t we prefer a “thicker social world” run not by strangers getting on with the least amount of friction but by friends and neighbors interested in the common good? It seems strange to me that the people we surround ourselves with–I mean, roommates and co-workers, partners and lovers–should also be the ones we’ve learned not to look out for, not to care overly much for, not to wish to make better or to be better in turn. We seem to care deeply about freedom and safety, yours and mine, but not all that much about the overall shape of each other’s lives. For that, it seems, we have therapists…

“Well, then, you’d prefer that we were all busybodies? Isn’t that what you’re after?” No, I would prefer that we learn how to care for each other and about how the world, local and global, yours and mine, turns out. And my hunch is that being laid-back can’t give us the selves we wholeheartedly want or the world we genuinely need.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Reflections on two months of blogging, on page clicks, referrers, searches, and, above all, anonymous readers”