Basic InstinctsThe importance of being obvious.

Basic InstinctsThe importance of being obvious.

  • Words Okechukwu Nzelu
  • Photograph Felicity Ingram

Sometimes we flag the obviousness of what we’re about to say to avoid seeming condescending or clueless. In January 2021, facing criticism over the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview on the Today show, “Obviously, we have to do better than that.” He stated that he was stating the obvious—because not doing so would make him appear out of touch with public opinion.

Sometimes, though, using the codicil “obvious” is meant to shame the listener: You haven’t read the memo, you are deficient in common sense. Indeed, the shame attached to missing the obvious—or to stating what is obvious while under the impression that it is not—runs deep. Nothing is worse than offering a brilliant suggestion, only to realize that many heads have already nodded it into action: The point has already been made, the proposal is in place. At such times, we might preemptively announce that we are “stating the obvious” not merely to indicate that we have been listening, but also to spare our blushes.

Stating the obvious is a rhetorical device, so it is unsurprising that what lies beneath is rather complicated. What is obvious, and to whom? On what commonalities do “shared understandings” depend? In Brit Bennett’s 2020 novel, The Vanishing Half, the severe social unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. alarms the white Los Angeles neighborhood of Palace Estates—less so for resident Stella Vignes, who has been passing for white, and whose Black father was lynched in front of her when she was a child: “The country was unrecognizable now, [her neighbor] Cath Johansen said, but it looked the same as it ever had to Stella.” Perhaps there is some shame attached to being one of many heads nodding in the same direction, never needing to look across at those who have long been clamoring for change. When our shared understandings evolve, this can only be a good thing—surely that’s obvious.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 45

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