We shouldn’t assume that we know other people’s motives and character based on limited data (and it’s almost always limited)

I have a long and very important letter to write today (I haven’t been this nervous about writing something since college), so I’m going to keep this relatively short, but I did want to write something, at least.  It’s on a subject that troubles me quite a bit, that apparent tendency—at least on social media—for people to act as if they were telepathic or clairvoyant regarding other people’s motives and thoughts.

It happens so easily, and probably without much thought (probably without much ill-intent).  We see a post or declaration, or a political or social statement, and we infer from it all sorts of things about the source’s character, intentions, and morality.  It’s remarkable that we imagine we’re so good at such interpretations, since most of us very rarely have any idea what our own motivations and deeper thoughts are.  It’s apparently true that often we can recognize by facial expression and body language how our friends and colleagues are feeling more clearly than they recognize it themselves, but this is broad and crude.  Recognizing that someone is sad or angry before they realize it themselves doesn’t give us any reason to think we know why someone is sad or angry.

Yet if a person posts a meme supportive of the Second Amendment—or conversely, one supportive of stricter gun control—those who see this meme often seem to draw far-reaching conclusions, straw-manning the person and their supposed motivations.  The sharer must be a right-wing, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-government bigot, say; or alternatively, they must be a “regressive leftist,” communist, SJW, crusading vegan, who wants to emasculate all men.

How many people in the world would meet those descriptions accurately?  There are probably a few—there are a lot of people in the world, after all, and the Gaussian is broad.  But surely, most people don’t honestly fit into any such broad stereotypes.

Of course, maybe I’m making my own error by guessing that people perform such acts of unwarranted attribution based on limited statements and data.  Maybe I’m straw-manning the people online.  Certainly, there are many to whom I’m being unjust—or would be if I were thinking of them.  But mostly, I’m thinking of the people who respond to trolling and counter-trolling, and the ones who take part in internet-based debates that rapidly, or immediately, degenerate into name-calling matches of which most six-year-olds would be ashamed.

I wonder how people can feel comfortable engaging in such interactions on a regular basis.  Perhaps the anonymity, or pseudo-anonymity, of the online world helps people let slip their baser natures more easily.  We are free from the subtle cues of body language and expression that, as I stated above, give us a sense of how our interlocutor feels.  Also, the nearly-automatic echo-chamber effect of social media tends to reinforce our sense of identity as a member of a particular group, and that leads us to be more inclined to react to perceived outsiders as enemies—this is probably both defensive and a matter of “virtue-signaling,” or what would probably be better understood as tribe-signaling.  We are declaring to those in our tribe that we are members in good standing, and thus should remain welcome.

A similar phenomenon might be behind why a lot of people, many of whom don’t honestly subscribe to the tenets of their stated religion, continue to go church (or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever) on a regular basis.  They demonstrate not their actual beliefs, but that they are committed members of the tribe.

This is, I suppose, often relatively harmless.  But it is anathema to honest discourse.  And it’s only through honest discourse (as far as I can see) that we can come to an ever-improving model of the world, to come nearer to truth and understanding.  We can see how tribalism and partisanship, a reflexive judgmentalism and name-calling, has poisoned much of our political system, creating deadlocks even in a government currently dominated by a single political party.  Nothing gets done—or at least very little does—when those involved are just trying to demonstrate their “virtue” by assailing those on the other side.  At least, it seems like that’s what they’re doing.  Maybe I’m misjudging.

I don’t know what the fix for this tribalism is; it seems to be something innate in the human character.  But it’s surely not the only thing, or we would never have created modern civilization.  Perhaps a place to start, a small step, would be for us to try to curtail our instinct to lead or to respond with accusation and insult.  If we think we know someone else’s motives, we should stop and think again before believing ourselves.  If we want to bring a point of criticism to their attention, instead of reflexively spewing, “It’s gross!  It’s racist!” we might start by saying, “I don’t know what your intentions are here, but when you say something like that, it comes across—to me at least—as racist.  Is that what you wanted?”

I don’t know if that will work better or not, but I’d love to see the experiment tried on a large scale.  In the meantime, remember, just because you infer something doesn’t mean that it was actually implied.

Stop respecting emotions so much

I’ve said it before in other venues, but it bears repeating:  as a society, we need to stop giving so much respect and deference to emotions.  I’ve gotten push-back on this idea before, but it’s really not that radical, nor that negative, a proposal.

I’m not recommending that we abandon emotions altogether (if that were even possible), or try to suppress them, a la the Vulcans in Star Trek.  Emotions are a real, and significant, part of the experience of life.  Everyone has them, and they are interesting and important.  I don’t want to deny the validity and reality of any person’s emotional experiences, nor to dismiss the real pain and joy that emotional reactions can entail.  The human experience is an emotional one, and emotional states can be useful in many ways.  Joy over a success can lead one to try to repeat it in the future.  Outrage over injustice can drive a person to act against it.  Fear, as Gavin deBecker has eloquently pointed out, can protect us from real danger, which still exists in the world despite all our advances. Continue reading “Stop respecting emotions so much”

Phone calls aren’t old-fashioned, and a call from me isn’t worth the effort, anyway.

There’s a Facebook meme that I sometimes see, and it goes something like this: “Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a phone call to a text message.  I want to hear your voice, to have a personal connection, not just read what you have to say.”

I don’t think I have the words exactly right, but the gist of the thing is there, and it’s the general message and attitude of it that I want to address to begin with.  The attitude conveyed by the meme seems to be one of self-righteousness and self-congratulation—though probably most of the people who share it don’t feel that way.  To many of us that’s the way it comes across, though, and I have little doubt that the originator of the meme felt smug and snooty as he or she created it.

It’s to that person that I’m really addressing the first part of this post, but I also want to speak to those who thoughtlessly share the meme, causing real pain for some people, one of whom is me.

First, and perhaps foremost, I want to address the absurd notion that a phone call could ever be “old-fashioned.”  Humans have had telephones—in any form—for barely over a century, and for the first half of that time, the phone was a rarely used, and a rarely owned, item.  Phones as a ubiquitous means of communication only came into common existence in the latter half of the twentieth century, and became something each person carried on their person only within the last decade or so.  Writing, on the other hand—text messages, if you will—has existed in one form or another for millennia. Continue reading “Phone calls aren’t old-fashioned, and a call from me isn’t worth the effort, anyway.”

Courage and Liberty

I must admit that I was a troubled upon reading that residents of several states will soon need to bring their passports in addition to their driver’s licenses with them to board domestic flights, starting in 2018.  I was troubled, but I was not surprised.

There was simply no reason to be surprised.  The Real ID act was signed into law more than a decade ago.  It was, apparently, passed in response to the fact that many of the 9/11 hijackers boarded their planes using fake ID’s.  That terrorist event was also the trigger for the creation of our very own KGB…which is more or less the same acronym as the DHS.  (KGB translates roughly as Committee of State Security, in case you didn’t know…a pretty close equivalence to the Department of Homeland Security).  Of course, we’d already long had the NSA, which acronym has a similar meaning, but its efforts and activities have typically been far more clandestine and less overtly intrusive than those of the DHS (though troubling, nonetheless). Continue reading “Courage and Liberty”

Depression Can Be Powerful

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

-Kris Kristofferson

 

There’s a curious phenomenon I’ve sometimes noticed, wherein I find myself not exactly welcoming bouts of depression, but feeling as if they are normal for me—more truly me than other states of being.  There’s a dark familiarity that’s difficult to explain, along with a sense that my mind is in some ways clearer, saner, when depressed than it is at other times.  Certainly, my concentration often improves when I’m depressed.  I’m less easily distracted, whether by good things or bad things; it’s a curious phenomenon.

It’s vastly preferable to anxiety, but I’ve mostly gotten past that over time—having lost one’s career, one’s health, and one’s family, and having spent a few years in Florida State Prison, will tend to make other social concerns seem petty and trivial by comparison.  Similarly, fear of pain, and even of death, can be significantly blunted after having gone through enough grief—when one has felt physical and emotional agony that has led one not merely to lose one’s fear of death, but to wish for it, many things lose their ability to intimidate.  The greatest fear can then be simply that the pain will continue, that this life will not end.  But even that loses its urgency over time, and the pain becomes familiar.

This doesn’t seem to be a universal occurrence, as the many heartbreaking cases of PTSD make clear, but it’s also surely not unique to me.  There’s no doubt an accumulation of various life events, interacting with the baseline neurology and physiology of the individual, that leads to some people being hardened by circumstance, and others being eroded or destroyed by it.  Which one of these is so in one’s own case can, of course, be difficult to tell, even from within.  Even if we accept as a truism Nietzsche’s claim that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” it is no doubt a fact that some things simply kill us slowly.

Anyway, it’s just an interesting fact that often when I’m depressed, I feel sharper, more clear-headed.  There’s some data indicating that those with a history of depression are more realistic in their assessment of their own abilities, and of reality in general, than people not prone to depression.  I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating.  It’s not that depressed people are more pessimistic in general—though when in the grip of a full-fledged episode, many undoubtedly are—but that they simply evaluate reality more objectively, more accurately, more scientifically.

It may be that taking the blinders of comforting illusion away leads to a truer and more potent understanding of reality, even if it can sometimes nudge one towards despair.  Darwin’s “Devil’s Chaplain” has a sometimes-horrifying sermon to deliver on the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” but even such a nature has grandeur and beauty.  Its beauty may be all the greater because it does not exist in reference to mere human concerns; rather, our concerns are subordinate to and contingent upon it, and are altogether trivial.

It’s not that the universe wants to destroy us, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has been heard to say in a playful tone (for if the universe really wished to destroy us, we would be destroyed); rather, it’s that the universe does not care about us one way or the other.

There is freedom in this, but as with all freedom, there is responsibility, and the recognition that one’s fate is in one’s own hands, to save or damn oneself and, possibly, the Earth.

Another benefit of the feeling of depression—no doubt part and parcel of the force that eliminates some forms of fear—is the urgency it takes away from mere happenstance.

The Tao Te Ching says that, if you accept death with your whole heart, you will hold nothing back from life (or words to that effect).  I’m not sure that’s always true; sometimes accepting death can simply lead to apathy.  But apathy can be a form of freedom, too.  As long as it’s a position not born of denial, but rather of acceptance, it seems a morally defensible stance, if not one that I want to embrace.

Having accepted that one will inevitably lose everything can be freeing.  This is especially so if one has already lost nearly everything that one ever placed real value upon, and come out the other side and realized that one has lived through it—and that one could do so again.  One comes to the realization that one is not deeply or profoundly afraid of losing anything, nor even of losing everything.  “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.”

I would take this one step farther.  Not only do damaged people know they can survive; they know that ultimately they will not survive, nor will anyone else.  Far from being crippling, this knowledge can be the removal of an onerous burden.  Knowledge that we are ephemeral makes life more precious than if it were eternal, but it also takes a lot of the pressure off.  The circumstances of one day, or even one life, are just not all that crucial in the scheme of things.  It’s okay if you fuck up from time to time.  Indeed, it’s okay if you’ve fucked up your entire life.  It’s not a permanent mistake.

That’s some of the freedom, the familiarity, and the perverse comfort that depression sometimes brings me.  It has its costs and its miseries—more or less by definition—but it has power, too.