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.

Tweets and memes on complex themes

Okay, well, I’m feeling under-the-weather today, so I’m not sure how good this post will be, but I wanted to maintain my recently-instituted policy of writing at least one post per week, on Sundays, so I’m going to charge forward.

I had a hard time deciding what to write about today, given the above problem; I have a list of many one-to-two-line ideas for blog posts in my cell phone (I jot the ideas down there when they occur to me, and come back to them later when deciding what to write), and I chose to stick with something simple, but which I consider important.

The topic is a pet peeve of mine about Facebook-style memes relating to political and social issues, and it involves the poor quality of reasoning one often sees in such posts.  Obviously, a meme—or a tweet—is not going to be the ideal medium through which to convey detailed and careful reasoning on any deep subject, which is why I write blogs, relying on language rather than eye-catching pictures designed to trigger an emotional response (see last week’s post to read what I think of relying on emotions to decide important matters).  But memes are often disappointingly lacking even for what they are.

The meme that caught my attention today consists entirely of words, with no underlying picture, but still demonstrates the problem I see in so much of modern discourse.  It’s a meme I’ve seen before; it starts by detailing the consequences that might be met by a person illegally entering North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iran.  Then it introduces a strawman-style, exaggerated statement about the many benefits available to illegal immigrants in the U.S., and concludes with something along the lines of, “No wonder we’re a country in so much debt,” which is almost—though not quite—a complete non-sequitur.

This meme blatantly shoots itself in the foot by comparing the United States’ immigration policy—in clearly intended unfavorable light—with that of three of the most benighted and oppressive regimes in the world today.  Is this really expected to convince anyone, or to sway a reader’s thinking?  I suspect that even most conservatives, toward whom this meme is likely directed, wouldn’t consider North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iran to be role models on the national or international stage.  Why on Earth would anyone bring them up for such a comparison?  I almost suspect that this meme was made by a troll from the Left, intended as a caricature of Right-wing arguments, but it was shared, with all apparent earnestness, by someone who is clearly conservative.

It would have been much better—more effective in getting an argument across, and possibly even thought-provoking—if the poster had compared our immigration policy to that of, say, Canada or Japan.  These nations are modern and high-functioning and enact at least some policies which we might consider better solutions to specific problems than those we apply in the U.S.  I’m not making the argument that their situations are the same as ours, nor do I mean to start a discussion about the benefits and detriments of their policies relative to those of the United States.  I’m just saying that citing those examples would probably have been a more effective means of eliciting actual thought on the matter, even from those who might lean to the Left.

I’ve quoted a conservative post above because it’s the one I last encountered, but I find similar dubious posts—often even more egregious in their seeming manipulativeness and illogic—shared from Left-leaning sites such as “Occupy Democrats” and “The Other 98%”.

Memes—and tweets, even with their now-doubled character-length—seem to be the ultimate distillation of the lamentable phenomenon of “sound-bite as news”.  I’m not broadly against Facebook, Twitter, et al.  I use both social media platforms.  But they are rarely venues in which to gain or to share deep arguments about complicated problems (at least, they’re rarely used that way, though they do occasionally produce high quality discussion).  They could, however, easily be venues in which honest thought is at least provoked in someone who reads a tweet, or a meme, perhaps leading such a person to investigate some matter more thoroughly than they had in the past.  They can also link to articles and other sources that further explore interesting issues.  Unfortunately, as far as I can see, they are usually used for coarse, ham-handed virtue signaling and name-calling.  I’m not sure how often a given person changes his or her mind in response to being insulted; in my experience, it almost never happens in real time, at the very least.  This is likely especially true when the quality of the call-out is so logically faulty and ill-conceived as memes like the one I reference above.

Reality is messy.  Most issues are complex.  That’s the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves.  This shouldn’t surprise us; we ourselves are ridiculously complicated Rube Goldberg machines cobbled together over the course of eons from the spare parts left lying around by prior biology.  That anything works at all is probably more a testament to the brutally sharp and ruthless character of natural selection (at all levels) than it is to any clever or efficient design of the systems we have put in place.  Given this, it’s going to be a rare case indeed in which a single picture with overlying words (and not very many of these) is going to capture, or meaningfully contribute to, any debate about substantive issues.  Any such simple solution or argument is a low-hanging fruit that likely would have been plucked long ago, if it were available.

Such tweets and memes, in many cases, seem simply to serve as virtue signals, calling out to others of like mind with the sharer.  If that’s all you want to do—to display your tattoos on the prison rec-yard so you can be welcomed into the gang most likely to protect you—then I suppose that’s fine.  But if you want to try to understand, and to spread understanding of, complex scientific, social, or political issues, with an eye toward fostering improvement in society and civilization, then you’re going to have to do more work.  At bare minimum, you should try to make your memes as honest and as rational as you can and to maintain that policy in choosing the memes you share.

Otherwise, you might as well just stick to sharing jokes and picture of kittens.  The latter, at least, usually tend to improve the moods of those who see them…and that may just make them ever-so-slightly more considerate and less reactionary in their own posting.

It’s a place to start.