Thursday, September 4, 2014

What if someone thinks you're stupid?

       Some time ago I was in a discussion and my conversation partner vigorously objected to a line of argumentation I was pursuing. Part of the objection was to the obstreperous style I was employing. But what has stuck in my mind was the complaint about the substance of the argument: “It feels like you think I’m stupid.”
          I didn’t precisely feel that she was stupid in any global sense. But I did feel that the argument she was using, (the idea that you can take an anti-judgmental stance and then judge someone else for being judgemental,) was stupid. Not only is it a tell that you’ve realized you are not going to win the argument on the facts, it’s self contradictory and so self-evidently wrong. Useing it is the logical equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. It’s evidence of at least having been dumb in this particular instance.
       But my conversation partner felt that someone knowing that they were perceived as dumb was beyond the bounds of civil discussion. That’ been percolating in the back of my mind. How could any sort of politics or any sort of civilization carry on if no one could be allowed to find out that sometimes other people thought her ideas were dumb.  Without open and honest admission of when you think someone else is being dumb, there is no discussion, just empty flattery.
       Then I read Dave Pascoe’s post about the prevalence of hate in our public discourse, and I connected up this rejection of honesty with the human tendency to generalize from the evaluation of a specific believe or act to a global evaluation of the person. The tenancy is rooted in practical reality. If I meet an anonymous stranger and observe them using a bad argument , all that I’ve learned about them is the in a small isolated instance that did something dumb. But on the other hand that’s ALL I know about him; it can’t help but influence my global evaluation of him.
       Our tolerant society has made this problem worse. In our effort to combat bias we are taught not to have expectations based what people wear, their social standing, their profession, or any other category they are apart of. So instead of having a template based on the influences that might have shaped them, a template that could be quite nuanced, each new person is practically a blank slate. Any evaluation of their behaviors during an encounter will be the only legitimately considered data in the global evaluation of a person.
        Now my conversation partner, from the top of this post, and I have known each other for a great many years and I’ve observed her being smart in many circumstances. There is a certain carry over from the more general situation based on habit. But I think there is something deeper there: a significant connection to our societies developing a tendency towards hating.
       In our eagerness to be nice and not hurt anyone, broad sections of our society have made it a social crime to express disapproval of any fundamental character trait, deeply held belief, or sincerely felt emotion. The only way it’s acceptable to experse a truly negative opinion is when it’s about those classed as outside the bounds of acceptable society. You have to excoriate a person as so lost to reason and good feeling that no right thinking person could have a friendly fellowship with them, before it feels right to disparage an opinion they are championing. I’ve sometimes gotten the impression that I’ve expected to be openly affirming of everything about a person or I’m seen as not really recognizing their humanity, much less being friendly.

        Of course this is a self reinforcing loop the more disapproval is expressed only of those beyond the pail, the more it’s a dehumanizing insult to let slip disapproval of anyone who hasn’t already been cast out. And when any negative evaluation can’t be brought out into the light and put into a rational and just perspective the more it will fester and turn into irrational hate.  I think this is already bringing a lot of fracturing between different groups and is going to bring more in the coming years.

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