A recent experience got me down and I thought maybe I’d write about it. I am not sure what to conclude, but sometimes it feels good to just write things out. A person who I considered somewhat of a friend or at least a good acquaintance from grad school reconnected with me at a conference last year. He was a Ph.D. student while I was doing my Masters and he was very friendly and seemed to me very smart. So when he friended me on Facebook I was a bit excited since he seemed like he would be a good person to get into discussions with and that he would post interesting things. But as I started to see him pop up on my news feed he would often post things that seemed to me that he already believed an answer, but claimed he wanted to know what other people thought, but if you didn’t think what he thought he would still think he was right even if he wouldn’t explicitly say it. He would comment on statuses that I posted if I criticized A then he would say, how can you criticize A when you don’t criticize B. The simple answer being that sometimes I did complain about B but he didn’t see it, or I would complain about B if I knew about it, but also that I have a limited amount of things that I have the passion for fighting against and this is simply what I’ve chosen. Over time I came to realize that he was pretty religious, was against gay marriage, and although more compassionate that perhaps some evangelicals, he certainly had no tolerance for a pro-choice point of view, though planned parenthood was evil, and that men are much more oppressed in our society than women. And while I agree that inequality towards men is often overlooked in favor to women’s issues, for him the balance seemed to swing the other way and that we lived in a society that favored women. We ended up arguing about most things and while he would complain about how everybody always argues using ad hominem attacks instead of discussing the issue he would frequently use language to me like “You really believe that?”, “Are you serious?” and other phrases that were clearly mocking what I felt to be true as so ridiculous that he couldn’t believe an educated person would think that way. And to be honest I felt the same way, but would never debate like that (although I did finally get a bit snippy in retort after enough of those kinds of statements). The final straw that led to me just unfriending him was over the Syria situation when I posted a status and talked about how we and the west have benefited so much from the cheap oil to run our economies from that region of the world and how, especially the UK and the US have actively tried to keep that area unstable to maintain control of the oil that to not help the refugees was hypocritical. He responded by saying we didn’t cause fundamentalism, we didn’t cause ISIS, and a bunch of other things. I thought about responding, because there is a lot of evidence that we did cause ISIS, and that by keeping the area impoverished and without a stable governments, without the ability to nationalize their own oil reserves we have kept those countries in a state of poverty and fundamentalism tends to flourish in such regions.
But what I really want to talk about is how such a person really made me doubt myself. I have experienced it before where someone whose intellect you admire (and maybe this guy simply changed over the years) and then all of a sudden starts making you feel like an idiot and you really believe them. It makes you doubt yourself down to the very core and its troubling, and it hurts when someone you respected as a person belittles you. But then I had to start questioning that feeling of doubt and hurt. Knowing that we rationalize our beliefs and that if someone tries to challenge them in a very serious way we can often react defensively to not have such beliefs destroyed. This person has, like me, a Ph.D. in meteorology and it’s applied math and physics and is no cake walk. Was he the objective scientist and I was biased and belief based? I don’t think that I am, but what if I simply believe that I am the type of person who is willing to change their mind about things given evidence, but really I’m not. Ultimately it seems that the type of person I see myself as, might also be a belief.
Then I started to worry more that I was insulating myself intellectually. Over the past 5 years I have had less tolerance to engage with people who didn’t to at least some degree share my worldview or who had a worldview that I respected even if it wasn’t my own. It seems to me that such engagements had little value but to drain my energy. Either the debate was one I have had many times before and was simply repetitive, or the possibility exists that I do not have the language skills to effectively get my points across because the exchange seems to go nowhere. My intellect however would recognize common logical fallacies that they would use and there was only so much I could take before I just decided that this person wasn’t someone I should continue engaging with. And I’ve started to feel as I age that life is too short now to surround myself with people who only anger and frustrate me and simply surround myself with those who give me positive energy. But as a person who wants to grow intellectually and not hide from perspectives different from my own, how do I do that and still maintain my sanity in a world that seems fraught with so many people who don’t seem to think critically? And is my desire to think critically fading as I age where my focus seems to be shifting to seek comfort and joy over the type of adversity that helps the intellect grow?
Had this former fellow student of mine been someone I did not know I probably would have shut them out awhile ago as I recognized their arguments were never steeped in evidence, but simply asserted with strong language. Followed by an expectation for you to give evidence if you disagreed even though none was offered to you in the first place. Such tactics are the hallmark of belief based thinking. When we have attachments to people and when we respect their intellect it’s hard not to take them seriously. The words sink deeper into you and shake you up regardless of their truth. And I do have friends that disagree with me on big issues, but when we discuss them the language feels much more like mutual respect for each other, and so maybe in the this guy was just a giant asshole, and only my admiration of him from the past blinded me from seeing it for too long. I’d like to believe that I stuck it out longer than I normally would have and gave him the benefit of the doubt. I guess though, part of me still stuck on the idea that perhaps I’m protecting my worldview because I don’t want to change it.
Of course when I analyze my worldview I don’t see it as a bad one. But I’m sure all people feel that way. I do continue to read and learn, even if it is something that I don’t agree with. In the end I guess I’ve decided that however I decide to keep my social circle, I am at the very least a person who looks to reduce the harm and suffering of my fellow humans in this world and I only hope that this drive continues to help me be the person I want to be. And maybe it’s most important to recognize that the intellect does not always dictate beliefs and that these come from more of an emotional place. And so maybe doing things that keep me emotionally healthy is just as important as that which keeps my intellect healthy.