Greed Pt 2: Systems, Cheaters, and Dehumanizing the Poor

I’ve had numerous conversations on the issue of greed and income inequality with libertarians and conservatives about how great rich people are and they shouldn’t be punished by having money by having it redistributed.  They create jobs and they allow for people to have livelihood.  This is certainly one narrative, and having a society in which hard work is punished is not a good thing, but if we look at the narrative from the side of the person who isn’t making the big salary, but is working hard at a job with no chance for advancement and is barely making ends meet, the narrative looks different.  In this post I want to investigate the narrative that is used by those with money in order to dehumanize poor people, and make it seem as if poor people are the only ones with moral and ethical failings.

Largely I want to keep this discussion away from specific economic systems, but I think it’s important to discuss systems in general and how systems can be cheated.  As an example let’s look at lying.  When is lying effective?  Lying is most effective when most people are telling the truth.  Imagine a society where everybody lied 70-80% of the time when they spoke.  Would you trust anything anybody ever said even if it was the rare occasion that they were telling the truth?  The reason why people can get us to believe a lie is because most people are being honest, or at least believe they are being sincere in what they are telling us. (See the movie The Invention of Lying for a good laugh and a demonstration of this). Similarly one of the reasons why manipulative people can successfully do so is because they are good at reading the honest expression of emotions from other people and use that against you. In society we live with a variety of systems.  Capitalism is a system, welfare is a system, democracy is a system.   Within any system are cheaters.  Cheaters are successful in systems because most people aren’t cheaters.  That’s not to say there aren’t systems that don’t have a lot of cheaters, but those systems are tend to not be successful.

Image result for war on poorSo with this idea of systems and how cheaters cheat successfully let’s move forward to talk about the rich and the poor.  Both operate within different systems, although the groups are connected insofar as one group accumulates wealth at the expense of the other.  There is no question that there are poor people who work the system to get free money.  But we also know that to be successful the percentage of such people can’t be very high. How do we know this?  Well I think one good indicator would be how horribly drug testing welfare recipients has gone in terms catching all these supposed people using their welfare money for drugs.  Percentages are extremely low there.  Finally we have to remember some of our cognitive biases when looking at this problem.  There are many people who are working at part time or full time while on welfare.  Such people don’t catch our eyes, because they are indistinguishable from anybody else who is working and trying to get by.  Cheaters on the other hand are highly visible.  Media outlets like Fox News likes to report on those cheaters and I’m quite certain, given the number of poor people in the U.S., that they can have a new story every day of the year, each year, for the foreseeable future.  There are currently 52.2 million people using government assistance programs.  Even if the number of cheaters were 1% of that number, this is plenty of fuel for media outlets who want to demonize the poor.

Meanwhile what about cheaters at the top?  Do we not believe that those with vast sums of wealth aren’t cheating?  What’s interesting is the way such cheating is justified.   If a rich person is taking advantage of a loophole it’s okay…he or she is just doing what is humanly normal to do in an imperfect system.  We can’t blame rich people for taking advantage, but poor people apparently are the scum of the Earth for doing the same thing.  And of course the truth is that the rich don’t have to cheat the system, with their wealth they can game the system so it doesn’t look like they are cheating at all.  And if they do get caught they have the best lawyers to get them out.

Image result for bacon's rebellion
                                                   An artist depiction of Bacon’s Rebellion

The way poor people are portrayed today is a very real problem that has been going on for long time.  Consider Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia.  Poor blacks and whites united together against the rich landowners.  Although the rebellion was eventually quelled the rich became worried about races uniting against the rich and instead promoted the poor whites giving them selected benefits and privileges, and some were even given status to police black slaves.  This event in American history has been cited as one that hardened racial lines in U.S., but it’s also a good example how the rich are more concerned about keeping their wealth than even matters of race.  Using race was simply a convenient tool to make sure that their riches were protected.  This tactic of division continues today.  Virtue is so strongly tied to wealth that so many of the poorest of Americans put a billionaire in power, believing that this person’s talent for acquiring wealth would somehow spill over to them.  People have gotten wealthier under Trump but this is largely been the people who had wealth to begin with.

Image result for war on poorAs a current example of how the discussion always turns towards poor people being the problem, read this analysis of why so many people voted for Trump.  It argues that those who work hard for little money are unhappy with those who work less and make about as much due to welfare.  The analysis is done by a former U.S. Congressmen and now banker, and an Auburn university professor who is a policy advisor for the Heartland institute.  Two wealthy white older males.  Now even if their analysis is correct, which it very well could be, it represents a big problem.  Wealthy people are always pitting poor people against each other.  And poor people buy into it.  “The other poor person isn’t working as hard as me, and so they are the problem”.  But why can’t the problem be the rich person who is making people work for so little pay?  Why should I begrudge someone else is barely scraping by even if they live entirely off welfare? Not to mention that I am in no position to judge any person’s particular situation. The fact that so many poor people point across the aisle, while a handful of people continue to accumulate more wealth than they can possibly use is the real travesty here.  And this isn’t only a tactic of conservatives.  Many on the left happily treated poor people like a monolith and faulting them for the election of Trump based on solely on their racist, xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes.  And while there is no question this describes some voters (and not just poor ones) making an enemy of the poor shouldn’t be what a liberal party that claims progressive and humanist values is about.  Sometimes I feel like the attitude on the left is similar to the right “We could really make some progress in this country if it wasn’t for all those poor people”.  Was Mitt Romney’s comment about poor people voting democratic for free handouts any more offensive?  As David Brooks recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, rich and white lead both ends of the political spectrum.

The evidence is all around us about how the poor are regarded compared to the rich.  I mean we still have homelessness in this country.  And while oft used as a favorite excuse for not helping other people in need (we can’t help Syrian refugees because of all the homeless people…who we are incidentally not helping also), how many of us, on both sides of the political spectrum are simply numb to this reality.  I’ve had people tell me that homeless people are just faking it and trying to scam money.  This of course patently untrue, but again the only reason why some people might be successful faking homelessness is because there are so many to begin with.  Think how successful the campaign of the very wealthy must be in order to convince people to not only erode sympathy for homeless people but to actually think that it’s not even a real problem?  What about the differences in the way rich people and poor people are sentenced?  Not to mention the difference in legal advice such people can afford.  The famous example is “affluenza” teen Ethan Couch would easily end up in jail for life if he was in a lower tax bracket.  The thing is I am willing to accept the psychological impacts of growing up very rich and having your brain develop in a home in which there are literally no consequences for your actions.  When there are no mistakes that can be made which would impact Image result for psychology povertyyour standard of living in any noticeable way.  So I do think there is something real about affluenza.  What I strongly object to is that there is never the same consideration in sentencing when it comes to the real and also well documented evidence to the psychological impacts of poverty.  Growing up impoverished with little social mobility, lower quality schools, lower nutrition, your ability to plan long term, your likelihood of addiction, your reduced exposure to affluent people who can inspire you to more in your future.  It many places in the world the philosophy is “rich people are worthy of restorative justice, poor people are only worthy of punitive justice.”

Where do such ideas come from?  How do such divides enter into society?  How has the common person been baked into believing that wealth is what matters most to the point that we become willing participants in a game tilted against all but the most fortunate of people?  As I go back to think about the hunter-gatherers we were for such a long time it’s hard to imagine such vicious divides in those societies.

Further Reading

I found this site interesting.  There is very little research on how many cheaters there are of welfare, but what federal agencies are able to determine is the amount of “Improper Payment”, which includes fraud, but is only due to fraud is at 10.6%.  We can assume that the number of cheaters in the system is somewhat less.  Note that the greatest losses are associated with medicaid and negative income tax.  Not the many programs that actually help people who need the money for things like food and housing.  This loss from improper payment in those programs is at $21.2 billion, which in a country with 100 million tax payers averages to $212 a year or just under $18 a month.  And keep in mind some of the money that is labeled improper could just be due to government error.  Furthermore an improper payment is also deemed such if proper documentation is not available to support the payment.  This doesn’t mean that the person didn’t have legitimate documentation but lost it, or just didn’t know what documentation they had to send in.  In my experience many people who are poor are either poorly educated, incredibly busy, or both and rules and paperwork are complex and laborious, and honest mistakes happen all the time.  If you’ve lost a document the time you might have to take off work to replace it, is something you just can’t afford.  In the legal definition this might be fraud, but is certainly not people trying to fraud the government.

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Progress and the Monsters that Hinder Us

There is an idea, or perhaps several that I’ve been struggling with for the past few years.  The election of Trump has certainly elevated my thoughts on this matter.  It started as the issue of political correctness became controversial.  There were starting to be more and more rumblings that things had gone too far.  Not just from conservative pundits who complain about every ounce of liberal criticism, but from liberals as well.  Often from satirists and comedians whose life’s work comes from criticizing conservatism and extreme right wing values.

It seems, in my own experience, I start to see more and more people on the left become abusive of the people on the right.  It doesn’t even seem like it’s because they’ve been offended first, but are being offended for other people, and thus feel justified in shaming others.  Now perhaps we have always had a group of people who have been quick to take offense, and that this age of social media has simply brought such people to the fore.  Just as social media has been quick to enhance a culture of shaming which probably already existed.  Perhaps the allure of being able to shame people anonymously and with greater volume is too great for many of us to resist.  Keep in mind,I am not just making a criticism of people on the left here. Because for all their talk about “liberal snowflakes”, if the right was just this “let it slide” group of people who just kept their nose to the grindstone, I think social media would look much different.

The idea that has been bouncing, increasingly more violently in my head, is to what degree we create the monsters we despise, and to what degree to we become them ourselves.  Many of us have listened to or read analyses by various pundits and scholars about how right wing movements are on the rise and there are some who would blame this on the left.  Part of this could be in support of neo-liberalism, but some have suggested that this is due to a more aggressive liberalism that is trying to force a certain viewpoint on others.  An example of that is written in a critique of a New York Magazine piece in Salon.   Look I don’t want to make this another self-examination piece where I am going to blame the left for the ills of today.  I am not going to let off the hook harmful ideologies on the right which have no place in civil societies either. It’s well documented that the right has used fear and misinformation to exploit people and for the most part I feel like the left is simply trying to react to increased levels of irrationality, but not necessarily in a rational way.  Politicians are of course not the only ones to use fear to persuade people.  Corporations and the media all do it as well, and so to a certain degree all of us live at a certain level of fear most who are my age or older didn’t grow up with.

I worry about universities becoming places that disinvite speakers due to social media pressure and protests from students.  Such things are certainly a function of the corporate model that universities are being run as also, but it is a concern that students would be so upset to hear what someone they disagree with has to say to actually prevent that person from speaking.  This article is from 2016 and only in the U.S. but it is happening in the UK as well.  This year we had protests turn violent at Berkeley because of professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and a twice this year a pro-police speaker, Heather MacDonald had talks canceled or dangerously disrupted and was unable to give her talk.  I believe bad ideas fester in the dark.  I would rather have bad ideas challenged in an open forum.  Allowing people to speak at universities doesn’t legitimize their claims, it tells young people that in the real world you are going to face a diversity of views and people that hold them and that you must be able to absorb them and answer them with rational and evidentiary arguments.  

Today, I listened to a podcast, and heard yet another critique of Merkel (from a liberal) for letting in so many refugees and that this is the fuel the right-wing parties need to take over many European nations and possibly lead to the collapse of the EU.  Even if Islamic terrorists acts are small in comparison to the amount of good that helps the refugees opening borders so freely is dangerous.  The overarching argument being that so much compassion leads to a blind spot, where political moderation would be more prudent for long term stability.  From a political standpoint, I find it hard to disagree perhaps, but as an individual who also recognizes the cost of not helping people who are suffering it leaves me feeling helpless.  If compassion leads to the rise of nationalism and racism, and I believe in the value of compassion as one of our most valuable human traits, then I must at least ask the question, “Is it enough if our heart is in the right place?”

Since I believe we can live in a more compassionate society, and that human society has trended towards greater compassion, I want to be able to see that movement continually.  Maybe in the long arch of history it is our fate to take two steps forward and one step back.  And these back steps may be half a human lifetime.  Furthermore, perhaps in some places things go back for longer, while other countries that were back start to move forward.  So globally we may still be moving forward, but all moving at different rates.  The fact remains, that as an individual, while I can be pleased that the average moves forward, I still am not content to let the society that I most directly live in fall back.  What can I do?  How must I behave?  And how can I promote positive behavior in others?

An important part of my journey in life was to understand the brain.  My inspiration for doing so occurred when I met with people who had diametrically different world views, and where no amount of evidence would sway them.  That journey was a great one and it gave me a greater understanding of how people come to believe the things they do.  But I still find that in the everyday things we generally want the same things, and that we are all quite similar, so I find myself wondering how common ground is to be found.  I guess, it is just who I am that I can’t give up on the idea that we are all human and that we have more reasons to work together than to work apart.  And so it is this lens that I find myself wondering, “Even if some minds can’t be changed, how do we make sure that the problem doesn’t get worse?”  It seems to me that 20 years ago, someone like Trump would have been laughed at to the point of just being a lopped off as to one of those crazy eccentrics who runs for president but nobody takes seriously.  Many of us were of that very mindset in the primaries, myself included.  But it also seems to me that the left has changed as well.  I don’t remember a group of people on the left that behaved the way we have seen either.  I don’t remember universities preventing speakers they disagreed with from speaking.  I certainly don’t remember riots over it.  I don’t remember the name calling and the shaming, and the dehumanization of people we disagree with.

It’s perhaps a chicken and the egg, but it seems like as the divide has grown such that the fringes grow too.  In my mind I see this being plausible as a normal statistical distribution morphs into a bimodal one.  Have the terrorists been winning?  Sending the west into a spiral of fear, where the existence of one extreme, requires that we oppose it with another?  Is the “alt-right” a response to an “alt-left”?  Or vice-versa? Are most of us just living in such a state of fear that we, on average, feel a greater need to be part of a certain camp, where it’s “us” against “them”?

There was an excellent little article by George Orwell I read a few months ago, that he wrote in a London newspaper on fascism.  A word we’ve seen a lot lately and reading this article made me realize how easily the word was thrown around then too.  In trying to define the word, the most common definition that he thinks people could agree with is bullying. I think if we’re honest with ourselves we can think people who fit the description of a bully, and they aren’t all on the right.  I’ve heard the political spectrum described as a horseshoe and that there is a place that the left and right meet, and that’s at fascism.  Communist Russia and Nazi Germany might have come from different political philosophies, but I think we can agree that the style of governance was very similar in its oppressiveness and cruelty.  The fact remains that no matter how right someone might be the way in which we deliver that truth matters.  If I say it is better for you to be kind.  That statement is true.  But if I, in convincing you, try to shame you, push you around, call you names, surround you with a bunch of my friends and make threats, I think the importance of kindness would be lost.  Yet this is the kind of behavior we see every day: people on both sides being jeered at and dehumanized for being wrong about something.  There are too few attempts to educated and reason.  Plenty of getting angry and ridiculing others.  I maintain the belief that rightness divorced from empathy is ultimately unhealthy, even poisonous at times.  We’ve all been wrong about things, and at times we’ve been ignorant or misinformed about some pretty basic information.  We’ve also been guilty of letting our emotion override our rationality.  This is part of being human.  So even when you believe that someone is wrong about something, even dangerously wrong, it doesn’t make them any less human.   We have easily duped and plastic brains that are subject to the influences in our lives.

As I quoted recently in a post about Sam Harris’ thoughts on Trump, we have two choices in influencing others: conversation or violence.   Is shaming and ridicule conversation?  Or is it more of a violence of the mind?  Even if we can say it is still not violence, it feels like unproductive discourse that will make violence more a necessity.  I am not a pacifists to the point of saying violence is never the answer, but I am constantly going to be looking at how we can avoid it.  Free speech, provided it is not inciting violence, is one of our most important values.  It is the one value that allows us to self-correct peacefully, and challenge ideas that cause harm.

I am not sure how this post will be perceived.  Whether it appears balanced in its criticism.  I guess, it seems to me, that fascism is growing in both political directions and that somehow they are a reaction to each other.   A reaction to fear perhaps, and as fascism grows the fear gets worse.  Can we find a way out of the positive feedback loop?  Maybe the other guy started it, but as the divide grows that origin seems to matter less than trying to figure out how to end it.  As a liberal rooted in all people enjoying basic human rights, I wonder how we defend those values while loving those who attack such values at the same time so that they know those values can improve the quality of life for all.  But one thing is sure to me, if we can’t live by the values we claim to embrace, then a progressive liberal society doesn’t seem achievable.

The Moral of the Story

I was ‘talking’ with a fellow blogger who is a nurse, and as I am a meteorologist we were trying to figure out who had it worse.  Was it more annoying to deal with the “climate change deniers” or the “anti-vaxxers”.   I agreed his was more annoying, because while human induced climate changed is well-evidenced it is always going to receive a lot of political blowback in a fossil fuel dependent world and it is both a complex and new problem facing us.  Vaccinations on the other hand have worked so well and have eradicated disease so completely that people don’t remember why they even get them and instead have invented dangers to receiving them because they can no longer see the purpose.    It’s as routine as opening your mouth and saying “Ahhh”.  People don’t really question that, but it doesn’t inject anything into you and is sort of hard to get upset about, but I think when some medical advancement has been around so long and so successful we forget the reason and just see it as possibly something that isn’t necessary.

This led me to wonder if the same thing wasn’t true for how we understand morals.  One of the common things you hear from atheists is that many theists are under the impression that we do not have a moral and ethical code.  That such thing is not possible if we don’t have God and some supernatural system of punishment and reward.  I remember my mom, who is Christian, telling me at some point that our sense of right and wrong must come from God or else where would we get it from?  The general answer is easy of course, we are taught them by our parents and others.  We have authority figures that tell us what is right and what is wrong (even though you can convince a child that things that are wrong are actually write, like prejudice and intolerance).  The point is if as children we seem to get our morality from the authority figures in our life, perhaps it’s not surprising that many people, especially those who have no qualms about relying on the “rightness” of authority, that morality comes from what many consider the ultimate authority, God.  But it seems obvious to me that morality can easily be derived through scientific investigation.  Morality though has been around well before the scientific method, but humans have been around for a long enough time that we’ve been living a social experiment of morality and have simply been learning.  At one time the things we take as obvious might not have been overtly obvious, even though I think some of the big ones we could figure out rather quickly as they would not be a beneficial for survival.  Just like we stopped questioning why vaccines are important, perhaps we stopped questioning why certain immoral acts are wrong, such that people assume that it all must have come from some other plane of existence.

Some morals are certainly cross-cultural, like physical and sexual harm to other people’s children.  This one would be a pretty obvious natural (perhaps genetic) trait because our survival does depend on the survival of the next generation.  Anything that threatens that would be considered immoral.  Unfortunately in many places physically or psychologically hurting your own child is not seen as wrong.  It wasn’t so long ago here that, unless something got really severe, you were hardly considered in the wrong for disciplining your child with a belt or the back of your hand.  Some people still adopt that attitude unfortunately in North America, and it can be worse in other countries.  Regardless though we generally do go to ridiculous (and perhaps psychologically detrimental) lengths to protect children.  In general though killing is not quite viewed the same way.  Many think it’s okay to kill criminals (apparently it sometimes doesn’t even matter the crime…resisting arrest is enough), and killing in war is not only tolerated, but often cheered about.   For some time killing your wife in a crime of passion was often considered justifiable.  And many civilizations have committed genocide in our past and that has gone unpunished.   So even of the most basic commandments “thou shall not kill” isn’t clear cut, so this obvious sense of right and wrong we are supposed to get from God looks pretty muddy.  And if we are worried about some sort of eternal punishment system it’s amazing the ways we can justify killing when we need to dodge that one.

But let’s look at it from the perspective of “unlawful killing” which is why modern translations say “murder” instead of kill in the 10 commandments.  Thus we already have human law deciding what killing is lawful and unlawful.  This is not an overly divine commandment already.  We know that before civilization we roamed in smallish hunter gatherer bands.  Maybe a few hundred people at most.  This was a time before Christianity, before the 10 commandments, so let’s assume this group doesn’t know right from wrong.  Like a small town, in these small groups, you knew everyone.  Surviving in the wild is not easy and everybody had a role to play, and everybody shared and worked together.  Studies of hunter-gatherer tribes today show them to be rather egalitarian in compared with much of civilized society so let’s look at this as a group that gets along.  So we have a group of a few 100 people, and because they have no God to tell them between right and wrong they think murder might be just something that’s okay to do.  What would be the results of a few people that decided to commit a murder every once in awhile:

  1. Population decline and lack of genetic diversity – We could at the very least learn that there is a murder rate that is not healthy for the survival of the group. Through cooperation, life was made easier, but the group gets smaller, things get harder. Population can only increase so fast. So at the very least, if murder is okay, we can’t do it too often.
  2. Loss of those with specialized or exceptional skill. While daily tasks required teamwork there would have been certain people with more extraordinary skill. A tribe may also only have one person who does a particular job. Murder could reduce the chance for survival if such people are killed.
  3. Growing fear and distrust. If people are being murdered, people are less likely to cooperative. Some people will simply be scared they will be next and be more cautious and protective. Some people will be angry at the loss of their child, brother, sister, etc. This will cause others to fight back. There may be false accusations, which builds more anger and distrust.
  4. They are diminishing their own chance for survival. Once a murderer is discovered, those that committed the murders may find themselves a victim.

Now there are probably even more things that could be listed as to why murdering would not be a good idea, the least of which that we are by definition a social species for whom survival depends on our being in a group, and being able to work well in that group.  It simply isn’t in our nature to murder our own, and there is a lot of good reasons why murder would not be a good idea.  However when it comes to other groups, all bets are off.  We may be xenophobic due to bad experiences with other groups before, or simply be xenophobic because someone who we don’t know simply isn’t somebody we can implicitly trust, and thus we can justify killing others that are not part of our society.  This is why war is not against the law, but murder is.  We can do similar thought experiments with many other basic things that cause harm, like stealing, or any action that causes harm both physically and emotionally.   But even if it was not in our nature, this social experiment has been going on for some time and it seems quite reasonable to assume that even if there was not a morality inherent in us through birth, if at the very least we have a driving force to survive then many of the morals we have today would result through experience and observation and concluding how to survive better.

As a population we continue to adjust.  Different groups share moral truths just as they would share any other type of knowledge.  And so perhaps much of what we consider right and wrong is handed to us without that rediscovering process, but you can still see the impact of people doing the right thing and wrong thing today.  Because even though I think that on average humans are more moral in civilized society today than in the earlier days of civilization, we still have a ways to go.  People who are doing good and bad things are not of one particular faith or philosophy.  If you have compassion and care about how you make others feel, you will discover yourself how to behave in a way that’s more positive everyday as you grow and learn also.  It is the scientist in us that helps us become more moral.  If anything, the Bible demonstrates this more completely as the old testament has very much an eye-for-an-eye mentality, but the new testament is very much about forgiveness, redemption, and compassion.  Even God seemed to find a more moral way of dealing with enemies. Thus I don’t think it’s surprising that morality should progress in the same way that science does.

 

Game, Set, and Match

“Nothing in the world is harder than convincing someone of an unfamiliar truth”  – said by Kvothe in A Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Every person on the planet can agree on one thing.  The world could be a better place.  For those of us who strive towards equality, wish to reduce human suffering, and care about the planet as a whole the world looks fairly messed up.  Some people  ignore the problems.  That’s a bit selfish perhaps, but the weight can be a lot to bear and we all have our limits, so who am I to judge?  Some people are definitely selfish because instead of trying to fight it they simply become part of the problem.  Trying to get a share of what they think is theirs.  If the world is going to be unfair then why not do whatever it takes to be a winner and not a loser?  In recognizing that we are a cooperative species, to me the fight to making the world more fair is always worth it even if the goal is never achieved and feels like a continual uphill battle that sometimes gets steeper and not gentler.  As a whole, we are simply better when we are working together to solve problems.  Problems do arise, even ones not of our own making.  Even ones that do arise because of our own making we can’t always blame ourselves, because hey nobody’s perfect and hindsight is 20/20 (at least we hope).

In this age of information and social media the amount of people that can be in contact with each other has expanded exponentially.  As a result we see the vast array of opinions out there.  Some people are clearly uneducated about the subject but seem very excited that they can say something and somebody will see it.  Some people make comments simply to anger people and cause an outrage or what is known as being a troll and this has been a topic of much discussion lately.  How we deal with people who make inflammatory comments or are very hostile towards the author of an article or another person commenting on a thread.  Interestingly inflammatory comments that support the view of a particular piece is not seen as negative, only the person who disagrees.  I would argue that if you read an article that say expresses a Democratic point of view and in the comments you say something like “Just another example that Republicans are pieces of shit” then you are just as bad as anybody you consider a troll in the ensuing comments.

Spurned by a few incidents in the recent past and also by this excellently written article about making better arguments in politics I wanted to express my thoughts about how we might be able to engage people we disagree with in a more meaningful way.  The quote that starts this article is something that just struck me as the wisest words ever written when I read them and speaks to why if you like to debate and engage people with different points of view, why you are rarely successful.

Picture from Amazon.com

The article that I linked in the previous paragraph talks about biases we have.  For a very comprehensive look at our biases and beliefs I also strongly recommend reading the The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer.  It’s a brilliantly constructed book and very educational.  His argument is that we believe first and rationalize later.  I think your immediate intuition sees the truth in that.  Right now you might think well that’s what the other guy does, but if you are really honest with yourself you’d realize you do it too.  It takes a lot of discipline to let your reasoning side take over, and suppress that “gut feeling” to believe what you think is right.  As a result of this tendency to believe first and then rationalize those beliefs, when absorbing a new piece of information we tend to see it in a light that supports our beliefs rather than negate them.

Another bias we have that is the main part of the article is the self-serving bias.  The idea that in order to protect our self-esteem or sense of self-worth we must reject ideas that make us feel like we are wrong about something.  As the article says is we are wrong about one thing, then what else might we be wrong about, and then how do we deal with the idea of not being as smart as we think we are?  This is why I think one of the most important human virtues we can have is humility as I wrote about in a previous blog post.  Being wrong about something is a tough thing to deal with.  What is strange to me is that I think we can all agree that we’ve experienced being wrong before.  If you reflect on your life you’ll realize you actually got through it and you are actually okay.  Nevertheless we still tend to not deal to well with it in the moment.  Just like dealing with addiction, admitting you have a problem is the first step. 🙂  In this case, don’t worry because everybody has these biases and so everybody has this problem.  So I would like to provide what I think is a helpful guide to getting people to see things from your point of view.  And if right now you are asking, “Why should I listen to this guy?”  Well because quit frankly I’m right dammit! 😉

Be the person you would like others to be

Painting by Miles Halpern

Don’t you hate it when someone is not sympathetic to you and the oppression or struggles you face?  It makes you angry, it makes you not really like that person, and it makes you frustrated.  So what should your response be?  Most people seem to respond by being equally dismissive to others and their problems.  What if, however, you tried to remain that sympathetic and compassionate person you hoped the other person would be?  What if you said “I’m sorry you can’t understand how the incident made me feel, and even though I don’t know why you can’t be sympathetic to my struggles I sincerely hope that you never have to feel the way that I do right now.”  If someone cannot demonstrate compassion for your genuine reason for being angry about something or being hurt about something, being afraid of something, or whatever is causing a negative emotion that is all the more reason to give sympathy towards them in return.  Give them an example of what sympathy and empathy is all about.  Maybe nobody has ever showed them any and so they literally don’t know it’s value or what it’s about.  Maybe they had an ultra-chauvinistic father who never allowed them to show their feelings and were always told “Buck up and be a man you pussy!”  Imagine growing up with that all your life.  How much compassion would you have as an adult?  Gandhi said “Be the change you’d like to see in the world” and so if you feel your worldview is superior in making this world a better place, make sure that you are genuinely being the type of person you would like to see in others.

Also haven’t you ever had someone in your life who you really respected because they seemed like a good person.  You admired them.  You wanted to be like them.  You are more likely to cause a change in someone’s behavior by being a positive role model rather than someone who berates them for their ideas.  Why would anyone want to be like someone who just belittles people for their beliefs even when those beliefs are misguided.  Because to the person with those beliefs…well they believe it and thus think they are not misguided.

Make sure you have a good sense of self-worth

What’s this you say?  I thought this was the problem.  The article I linked actually talks about using daily affirmations to enhance your self-worth as being important in being able to face things that you might be wrong about so that there is no net loss in self-worth.  I think the author glosses over this to almost make it seem like a trick you are using rather than genuinely building your self-worth.  If you have low self-esteem it can be hard to debate or argue with someone in a constructive manner.  Obviously if you barely value yourself, the few things that you do value about yourself, you will be even more afraid of losing.  Building a true sense of self-worth takes time and experience.  It takes an admission of your faults and the continual persistence to improve.  It takes trying not make the same mistake twice, even if it sometimes happen.  Practice humility, forgiveness, and spend time just observing and reflecting on those experiences before forming an opinion.  Then learn about how other people experience the world and try to pick out the commonalities in your experience rather than focusing on the differences.  Your self-worth will grow actually when you recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around you.  Self-worth and self-centered are completely different but often get tangled.

Make sure you respect the self-worth of others

From hellobeautiful.com

I’m not asking you to admit you’re wrong or say somebody else is right, but when you are humble and are willing to at least to consider the possibility that you might be at least partially wrong about your point of view, you will find that you move to a place of being inquisitive about where someone else’s point of view comes from.  This will lead you to ask more questions to see where that person is coming from.  It will help you get to know the person and that person now knows that you are interested in who they are, and are simply not just interested in making them feel like they are wrong.  After all who wants to listen and take seriously someone who is only interested in pointing out how right they are, and how wrong you are?  It doesn’t matter if you are actually right and that the other person is actually wrong.  People have a lot of wrong ideas not because they choose to be wrong but because they have been conditioned in their environment to see the world differently.

Recently there has been a lot of arguments in social media about racism and reverse racism.  What if someone is trying to advance the position that reverse-racism of blacks against whites is just as big of a problem as racism against black people?  You can respond angrily, dismissively, you can throw out all sorts of data and you’ll probably notice this makes no difference whatsoever.  What if instead you said “Hmmm…you know that hasn’t been my experience.  Can you tell me what makes you think that way?  Have you experienced racism as a white person?  If you have I am really sorry about that because I have personally experienced racism as well.  Maybe we could share our experiences.  Because I know how much it hurts when someone assumes something about you based on the color of your skin.”  In reality of that interaction with someone it doesn’t matter that as a whole blacks are not treated as equals and that white people do enjoy a position of privilege in society, because that person has simply been shaped by their experiences and their interpretation of those experience.  Sometimes being able to see the big picture is also a position of privilege.  It probably means you have had greater opportunities for education and slightly better income so that you have leisure time to explore a topic in more detail.  Perhaps parents who were interested in different points of view, valued diversity, etc.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have that.  Showing respect for a person and their experiences that led them to what they think is true today, is a better way to be heard by that person.  You might just tear down a few walls and find that you might not be that different at all.

Be willing to walk away

This seems pretty obvious.  A common piece of advice told by parents who want their child to not get into a physical fight.  It is true for fighting with words as well.  If you are hitting a wall with someone and trying harder each time, you will probably find that the wall is only getting thicker and harder.  You probably don’t even notice the tone of your dialogue change, but in my observation not just in other arguments I have watched, but when I’ve had a chance to look back at my own words I realized that the angrier I get, my logic gets worse and my tone becomes more inflammatory.  Being a more experienced teacher I now have more experience in just watching people who have trouble learning.  Being a good teacher is to find alternative ways in which someone can learn what you are saying and all those ways require patience and understanding.  So I think I am better at it that I was, but one can always improve.

More importantly of course getting angry, frustrated, and stressed because someone simply doesn’t “get it” is no way to live life.  It could be your inability to argue effectively, it could be your tone, and of course it could be completely and absolutely all their fault.  So what?  Maybe it is possible that they will simply never, ever agree with you so why waste your time and energy?  If you really feel convinced that you could make your argument better, then don’t keep arguing maniacally, but step away and reflect.  Pay less attention to the content of what you have said, but how you have said it.  Look less at the content of what they have said but try to pay attention to the experiences that may have led them to that line of thinking and try starting again.  The point is, if you feel yourself starting to get angry or frustrated, you should probably just stop.  Because I guarantee that you will not only not win, but you will have to deal with an emotion that can quite honestly ruin your day.

True change takes time

Photo by Alan Cleaver via flickr

Plenty of times in my life I have thought I have made no impact and sometimes weeks, months, or years later I see someone who has changed their position on something that they seemed so sure of in the past.  Most teachers will have stories of students who they couldn’t  motivate, were often at odds with, and felt sadness that they weren’t able to “reach” that student.  Only to get an e-mail a year later with an apology, or a revelation from that student, saying that they realize now how their behavior was wrong and that they appreciate you for trying to motivate them and believing in them.  Many times in the moment I have felt frustrated at being told I’m wrong about something.  I might even argue my case further even if I am out of additional legs to stand on.  Then I sit and think.  I read some more.  Realize that maybe something I read, or something somebody told me was wrong.  Or perhaps I realized that I hadn’t looked at a previous experience in the right way, and that I hadn’t perhaps learned all the lessons from it I should have.  Nowadays I try to let that person know that they were right about something and I was wrong.  In the past when my own self-esteem wasn’t strong I was often too embarrassed to admit it to that person.  That doesn’t mean that person didn’t have an effect on me.  So it may seem like wishful thinking, but don’t ever think your exchange didn’t have any value at all.  Because you never know.  It may happen years down the road, or the change may be ever so slight but because it caused someone to look in a different direction, it sets them down a path of learning they never would have gone down before without you.

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As a final thought I want to make it clear that I don’t pretend any of this is easy, or that I am the awesome person that I describe here.  I HATE being wrong and in my experience most other people do too.   Perhaps its because I have gotten older that the accumulation of things I have been wrong about has added up to such a proportion that it has humbled me.  I don’t know.  What we consider right and wrong however is a product of many things.  A function of space and time. Perhaps instead of thinking of yourself as being wrong about something, think of it as “Maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about something.  So maybe I’m not wrong, just not as right as I could be.” 🙂  Play nice and remember it’s a big sandbox.  There is room for a lot more people in it than you think. 🙂