The last few weeks on Twitter have been intense. Many people I know have been involved in some pretty intense disagreements. I've been pondering this very much. And I keep coming back to something I heard about how to break people into groups. You know, "There are 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary, and those who don't", or, "There are 3 types of people in the world, those who can count, and those who can't". Well, there's another stratification that really is important to understand in cases like this:
The world is divided into people who think they are right. That's it. When we consider what that actually means, it can help us navigate the difficult environments that we find ourselves in from day-to-day.
No matter who you are, no matter your background, race, your age, your socioeconomic status, your religion, sexual or gender identity, one thing is true. When it comes to moral issues, you are convinced that you are right. For a deep scientific treatment of this topic, check out the book The Righteous Mind.
Once you internalize this reality, then you can apply that to a disagreement with someone. How can you win an argument? You can't. You can say something clever. You can make them look foolish (although you're more likely to do that to yourself than other people) but what you can't do is assault their beliefs and have them change as a result.
There is one thing you can do, one mind you can change….your own. And No, I don't mean abandon your beliefs. But you can empathize with them. You can do the work (and sometimes it's hard work) to understand why they believe what they do, and what got them to that belief. The path their life has taken, the experiences they've had which led them to believe the way they do.
But why? Why bother? If the other person is wrong/stupid/lazy/selfish/uneducated/ignorant/chews-with-their-mouth-open why bother trying to empathize with them. That takes effort. It's easier to just write them off as not being worth your time.
But stop for a moment and consider all the benefits of understanding them.
- You can be friends even with diametrically opposing beliefs. I personally believe strongly in God. One of my best friends does not. Empathy lets us be as close as we are with such divergent beliefs.
- Different beliefs do not always mean mutually exclusive goals. Once you understand their goals, you may find that you can both achieve what you want if you don't just mindlessly pursue what it is that you want, regardless of others. Unless it's tabs vs spaces….
- If you can empathize with an unknown stranger, you will have an easier time empathizing with an intractable coworker, a stubborn child, or a hurt spouse/partner.
- Empathy brings peace. It's harder to be angry at someone when you understand their motives and feelings.
Now let's look at the effects of willfully not empathizing.
- We get angry. We stew. We steam. We plot. This anger robs us of the joy in the rest of our lives as we get consumed with the ugliness in which we have immersed ourselves. Is your life better when you're angry?
- You are dehumanizing the person by denying the truth that they live in. You are saying to yourself that your truth matters more than theirs, or that it's the only one that matters. This self-aggrandizing outlook is harmful to us. It breeds selfishness.
- We get practiced at dehumanizing others. This dehumanization is also known as objectification. As we do this with anonymous people on the internet, we get better at doing it with people we actually know, such as coworkers, and then we can more easily do it with family and friends. This cuts us off from the connection we can have with all these people in our lives.
- We increase our capacity to be judgmental. On the internet, we label others who don't agree with us about climate change as idiots. At work, we judge our moronic coworkers who don't want to move to a monorepo (or want to). As we walk down the street we reflexively begin to see homeless people as a waste of space and resources, and it would be better if they all…..
But what if we saw differently…
Who are you not empathizing with? A coworker? A boss? Random people on the internet? What's in your way?
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