It's not their fault they think that way, right..?
February 8, 2013 2:48 PM   Subscribe

What is the most moral way for me to treat or respond to someone who acts in a way informed by less progressive values, given that they may not have had the opportunity, resources or upbringing to learn how to question their own thinking and biases?

This is going to be a lengthy question with many considerations.

To give you some background: lately at my university, I've gotten involved in a social group that espouses and discusses more 'liberal' values (I swear it's not negative in Canada.) While I've been extremely pleased at how well their thinking aligns with mine's, and have been enjoying our discussions on feminism, gay rights, disability rights and so forth, I have been somewhat bothered by their treatment towards those who may not hold the same set of values where they often label those who act in a way that they perceive as discriminatory as "bad people". While the obvious examples of Westboro Church are thrown around, I feel that they have been bringing up more morally ambiguous examples as well - for instance, I found myself raising an eyebrow at the idea that student politicians at my school were "bad people" because they didn't go out of their way to learn about marginalized groups but largely represented the majority. To me, this felt somewhat privileged - just because we had the fortune to grow up in and be in an environment that fostered free thinking and demanded that we question our viewpoints critically, doesn't mean that everyone else would have. My thinking was also reinforced by the testimony from a Metafilter post lately on an ex-member of the Westboro Church - I found myself being really touched by the extent that the woman had to struggle to break out of her culturally and socially imposed thinking patterns.

But at the same time, I can see the counter-point. Just because someone has an excuse doesn't mean that they are any more entitled to act in a way that may potentially harm the freedom or rights as others.

To aid in my thinking, I would like to hear answers or look at resources providing answers on the following questions:

- Ethically, what is the best way to treat someone who acts in a less inclusive and open-minded fashion as a result of their way of thinking?
- Does the answer to this question change if their behavior informed by their way of thinking is harmful to others, and if so, if they are aware that they may potentially be hurting others or not?
- Similarly, does the answer to the question change if you are judging them on a stance that may not have a single "right" answer, e.g. political viewpoints?
- Should their background circumstances factor into this? For instance, if I know that someone comes from an extremely conservative town, should I be modifying my expectations and reaction based on that, or is that a double-standard?
- To what extent does human psychology play a role in the expectations that we may have of others? E.g. The development of in-group seems to be well documented in this field - does this provide an argument for xenophobia, racism, homophobia, etc. being the default mode of human thinking?
- I understand that grouping and stereotyping is an extremely useful tool given the limited cognitive energy that we can devote to assessing others - for instance, if someone tells you that they're a member of Westboro, you may be justified in assuming that they are closed-minded. Yet, I also see that these categories can be harmful to those we categorize. Is stereotyping to derive assumptions necessarily a bad thing? Where is the fine line?
- Is there a baseline in regards to how far we should expect someone should go in informing themselves on an issue? What about interest - how much should we expect someone to be interested in an issue? How do the two considerations intersect?
- How can I identify when I am being unfair to someone under the above constraints I have given? How do I react when I see someone else being unfair to another person for their way of thinking under the above constraints?
- How can we recognize when we're imposing our own ways of thinking upon another person's actions? For instance, in the Metafilter post I linked, the article quotes the girls as saying "“I definitely regret hurting people. That was never our intention." Should I be taking this statement in good faith given her background, or am I justified in expressing disbelief given my own background? If I am imposing my thought patterns on another person's behavior, to what extent is that fair?
- What are other constraints and considerations that I may have missed here that should factor into a final critical assessment of how we should be reacting?

Ultimately, my goal is to give the diverse range of people I'm bound to meet in life as fair as a treatment and assessment as possible. Please help me figure out how I can make this happen!
posted by Conspire to Human Relations (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The obvious starting place here is to abandon the extremely patronizing and usually unsupported idea that people that disagree with an idea that one holds dear are uninformed rather than just disinclined to agree with that idea.

There's a certain oft-expressed trait among big-mouthed types to believe that they are simply better informed, whether that's on the basis of being "more progressive" or some other axis. Treating those with differing views as children to be handled with kid gloves is not much of an improvement over believing that they are immoral for holding differing views on issues which usually contain a lot of moral and technical/legal/etc. nuance.

TL;DR: This is college. There are goofy, self-important people of every political stripe who are going to look back on their values and behavior in 5 years and cringe.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:55 PM on February 8, 2013 [14 favorites]

Here's an excerpt from a speech given by the popular economics writer Thomas Sowell, which you might find interesting to think about in the context of some of the difficult issues you've raised (even though the speech isn't explicitly about those issues):
How do you tell morality from sanctimoniousness? For one thing, morality is hard and sanctimoniousness is easy. ... Morality means being hard on yourself. Sanctimoniousness means being easy on yourself-- and hard on others. ...

Sometimes we can make a moral judgement about behavior, without being able to make a moral judgement about individual merit. I can say that drinking yourself into the gutter is not moral behavior. But it so happens that my body has a low tolerance for alcohol. It takes less alcohol to make me sick than it would take to make me drunk. Nature has made it almost impossible for me to become an alcoholic, without any moral virtue on my part. So, when I walk past a drunk lying in the gutter, I have no basis for being sanctimonious. How do I know that, if my body's tolerance for alcohol were greater, I might be lying there in the gutter and he might be walking past me under his own power?

Morally, it is still wrong to drink yourself into the gutter, no matter who does it. But this is one of many areas in which those who behave better may do so because of fortunate circumstances, which they did not create. They may be justified in saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." What they are not justified in doing is bending the rules to favor those whose behavior is a threat to themselves and society. It is right to try to help others raise themselves to a higher standard, but wrong to bring the standard down to where they are.

Morality has to recognize its own limitations in many ways, while sanctimoniousness does not.
posted by John Cohen at 2:59 PM on February 8, 2013 [27 favorites]

You might be interested in You're Not as Crazy as I thought, But You're Still Wrong, a book by a conservative and a liberal who are both committed to having thoughtful political dialogue.

You might also be interested in the This American Life episode on the book (linked on the site above).

Without picking apart all of your questions, I think it's good to start from assuming that most people have reasons for their beliefs that are as compelling to them as your beliefs are to you. I think if you start engaging with people on the reasons for their beliefs, in a thoughtful and respectful way, you'll have some *fascinating* conversations.
posted by bunderful at 3:01 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I want to clarify that when I say "uninformed", I'm not trying to imply a connotation of superiority, but rather, make the distinction between someone who operates under a different basal set of assumptions versus someone who has not gained exposure to the credence of alternative viewpoints. Which is to say, I'm not interested in judging whether a view is right or wrong, but rather, I want to look at the process in which a conclusion was made. It would be helpful if the answers from here could distinguish between the two.
posted by Conspire at 3:13 PM on February 8, 2013

I recommend that you start by questioning all baseline assumptions - both your own and others. For example, I have observed that a lot of people in society try to live by the maxim "Hurting people is wrong" without ever questioning that philosophy or wondering why. (Whereas I believe hurting people can be bad or good and the morality of such an action depends entirely on context.) Consequently it becomes really difficult for me to argue politics or ethics with others because they start off automatically assuming that it is a given that hurting people is morally wrong - and thus that all they have to do is mathematically prove that fewer people get hurt/oppressed according to their own view. In order to actually have a decent dialogue with them, I usually have to rewind the conversation back a few notches by asking questions like "Would it be a good thing if somebody had shot Hitler before he started World War 2? What about Saddam Hussein, before he took power? I mean, technically you'd be hurting people, but doesn't it result in a greater good?" Once we start down this line of inquiry, they usually realize that they are implicitly treating some unfounded baseline assumptions as proven, and the conversation generally becomes more productive once we have identified those key differences in our thinking. So my advice to you to try to break everybody's patterns of thinking down to the most basic level until you can identify the differences in your underlying assumptions.

(On preview, seeing your most recent comment, it sounds like this may be something you're trying to do already.)
posted by wolfdreams01 at 3:26 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

just keep asking them questions. you'll either get to a logic error, a fact that's just plain wrong, or you'll agree.
posted by cupcake1337 at 3:39 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi there. I was a college activist, on the Left.

One thing I really remember about those times was that a lot of people aren't super great at expressing themselves. I remember a lot of folks resorting to expressions like "bad people", or not being able to really get across why they disagreed with someone, just that their ideas were "obviously wrong" or "reactionary" or "bad". I also saw people make a lot of logical leaps and fall for common fallacies.

I found this to be sort of annoying, but also harmless. Some people just aren't great at expressing themselves. There's really nothing you can do. It's sort of similar to the correct answer to "Someone Is Wrong On The Internet". You just have to let them be.

To answer your question more directly, I think it's equally false to take pity on people by assuming that they must hold their views because they are ignorant, or because they "didn't get the chance" to examine them thoroughly.

I'd almost rather believe that they're Bad People, even though both ideas are equally simplistic. I mean, you're all in a university. You've all most likely had plenty of opportunity to examine your beliefs. You're not talking about students at a heavily cloistered and cult-like bible college, or people who just immigrated to Canada from Iran or North Korea.

In addition to forgiving the inexpressive folks on your side who reduce them to "bad guys", you also have to forgive the "bad guys" by assuming that they arrived at their beliefs through thought and consideration. Maybe you disagree with that thought, but it's simply not true that there's one correct answer, and people who got a different answer are either ignorant or malicious.

Some more specific thoughts:

Is there a baseline in regards to how far we should expect someone should go in informing themselves on an issue? What about interest - how much should we expect someone to be interested in an issue?

I think this is really a dangerous line of thought. In my own life, I've gone from pretty much apolitical but basically liberal/left to Hard Core Activist Organizer to totally burnt out to committed voter and donor and news-watcher back around to being somewhat apolitical. And I'm sure that will change again as my life changes, and as the political situation I live in changes.

My interests have also changed a lot over the years, and I've directed my energies in different ways. We have to do this if we are to stay sane and avoid getting completely burnt out. We also need people working on different issues and tackling political concerns in different ways. If everyone had to Join All The Working Groups, nothing would ever get accomplished.

Should I be taking this statement in good faith...?

I think this phrase is ultimately the key to your whole question.

The best way to get past your concerns is to always at least start by assuming that people are acting in good faith.

Some people act in bad faith, sure. But if you start from the idea that this Westboro Baptist woman is lying about her intentions to hurt people, or if you start from the idea that your school's Young Conservatives group are either ignorant or deliberately being "Bad Guys" who act in bad faith and want to sabotage the world, you will never get very far. This might be the wisdom to impart to your fellow liberals, if you decide wisdom needs imparting. Start from the assumption that people are acting in good faith. Go from there.

Another somewhat unrelated word of wisdom: avoid getting in fights with people you nominally agree with, but who are working on different issues or don't exactly hew to your specific party line or aren't doing it the same way you're doing it. That way lies not only madness, but never fucking accomplishing anything.
posted by Sara C. at 4:19 PM on February 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

I agree with most everyone before me, but I judge people on how they act, not by what they say they think or feel, esp in bull sessions, classroom discussions, and so on. The loudest frat boy in the bar can surprise the hell out of you. Actions not words, not feelings, not intentions.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:51 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's really all right to believe that some ideas and actions are bad (racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other bigotries are on my list, too). You can't have a moral compass without some orientation. But people are not the sum of their ideas, or even of their words. As Ideefixe says, actions are key.

When Meghan Phelps-Roper was picketing funerals with WBC, what she was doing was cruel, abusive, and bigoted. She came into contact with people who believed she could do better, and she chose to do so. Modeling respect and generosity toward individuals, even when you execrate their actions and the ideas they express, is one way of keeping a door open.

But, you know, people have a tendency to be jerks, so we all screw that up sometimes. "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better," to quote Samuel Beckett.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:47 PM on February 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

This is a really interesting topic - one I've often pondered myself - and it has gotten some equally interesting responses. So kudos to you for that. That said, the second half of the post seems kind of off to me. Most of the questions are framed in a manner that suggests there is a 'best' answer:

- Ethically, what is the best way to treat someone who acts in a less inclusive and open-minded fashion as a result of their way of thinking?

or at least an 'either-or' one:

- Should their background circumstances factor into this? For instance, if I know that someone comes from an extremely conservative town, should I be modifying my expectations and reaction based on that, or is that a double-standard?

and yet most of the questions asked are too broad and context-dependent to answer with anything other than "it depends". Please don't take this as a rip on you, because I think that this could make a genuinely fascinating discussion. In fact, as I read it, I kept thinking that exact thing, as in: "Gee, this would make a great discussion between a roomful of people - I wonder if the TS has tried to have a talk like this with that social group he's in, he might come away with some really interesting points."

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that when you get to the second half of the OP, the rather broad and open-ended nature of the questions might work better as a discussion topic, where people can kick stuff back and forth, rather than an AskMefi post - seeing as AskMefi is not really a discussion thread per se. (Seriously, asking as someone who's still new and a bit fuzzy on the guidelines - would this post be too heavy for MetaTalk? Would starting a spinoff thread on Metatalk, where the idea could get kicked around in a more free flowing way, be a bad thing?)
posted by Broseph at 11:34 PM on February 8, 2013

(Oh, and so as to avoid completely fudging on answering your leadoff question, let me just say that I nth what John Cohen, Sarah C and Sidhedevil said.)
posted by Broseph at 11:35 PM on February 8, 2013

I'll try to hit most of your points here but let me disclose that I'm dealing with a really frustrating situation re: politics at my university right now and, thus, am a little bitter. I apologize if that comes through here.

I try to treat everyone with the belief that they have everyone's best interests at heart... initially, until they prove otherwise. If they realize that they are potentially hurting others and don't care then I'm perfectly OK with calling these people "bad people". I also find a lot of political viewpoints do have a right answer (usually that answer is in the vein of "don't hurt other people and don't fuck with other people's lives"), especially since political issues do have a tangible effect on a lot of people - especially minorities.

That said, I do try to give people some leniency... but I get tired of that fairly quickly. I know two people who grew up in the same culture, same area, same high school, same friends. One of them is a fantastic, open-minded, super decent person who I would call family. The other spearheads the most oppressive policy changes I have ever seen at my university and daily makes me feel unsafe. It's not all about environment, some people are just assholes.

Psychology is a field dominated by cis white straight men from affluent backgrounds. It's based in privileged thought and will quite often reinforce privileged modes of thought. I highly disagree that "asshole" is the default mode of human thinking - it's just something certain cultures encourage and excuse.

Stereotyping is a simplification and an assumption every single time. You're always going to be wrong in some way about that person because nobody ever fits the stereotype 100%. Is there anything wrong with it? No. But it's helpful to remind yourself of that inherent flaw.

I expect people to be decent people and to educate themselves as much as possible in an effort not to be assholes. This varies depending on the person's ability, resources, and exposure. I try to keep this in mind as much as possible. However, I don't really see interest as playing into this. Either you want to be a decent person or you don't. You don't have to be interested in anti-oppression in order to practice what it advises.

You develop either a community of accountability, or friendships where you will be called out, or you scrutinize your own actions. You take that person aside and discuss it privately when you have the chance in a non-accusatory fashion: why did you behave like that? why do you feel it was justified? etc. Don't aim to win them over to "your side", instead aim to understand their point of view.

We impose our own ways of thinking on others all the time. I'd say it's inevitable, especially if you're not used to operating in a completely different framework. It is entirely possible that she never thought they were hurting people, that she genuinely believed they were saving people. Just like you believe things you believe just as strongly.

I think it's important to consider politics in a way that includes both the context and the people that are involved. If someone says a certain group of people are "bad people" they might not mean "they have no redeemable qualities whatsoever" and instead mean "they are engaging in oppressive behaviour that is actively harmful to certain subgroups". When tensions run high, shorthand is helpful for venting and when clarity is less important. It's sometimes difficult to tease apart the words with the intended meaning but you get a feel for it eventually when you're part of a somewhat static group.
posted by buteo at 12:39 AM on February 9, 2013

I noticed you mentioned privilege in your initial post. I wanted to highlight that choosing to be forgiving or sympathetic to bigots is a kind of majority privilege minorities don't necessarily have access to. For example: if someone's bigotry can put me as woman of color in physical or emotional danger, I feel pretty all right with saying they're a bad person.
posted by spunweb at 8:06 AM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I started college, I was VERY conservative. As in I thought Limbaugh was cool and thought nearly everyone was going to hell.

It made a huge difference for me to meet kind and thoughtful people from a lot of different belief systems. If they had gotten in my face and told me I was a bad person, I would have shut down. But instead I was tolerated and people were nice to me, and over time I realized on my own that I didn't want to believe all the gay, non-church-going, democrats I knew were going to hell.

It's really hard to go anywhere productive from "you're bad," "you suck," or "you just haven't thought about this as much as I have."
posted by bunderful at 8:36 AM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It helps me a lot to try to understand the values of those I don't agree with, and the ways in which they feel like they're being a "good" person. So, take a stereotypical bigoted rancher. His life involves supervising or carrying out lots of physical labor. He feels like he works hard and has succeeded when he is self-reliant, able to keep his fences in good repair so the livestock doesn't bother his neighbors, and able to provide for his family well. Beyond that, maybe he stewards his land and is careful not to overgraze. Maybe he shows compassion for his animals and always promptly gets them any vet care they need. When he goes to town, he probably feels morally upstanding because he gets cleaned up, is respectful and friendly to others, minds his manners, and doesn't, say, have a trashy fight about somebody cheating on somebody else in public.

He and I probably have different values about the role of social net programs, but that political view is just the tip of an iceberg of life experience. In his life, his hard work made a huge difference, and he probably worked hard at times when yeah, he would've loved it if the government would've built the fence for him. (He probably never thought much about federal road funding or crop subsidies, so I'd have to bring that up very delicately.) And he and I probably differ when it comes to regulation because he has had to take responsibility for so much of what happens on his land and had to live with the impacts of his decisions, and he probably stewards that land carefully in so many ways, and he knows that his neighbors make these decisions consciously themselves, so he probably doesn't see the value in laws that could protect him from bad decisions by his neighbors or companies and instead believes that what makes the difference is personal responsibility.

So, in speaking to or about someone like that, I try very much to get in their head and see what's important to him and how he tries to be a good person. Even if I know nothing about someone, I picture them bringing a big dish to a family barbecue and asking about other family members' well-being. Then I try to speak from an attitude of respect and appreciation, knowing that they exist within an entire community that reinforces their views and by whose values they try to do what's right.
posted by salvia at 11:00 AM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When individuals band together for a common cause, two things happen:

1) They pool their resources to further their cause, and

2) They form a team.

Even though I've listen them separately, these activities are bound together in a complex relationship.

Teams -- otherwise know as cliques or tribes -- are basic, primitive arrangements that humans have formed as long as they've existed. And the waterhole scene in "2001" boils them down to their essence. Your side; my side.

It's easy to become cynical about this, and it causes some major social problems -- while, at the same time, making possible some major socially-valuable actions (see point #1, above) -- but like it or hate it, it's the Human Condition. If you fight it, you will generally cause unhappiness, probably more for yourself than for others, so I second Sara C's advice that "You just have to let them be."

Teams can't tolerate too much ambiguity. In order to say tight, teams must rally around causes, and those causes must, to some extent, be simplified. The real world is messy, which means that if you apply any stance to it, you're going to come up with all sorts of hedges and exceptions. Teams that continually think about that don't get work done and can't even survive as teams. Teams instinctually reject ambiguity.

Imagine going to war, thinking, "This is kind of a just cause, and the enemy is sort of wrong, but in some cases they are right, and I can understand, given their circumstances, why they feel the way they do." While your side is thinking this, the other side is thinking, "they're evil and we need to kill them." They will find it much easier to keep an eye on the prize than your team will, and as a result will probably win.

I am not saying people are incapable of understanding shades of grey. That's obviously untrue. But when they form into teams, the tend towards black-and-white thinking, or at least that's how they express their thoughts to their teammates, because black-and-white thinking fuels teamwork.

I say all this as someone who hates teams. I naturally think in terms of ambiguity and shades of grey. When people "on my side" push a certain view to extremes -- or denigrate an opposing view in a way devoid of subtlety -- my impulse is to play devil's advocate. This sounds very logical and fair-minded, but it has mostly been a disaster for me. I am excluded (or I have excluded myself) from most groups, and, often, the one thing opposing sides can agree on is that they hate my even-handedness.

I am a pro-religion atheist. I am fascinated by religion, often wish I was a believer, think religion does as much good as bad, but am, meanwhile, firm in my atheism. I am sickened when my atheist friends mock believers, and I hate it when my theist friends talk about how immoral and intolerant atheists are. When I've brought up my even-Stephen views, I've been called a closet theist by atheists and a liar by theists, who, because they've framed everyone as "if your'e not for me, you're against me," are deeply suspicious of my claims to "like religion."

I was recently talking to an atheist who told me what I was thinking. He said, "Okay, you're sympathetic to theists, but you must feel superior to them." I told him I didn't. He said, "I mean intellectually superior." Again, I said I didn't. He refused to believe me. And I've had the same experience with theists who have insisted I think they're stupid. Both sides need to think of me as being on a team.

If an anti-atheist theist has to really face the fact that some atheists don't hate believers, he's going to waver in his cause. If an anti-theist atheist has to argue "religion is bad" with another atheist, he's going to waste energy he'd rather direct agains theists. So I am a hindrance to both sides.

I have experienced the same thing as a non-team-player Liberal. I can't stand it when my friends smack-talk Conservatives. I can't stand the hypocrisy I hear when they berate a Conservative politician for doing something they'd justify if it was done by a Liberal. And when I bring that up, I'm ostracized. And, of course, I've experienced the same thing (in reverse) when I've talked to Conservatives.

And, when I was a kid, my parents had to tell me, "Don't meddle with mommy and daddy when they are fighting. Sometimes you have to just let people fight." This is a lesson I have never learned. Or, to the extent that I have learned it, I've learned it by opting out. I can't enjoy or participate in black-and-white team spirit exercises, so I need to just stay away from teams.

It's a lonely life, and I don't recommend it.

Don't be me.

If you want some more understanding of what drives teams, especially political ones, I recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haight, who has some interesting talks online.

But note that, in his book, Haight writes that he started as a die-hard liberal. While he's still left-leaning, his years of research have lead him away from being a team player. Knowledge, as it tends to do, has lead to greater ambiguity and less ability to feel at home with existing teams.
posted by grumblebee at 1:07 PM on February 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

I love grumblebee's advice, but I'd also add that, if you want to be active in campus politics, you sort of have to be a team player. I don't think you need to start referring to your opponents as Bad Guys or smearing anyone or restricting your views to black-and-white.

But you have to be somewhat willing to accept that others will do those things, and that they probably don't mean anything bad by it. And that, to an extent, it's a sort of shorthand that enables people to get things done.

If this sort of behavior really turns you off, you might want to find some less adversarial campus activities to participate in.
posted by Sara C. at 2:04 PM on February 9, 2013

Is stereotyping to derive assumptions necessarily a bad thing? Where is the fine line?

To me, these stereotypes become a problem when they are crystallized instead of fluid. If I have a beginning assumption about you because of a group or class of people you belong to (e.g. you are elderly, so you are likely in poorer health than someone younger), but then I am amenable to changing that belief after I get to know you (I see that you are running a marathon), it's ok. A real bigot decides who and what you are based on your group and is then not amenable to any input to the contrary.
posted by parrot_person at 1:57 AM on February 10, 2013

Response by poster: I just wanted to thank you all for your insightful answers so far. They have been extremely helpful, and I'm grateful that all of you chose to share your experiences instead of going in a more literal direction in answering my questions, because they've been really, really helpful in me thinking things through.

Grumblebee makes me feel kind of sad, because I see myself in that response a lot! I do play devil's advocate and encourage people to look at the implications of their arguments a lot. I'm wondering if I should head it off and take a policy of keeping mum more often.
posted by Conspire at 1:03 PM on February 10, 2013

One thing to keep in mind (and I mean this in a "note to self" way as much as to you) is that when you "play devil's advocate and encourage people to look at the implications of their arguments," it can easily come across as condescending, even if that's not your intent. It puts the people you're talking to in the role of surface-level thinkers and you in the role of the deep thinker. Again, I'm not implying you intend that, but it's hard to say "let's examine the foundations of your thinking" without implying the other party hasn't examined those foundations.

I may have gone overboard in portraying myself as a loner who, because he's so unwilling to say rah-rah team, is close to friendless. In fact, I have good friends, some of whom are partisan. The "me" I introduced you to was more the younger me than the current one.

As I and my friends matured, two things happened that made life easier. First, older people tend to be less radical than they were when they were younger. Even my most politicized friends aren't political all the time. Second. my social skills have improved. I have learned how to be friends with someone without it being all-or-nothing: when I was younger, I thought either we talk everything out, down to the most nitty-gritty level, or we can't be friends at all. That's a young person's stance that I held onto for too long.

So I can have close friendships in which I can speak my mind about most things, and I can even play devil's advocate at times. What I can't do is hang out with politicized people and constantly play devil's advocate. It's not that big a deal, because my need to do that has lessened and, as my friends have aged and gotten married, had kids, had careers, had mortgages ... there's a lot more going on in their lives than "having stances." Which gives us many varied topics of conversation.

When you're in college, there really isn't that much to talk about: there's boyfriend/girlfriend stuff, "My mom is driving me crazy," intellectual stuff based on whatever classes you're taking, pop culture, partying and clowning around, and politics. So those things tend to assume operatic proportions. That changes for most people when the move on from college.

You may have better luck if you temper your impulse to dig into every argument. Spend more time listening than talking. Listen and listen, and see if you can ferret out some common areas of confusion in your friends' arguments. Don't immediately start playing devil's advocate: just note the false assumptions you hear. Then, maybe once every couple of weeks, gently bring up a complex topic.

Don't tie it to something anyone particular has said. Don't say, "Last week, you claimed X, and what you may not have not have thought about, is..." Rather, say, "I was thinking about approaches to poverty, and it occurred to me that..."

When you tell someone he's wrong -- or that he hasn't fully thought through his ideas -- he's likely to miss the intellectual content of what you're saying and be caught up in defensiveness. We've all been through years of school, in which we were ranked (supposedly by our intelligence), and many people are touchy about anyone questioning their reasoning.

You may have better luck being the guy (or gal) who brings up food-for-thought every couple of weeks than being the critic who forces people to face the irrationalities in their thinking.
posted by grumblebee at 7:14 AM on February 11, 2013

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