Educated Minds, Unite!

I’ve been watching the increasing division in the United States, and working to identify solutions and constructive paths. The real trick is getting people on board, because although falsehoods, bias, skewed perspectives, and petty insults are flying Left and Right, the root issue actually has little to do with refutable facts. There isn’t a scientific paper that can demonstrate once and for all who is right and who is wrong.

Part of the issue is that the ethos simply isn’t there: people don’t trust each other. That isn’t a huge problem in and of itself. However, two destructive assumptions aggravate this mistrust: the assumption that a person who is wrong must be 100% wrong, and the assumption that you must not cooperate on anything with a person who is wrong. Hence, the real problem is that people think that they need to trust each other in order to have productive conversations and to do productive work.

Let’s examine these assumptions with the help of some historical figures.

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Follow me back in time! On our journey, you will find ideas which never stopped being helpful, but never started being popular.

Bad Idea 1 versus Aristotle

The first idea is that a person cannot entertain an idea without accepting it. If a person were able to do so, it would mark them as an educated mind (or so we think Aristotle said, which would have been one of his better ideas). Being able to entertain ideas without accepting them isn’t the only important skill by any means. However, as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have it then you’re not “educated”. The assumption that people are not and cannot be “educated” in this way lends urgency to the calls to silence people who have views that are factually incorrect or unethical, or that seem to be so, or that seem perilously close to being incorrect or unethical. From an “educated” perspective (using the definition above), this censorship can only be detrimental.

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Sculpture of Aristotle, who proved that being right about education doesn’t make you right about physics and biology.

An educated person actively seeks to be convinced of the truth and only the truth, which requires both open-mindedness and skepticism. There are countless contradictory concepts constantly competing for credence. Open-mindedness is required to let in possible truths, and skepticism is required to reject claims that are not favored by the preponderance of evidence (or which simply make no sense). Being educated also requires regular reevaluation of your beliefs, as new evidence is encountered. After all, there is no guarantee that you are correct right now.

Because an educated person is able to entertain ideas and think critically about them, even if they already believe these ideas, there is no benefit to silencing any ideas in an educated society. If they are false, then we will carefully consider them and dismiss them. If they have even the tiniest scrap of truth, that scrap is valuable for improving our picture of the truth. We just won’t use the idea farther than it is useful or ethical.

Granted, many people are not educated. They have trouble sifting truth from falsehood, and are inclined to accept or reject an entire package of ideas, even though it is neither completely true nor totally false. This inclination is a huge problem, since these uneducated people will end up believing and acting on falsities, or rejecting truths. However, the solution cannot be to limit the ideas that can be considered, in an attempt to shield people from being exposed to ideas that are false or unethical, or that seem to be so. Such limits would cripple our brains even further and reduce us from a (relatively) capable, mature society to a band of children following obsolete instructions that cannot possibly prepare us to deal with the challenges that life will throw at us, as individuals or as a species. That approach is far more likely to destroy society than it is to save it.

Instead, we must become educated, so that a person can consider any statement, including what they already believe, and compare it to their other experiences to evaluate the ways in which it may be true and false, helpful and destructive. Only then can we function as a healthy democracy.

Bad Idea 2 versus Frederick Douglass

The second destructive idea follows from the first: a person or group that stands for a harmful cause (or a cause that is similar enough to a harmful one that uneducated people get confused) must not be supported or associated with in any way. By doing so, people think it’s possible to protect society from “dangerous” ideas or values, and to punish those who support the harmful or harmful-looking cause.

The problem here is that without earnest communication between people of different beliefs, there is a near zero chance of either group learning anything valuable the other has to offer. Even if one group is one hundred percent wrong, they’re not going to learn anything from someone who doesn’t understand enough of their point of view to help them understand its flaws.

Furthermore, if we refuse to cooperate with people who believe wrong things even when they’re working on projects we ourselves would approve of, we would have to refuse to work with anybody. Most people believe things that I consider harmful, and yet I cooperate with them all the time. Furthermore, I even learn valuable insights and wisdom from them. In the much-ignored words of the late, great Frederick Douglass, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” Cooperation on the common ground we can find makes the world a better place.

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Photograph of Frederick Douglass, about whom I have nothing snarky to say. Just look him up.

I suspect that those who refuse to help people with antithetical beliefs think that helping them do good would also help them do harm. While I see the logic—the cost we save them through our help on good projects can be spent on harmful ones—this train of thought is essentially a declaration of total war, or at least total passive-aggression. I can only assume that because people have forgotten how peaceful discussion works, or never learned how to engage in it, their default option for preventing others from doing harmful things is to cut them off from the rest of society, starve them for resources, and torment them at every opportunity.

However, this war is a mistake. If anything, helping people to do good will afford us more power to prevent their harm. Though they may have harmful beliefs, they will listen to those who befriend them. Listening is their necessary first step towards updating their beliefs. People we help trust that we care about them and that we have at least some common ideals and values. They show us the courtesy of respect, because we show it to them. Inversely, it is very difficult to trust and respect a person who shuns you entirely because some of your beliefs are harmful.

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Artist’s rendition of a fractured world. It looks all pretty until your taxes are raised to pay for all the new bridges.

Of course, even this basic reciprocity of respect is being squelched in society. How many people do you know whom you’ve helped and with whom you’ve been friends, who proceeded to wall themselves off from you once you said something they didn’t like, even though you were sincere? Maybe you’ve walled off a few people yourself. If this trend continues, society is going to enter a large war between two fragments, and end up as a collection of tiny pieces fighting tiny wars until there is nothing left. And very little good is going to get done.

Solution

What can you do to stop this destruction, you ask?

First, educate yourself. Seek out the most ridiculous, offensive, wrong ideas that you can think of. Think about them, and do research on why people believe them in the first place. Those people do have their own reasons, after all. If there is any truth to their ideas, that can only help you. If there is anything wrong with what you believe, it helps you to know about it. On the other hand, if someone provides a justification for their “wrong” idea that you can’t refute, that doesn’t mean their idea is right. You can do research to see if someone else has come up with a rebuttal on your behalf. Ultimately, you will probably come to the conclusion that the ideas are still wrong, but more importantly, you will now know why you think that and why other people disagree. Moreover, no matter what facts are true, you can still behave ethically and respectfully towards other people, and you can still call on others to do the same.

The second thing you can do to avert total war is to work with people you disagree with. If you don’t have any common projects, at least don’t criticize them when they do something good. Don’t even accuse them of having bad motives. Just treat them as you would treat a friend or stranger who did the same thing they did. You can’t lose if you just thank them for their good deed, and refrain from cheap shots at their expense. Take a look at the below table to see expressing your gratitude is a good idea.

Other person has malevolent motives Other person has benevolent motives
You accuse them Either they don’t care, or they feel more justified in spiting you. You alienate them.
You thank them You were polite beyond reproach, and can still intervene if they try to do harm. They may also decide not to do harm because you were nice. You build mutual respect. They will be more inclined to listen to your concerns in the future.

Table 1: Results of thanking a person doing a good deed versus accusing them of malevolent motives, based on whether or not they actually have malevolent motives.

As you can see from Table 1, you can only benefit from treating a person respectfully. In particular, if they have benevolent motives, what you say makes a huge difference. You may think you’re certain of their malevolent motives, but why take the risk? I suspect that part of you simply finds it very difficult and unpleasant to thank someone you don’t like. However, that person can usually tell how difficult it is, too, and will be more inclined to trust you if they see you take the hard route and acknowledge their good actions. If you refuse to acknowledge them, though, they’re definitely not going to trust you. Showing respect to people is win-win.

You don’t have to trust that everything a person does is good. You don’t even have to take anything they do at face value—politicians in particular are likely to seem benevolent while reinforcing the two destructive assumptions described above. You can still oppose actions you think are harmful, and show respect at the same time. Literally the only downside to being respectful is that it requires humility. Are you going to let that stop you from changing the world?

In conclusion, there is no magic truth that will solve all our problems if we all believe it. There is, however, a magic code of behavior: walk with people as far as their path matches yours, and when your paths diverge, continue on your own. When your paths loop around and oppose each other, stop walking and start talking. More importantly, start listening. If you don’t know why you’re right, educate yourself, because for all you know you may be part of the problem. Give people the opportunity to change their ways, and treat them with respect at all times, even if they are trying to do harm to you. It may be difficult, but showing respect enhances your ability to defend yourself, rather than diminishing it.

You will find walking this path moves society forward much faster than banding together and yelling at people does.

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No, these people aren’t all on the same side. That’s why it’s productive.

How Not to Be a Bigot

Or…

Species-Agnostic Ethics

 

On some imaginary distant planet called Izzot, you can judge people by appearances. The green people are the strongest and fastest, and can fly. The blue people are best at math, and are prone to emotional outbursts. The males of the purple people are actually not much smarter than young human children, but the females are of adult-human-level intelligence, while the neuters have even more powerful brains. This means that if you know a few demographic details about a person from Izzot, you can make some assumptions about their physical or mental characteristics, personalities, and skills, and you will most likely be correct. In other words, technically, on Izzot, race-based and sex-based stereotypes are supported by hard science. Does that sound like a horrible place to live?

Why?

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Actually, Izzot society is a lot nicer than most societies on Earth. This may come as a surprise, because of Earth’s longstanding problem wherein people try to use stereotypes to inform how they value and interact with other people, which hurts their feelings and makes effective communication difficult. The problem continues even though information about an individual Earthling’s race and sex has been scientifically debunked as a way of reliably predicting their aptitudes and personality traits. If stereotypes on Izzot are supported by science, more people would use them, which would surely mean more hurt feelings and more harm to society due to poor communication, right? What makes Izzot so pleasant?

It’s not because the people are predictable. Far from it, actually. Even though many of their abilities are easily predicted, people on Izzot don’t have any assigned stations in society. Just because a purple or green person may not be as good at math as a blue person doesn’t mean they can’t love math and want to get a job using it. Just because a purple or blue person isn’t as strong as a green person doesn’t mean they can’t want a job that involves manual labor. Everyone on Izzot is free to pursue whatever career they choose. If Izzot doesn’t enforce conformity and social stations in order to stifle conflict between different types of people, what’s preventing the conflict?

As it happens, society on Izzot flourishes because the people there follow these rules for treating everyone with respect:

Anti-Bigotry Instructions

  1. Always give people a chance to prove you wrong about them, except where you have good reason to believe doing so would pose a serious risk.
    • Even if you think you know someone, people change. If you don’t allow yourself to update your beliefs based on new information, your obsolete picture of the world will cause problems.
  2. Show everyone respect, especially when it’s difficult. To show respect to a person means going to reasonable lengths to demonstrate that you care about the person’s feelings and to interact with them in a way that they find comfortable.
    • Showing respect to a person does not mean you must agree with them or help them with their goals. Indeed, showing respect usually makes it easier to oppose a person’s efforts.
    • Situations in which showing respect will harm rather than help are extremely rare.
    • The best way to show respect varies between people, but the etiquette of a society supplies good general principles with which to start.
  3. If you have reasonable confidence that you can predict something about someone, even if it’s only based on their appearance, by all means use that to improve your ability to put them at ease, show them respect, and keep them safe. Don’t go overboard trying to anticipate them, though. That doesn’t put anyone at ease—it just makes them self-conscious. This rule does not supersede rule 1.
    • Example: If someone’s name or attire indicates they probably have religious dietary restrictions, and they order a dish that contains a taboo ingredient, and you think it might have been a mistake and that they would want to know about it, you might casually mention the ingredient to them in the process of making small talk about the dish.
  4. Try to adapt your activities and systems to include others who might otherwise be excluded because of physical form, health, or language or cultural barriers.
    • Empathy mindset can help you establish bonds with people who are different, by individualizing interactions.
    • Tactics mindset can also help by cleverly repurposing twisting paths to open possibilities that weren’t obviously available.
  5. Don’t expect rule 4 to always be feasible. It’s based on empathy, tactics, and other chaos-aligned mindsets, and as such doesn’t lend itself well to rules or systematization at all. Focus on what people can do, entice others to help, but don’t try to restructure everything based on an inconvenience, and don’t force people to experience the same outcomes in all things.
  6. No matter how many people have done something, nor for how long, it doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s important to learn about cultural context and sociological factors before making judgment calls on whether a practice is harmful to people, but ethical principles are the same for everyone. The hard part is learning enough about people to know how best to apply them.

If you follow these rules and practice using empathy and related mindsets, you can avoid being a bigot anywhere, even on a planet where you can judge by appearances and be right more often than not. The rules apply to how you treat everyone, even if you think you already know them, and even if you’re assessing their choices and ethical character rather than their more superficial qualities.

Neither rules nor empathy alone can make a society a good one. But semantics (rules) and empathy together, as communication, give interactions at all levels the chance to be the best they can be.

Nuanced Situations

It’s possible that some activity which has a population composed almost entirely of a particular type of person will develop a culture derived from other traits correlated with that person. For example, on Earth, a male-dominated activity may develop rituals or slang derived from male experiences or physiology. On Izzot, greenball is a sport mostly played by green people, and it has developed a culture that references wings and uses them for communication (having “good wings” refers to speed and initiative; touching wings is the equivalent of a high-five; the victory dance usually involves flying), even though playing the sport itself doesn’t involve wings. It’s a bit inane and obnoxious, but then again, much of what we call “culture” is inane and obnoxious. It doesn’t always cause problems, but when it does, things get complicated.

When a person of a different demographic shows up to participate in an activity hitherto dominated by a single demographic, there will inevitably be awkwardness because they will have trouble participating in the culture, even if they are able and willing to participate in the activity. An unusually athletic blue person might be capable of playing greenball, but will be unable to touch wings or participate in a classical victory dance.

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What do you do when a blue person has qualities most people associate with green?

Sometimes this awkwardness dissuades the newcomer from joining, or the culture from accepting them. This is a suboptimal outcome from a societal standpoint, because it results in stagnation and lost opportunities. The activity’s culture doesn’t get fresh perspective, and any newcomers who don’t immediately fit in will not get the experience of the activity. Ideally, however, those involved will have some form of empathy, and some combination of the following will happen:

  1. The newcomer learns to participate in the culture they’re entering as best they can, and is comfortable with it.
    • The blue greenball player can participate in wing-touching with their arms.
    • References to them “having wings” will be taken with no offense, as the figurative language that it is.
  2. The existing culture treats the newcomer with respect, adapts variations on etiquette and rituals where necessary, and is comfortable with it.
    • The greenball team’s victory dance is adapted to account for a participant who cannot fly.
  3. The existing culture gradually changes to become less centered on the majority demographic, making it easier for other (qualified) newcomers from other demographics to participate, or to develop and adapt their own variant activities. It tends to be beneficial for society that cultures intermingle and mix through shared activities because of the opportunities such mixing creates for cross-cultural learning and for innovation within the activity.
    • Greenball players start referring to speed and initiative as “feet”, “legs”, or just as speed and initiative, especially where blue players are involved.
    • They start using high-fives (well, high-fours) with hands, instead of using wing-touches, though wing-touches are still used between green players on occasion.
    • Some more blue people start to play greenball, and learn enough to start a league for less athletically gifted blue people. They don’t care to change the name of the game.
    • Purple people can’t play greenball because they don’t have the necessary limbs for running, jumping, kicking, throwing, and catching. This mildly frustrates some of them, but ultimately they have other desires to pursue.

Sometimes physical equipment may only be designed for one type of person. That’s when it’s inconveniently necessary for pioneers to come in with expensive customized equipment and break ground. We’ve all heard the stories. The very first blue player had to get step-stools to reach their locker, and had to have expensive custom uniforms made for them.

A newcomer’s influence on the activity may go beyond mere equipment. If a blue player made it onto an otherwise all-green team, that probably means they’re not only athletically gifted, but also that the coach is confident they can develop strategies and tactics to take advantage of the blue player’s much smaller size. It’s easy to predict that some rival coaches will complain about having to develop entire new strategies to account for just one rival team. If they want to continue being able to use the same types of strategies they’ve always used, that’s lazy of them, but they can advocate for the stagnation of their sport if they want.

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Greenball is all about challenge!

On the other hand, if the blue player is actually a huge advantage that guarantees victory and makes the game much less fun as a result, those rival coaches might have a good point. In that situation, we start getting away from ethical questions and into true politics. With politics mindset, it’s just a matter of how many people want to play or watch each type of gameplay, and how much they want it. Advocates for and against mixed green/blue teams will try to persuade other people to ally with them and negotiate with each other to get more of what they want. Maybe there will be one league for green people, one league for blue people, and one mixed league, but sometimes such easy compromises aren’t always possible. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong direction to go in, either. Ultimately, it’s just a game, and no matter what the final decision is, there are other things to enjoy. As long as people are equipped to ask intelligent questions about the issue, advocate respectfully for their preferred solutions, and recognize when a question is ethical and when it’s political, my job is done.

In sum, the parable of Izzotian greenball shows there are ways of breaking down the walls put up by the cultures of exclusivity that humanity has developed, but it will take a commitment to understanding the individual perspectives involved, as close an understanding to objective reality as we can get, the willingness to be compassionate and help people even though we don’t have to, and the courage to accept that sometimes one’s preference is not the only way.

Existential Ethics

Izzot gets its name from the “is-ought” problem. As just about any existentialist philosopher will tell you, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. Descriptive statements do not imply normative statements. In other words, you can observe facts, but those observations alone can’t provide you an answer to the question of what you “should” do. Any such answer has to be based on knowledge of what you already want.

If you thought at first that Izzot must be a terrible place, it is probably because you’re used to the idea of people using stereotypes to try to justify their mistreatment of others, as if the knowledge that they claim to have about other people requires disrespecting those people, or nullifies the ethical principles that call for respecting them.

Ethical principles, at least in the system I use, are derived from the assumed goal of creating a society where it is more feasible for everyone to achieve their desires, with the constraints that the society must be sustainable and capable of adapting and improving. Without people who are mature, respectful, and responsible, such a society cannot exist. That’s why these rules are so important.