The danger of the Other mentality

Ultron wants to destroy the world, so our superheroes go out and defeat him. Woohoo…?

It all starts with popular media

Hollywood keeps bombarding the world with multimillion-dollar movies that employ a good-vs-bad narrative. The problem with such movies isn’t just blandness; it’s that they’re outright harmful. Most people are smart enough to realize that real life is not so black-and-white, but their judgement falls short when the subject matter is “just movies”. What’s so wrong with enjoying some good ol’ bad-guy-bashing action from time to time?

The danger is that people apply this kind of thinking, what I’ll dub here as the “Other mentality”, to real life without realizing it. Don’t think of it as stupid good fun; think of it as opium for the mind. It becomes all too easy to unconsciously label someone as the the bad, the evil, the other; and then it’s even easier to blame them without exercising good judgement.

Nobody is really evil (or, few are)

I picked up a copy of the International New York Times on my flight to Taiwan, and read their report on the recent Chinese court case on same-sex marriage. What caught my eye was this comment in the “opinions” section on the side:

Appalling, but the Chinese government is there for itself, not its people, thus in the absence of an independent judiciary, this decision to continue to treat gay people as an unworthy, disliked minority just because It can, comes as no surprise.

First, disclaimer: I don’t love the Chinese government, and I’m in the camp who believes that this court case is a good step towards eventual legalization of same-sex marriage in China.

Now back to that comment. In a way it comes as no surprise itself, either — there’s no shortage of people who’ll jump at any chance to badmouth a different, other ideology. (Why? Influence from popular media, probably.) Now we can all spend days naming ways in which the Chinese government sucks, but I really don’t think it would screw over a minority “just because It can”.

So let’s do a little empathy test. If you were in the Chinese government’s shoes and you just rejected same-sex marriage, what would be your justification — in what way is that beneficial to you? If your answer is “I don’t know, they’re evil so they’ll do anything”, then sorry, you got 0 marks. Some good answers off the top of my head are “they’re too deeply rooted in the traditional sense of marriage and family”, “they find it hard to accept people who are different from themselves”, and “they don’t think the general Chinese public is ready”. (If I sound apologetic, it’s because I believe Rome wasn’t built in a day.)

Now I can’t say that there are no pathologically evil people; some psychopathic killers for instance are simply “evil” in the truest sense of the word. But most “evil” people aren’t actually evil. They’re just misguided, arrogant, and stupid.

The problem is stupidity, not stupid people

Personally I think there is too much stupidity in this world, and we, the collective human race, are better than this.

Now someone will say “Huh, what an original opinion! Like every other bugger in the world, I, too, think there are too many idiots and we can do away with them.”

Wrong! There’s that labeling again. They’re idiots, hence not me, hence they should get lost and/or die in a fire. This is what happens when you blame problems on stupid people — you come to the natural conclusion that there should be fewer of them, which is a thought that can lead down a dangerous, precipitous path.

Instead, when you identify the problem as stupidity, the solution becomes that we should reduce stupidity whenever possible — so we set out to educate ourselves. Problem solved!

It’s incredibly important to recognize this distinction. In my experience, it doesn’t only help with making rational judgement, but also builds confidence and catalyzes self-improvement. If you make a mistake, it’s not because you’re a stupid person, but because you simply had some stupidity — now you can learn from it and get rid of it. How cool is that?