What if I’m wrong? A self-guided practice of empathy
I’m not so much interested in the specifics of politics and party lines.
I leave matters like that for (hopefully) smarter people and do what I can by voting: on a ballot, with my wallet, and by putting my body where my beliefs are* when necessary.
What interests me is dialog and story. More specifically, intelligent dissent as part of dialog and story.
I find it interesting that for all the tools and technologies we have to communicate with literally anyone — anywhere — we mostly choose to congregate in groups with the exact same values, opinions and views.
This reality is fine of course, everyone needs a safe place to express themselves. What I find interesting though is how often the “other side” is dismissed and ignored, simply because they believe something different than what we do. They’re wrong, simply because their story is different from ours.
I like arguing and debating, I always have. Mostly because I’m a little shit disturber and like getting a rise out of people by challenging them. But also, I like to assume that I could be totally wrong in what I believe and argue it anyway. Why? It’s easy to believe something in a vacuum (like on social media — where what you see is mostly just echoes of what you already believe to be true). It’s much harder to be challenged by a belief and proven wrong, and then having to adjust a belief. Or, being challenged by a belief only to find that, under scrutiny, it’s proven to be true deep within you.
Case in point:
In a previous newsletter I wrote something I believed to be true. It was meant to stir up those thinkin’ thoughts I like so much. One person replied, saying they disagreed with the intro, and therefore unsubscribed, hoping never to hear another word from me again — simply because we disagreed on an intellectual level. Another person replied, saying they disagreed with a point in the article, and brought up where they felt I was wrong, and why they thought that was the case, challenging me to rethink what I felt to be correct.
Both people disagreed with me. But one shut down like an ostrich with his head in the sand because my views were different. The other person took the time to engage a little in an intelligent conversation, which I thoroughly enjoyed and even led me to change my mind (causing me to rewrite the original piece for its syndication later on).
Of course I’m not 100% immune to assuming the other side is wrong. I catch myself assuming the other side’s “stupidity” all the time. But when I catch myself doing that, I try to talk myself out of the dismissal and actually ponder it for a minute. What if I’m wrong? What if the other side is right? What would that change? Would me being wrong make the world better?
For example: if I’m wrong about climate change and humans aren’t causing at least some level of global warming, then I’ve not done any harm to the planet, animals or people by reducing my carbon footprint. Whereas if I wrongly believe climate change is invented by some grand eco-agenda and do everything I can to support fossil fuels and environmental destruction, then the world would be far worse off from using up finite resources and causing harm to life on the planet.
If regardless of us being right or wrong in what we believe the world is still better for it, then I consider that a win. And knowing if we’re right or wrong comes from studying facts and deep introspection. To keep from harming the world, we need to study why we believe something (and study the other side more too).
My own truths obviously come from a place of privilege too — I’m a middle class, white dude with a bit of an audience. The things I believe and choices I can make are based mostly on the fact that I can afford to make them. I can be a vegan because I can afford to buy food. I can debate the ethics of vehicle manufacturing because I can afford to buy a car. I can speak my mind about whatever I want, without the fear of repercussions (past the odd angry email or grammatically-poor death threat). I’m able to vote with my wallet and choose who to work with or for because I can afford to make those choices in the first place.
I write to share my ideas and express who I am. I speak for me. If you agree with some things I say, awesome! If you disagree with some things I say, that’s awesome too. I like debate and dissent.
What if each time we felt like sharing our beliefs, we instead took a moment to empathetically question them? For example, for myself: Would my mind change about something if I was black? Or a woman? Or gay? Or poor?
Empathy is important because someone can’t be both evil and truly empathetic simultaneously. (Check out this study done at Berkeley linking cruelty to a lack of empathy.)
I used to think intelligence could solve many of the world’s problems, but there are a lot of assholes who are ridiculously smart.
What should hold more value in the world — and should be taught as a focal point in school — is empathy. Especially empathy for people who are different than us. We don’t have to agree with them, but the world definitely gets kinder if we understand that they are doing what’s right for them, same as us. The caveat here is if someone is hurting others with their beliefs. Then it gets tricky because they obviously shouldn’t be doing that. And I’m not talking about being slightly misunderstood either, I’m talking about actually and seriously hurting others, like gay bashing, xenophobia, discriminating, etc. Then we need to balance empathy (through education) with making sure they stop doing what they’re doing right away…
We all speak our own truth. But truth, on an intellectual level, is malleable and in the eye of the beholder. Truth is completely shaped by how we perceive our world. It’s different for everyone, which makes the world much more interesting.
We need to get more comfortable with the idea of uncomfortably challenging ideas.
Assuming we’re 100% right, 100% of the time is a recipe for never growing, never learning, never changing (for the better). And when we refuse to leave our social bubbles of likeminded, similar folks, it’s hard to really experience the world, and art, and expression, for what really is: varying truths and beliefs.
Intelligent dissent with others is what makes democracy different from fascism. Intelligent dissent with ourselves is what builds empathy.
Reconsidering our idea of truth is one of the most important things we can do to remove any “us vs them” mentalities and just become a larger group of “us” — all humans sharing this spinning ball, with varying truths and beliefs, but also a mutual respect.
This article was first published in the Sunday Dispatches.