Our Own Personal Iagos

In high school, I had a friend who tipped me off that someone secretly hated me.

Pretty soon, however, I noticed that he told me the same thing about a lot of other people.

So either I was most hated person in the school or my “friend” was misinforming me.

The first explanation isn’t impossible, but the latter is more likely.

Permit me three digressions and a joke, though all are relevant:

  • An old teacher of mine advised that most people are too busy with their own lives to spend much time thinking about how to make our lives miserable.
  • The French emperor Napoleon warned against attributing things to malice when they can be explained by stupidity.
  • In psychotherapy, people who obsessively believe that others are talking about them have delusions of reference.
  • The joke is: “Whenever I see two people talking, I know that they’re saying I have delusions of reference.”

No matter how good our lives are, we always have some complaints: “Man never is, but always to be, blest.” We can either try to remedy our complaints or we can look for someone to blame.

Too often, we choose the blame game. Entire industries of professional “Iagos” tell us that we can’t do anything about our own problems because those people — whoever “they” are in a particular case — are to blame. They are keeping us down and preventing us from having everything we want in life.

Realistically, it does happen once in a while. But not much.

And think about the practical result of believing it: We won’t try to improve our lives and ourselves, because “those people” are constantly plotting to thwart us. It doesn’t matter what we do: we are powerless. We have no control over our own lives.

Pardon my French, but that’s merde de cheval absolue.

Yes, some circumstances are beyond our control. Sometimes, we’ll be treated unfairly, we won’t get the jobs we want, or our spouses won’t appreciate us. And sometimes, we’ll just want things to be different. What then?

Suppose that half of what happens in our lives is beyond our control. That means half of it is in our control. What are we going to do with it?

Are we going to sit around bellyaching about the unfairness of life? Or will we take control of what we can control and make our lives the best they can be?

I vote for the latter. I encourage you to do likewise. But it’s up to you.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Whose Welfare Counts, and How Much?

This blog post isn’t about what you’ll at first think it’s about. So bear with me.

The United Kingdom’s National Trust was established in 1895 to showcase and protect  Britain’s national heritage. Among other things, it gives tours of historic sites such as famous castles and houses.

But the Trust’s public programmes curator, Rachael Lennon, thinks they’ve been doing it wrong.

Their tours of historic homes tell about the families that built them, lived in them, and maintained them over the centuries. That’s a problem because — wait for it — it “privileges heterosexual lives.”

Now you probably think this blog post is about gays. Nope.

It’s about a serious philosophical question. I have my own answer, but other answers are defensible. You’ll have to make up your own mind:

  • Should social policies, education, and media reflect the interests of the vast majority of people?
  • Or should they, for one reason or another, reflect the interests of specific minorities?

The first alternative is basically utilitarian: seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people, as long as it doesn’t impose unacceptable suffering on minorities.

The second alternative rejects utilitarianism in favor of something more complicated.

Gays are a good example, so let’s stick with them.

No informed person denies the contributions gays have made to our civilization. Nor does anyone deny the sometimes vicious persecution they’ve suffered — in the past of Western countries, and at present in most of the rest of the world.

On the other hand, gays are a small minority. I don’t have figures for the United Kingdom, but Gallup says that 3.8 percent of Americans identify as gay (including bisexual). Pew says 4.1 percent. Gallup adds that Americans believe gays are much more numerous than they really are: instead of the actual ratio of one in 25 people, Americans think that about one in four people are gay. Their mistake likely results from the media’s disproportionate attention to gays’ concerns.

“Disproportionate” does not necessarily mean “wrong.” It just means that the media devote much more time to gays than one would expect based on their small percentage of the population.

And that takes us back to Ms. Lennon’s concern about “privileging heterosexual lives.” Somewhere around 96 percent of the people who lived in the historic sites were heterosexual. So on that basis alone, we’d expect most of the talk to be about heterosexual lives. Is that “privileging” them, or is it just accurately describing reality?

There are at least two complications (two that occur to me; maybe you see others):

  • If gays played a significant role in the history of the sites, their contributions obviously shouldn’t be ignored. I think it’s a mistake to define people by their sexuality, but if their sexuality was relevant, then it should be mentioned. I’d be surprised if it’s very often relevant.
  • If gays are currently persecuted in a society, it might be reasonable to spotlight their contributions more than would otherwise be justified. That doesn’t apply in the United States or Britain, though as Britain’s Islamic population grows, the situation there might change.

You can apply the same logic to any majority / minority situation. Does the welfare of the majority have priority? Or does the minority get special treatment — and if so, why?

A lot of social problems depend on how we answer those questions. A good first step toward answering them is to talk to each other calmly, trying to work out what’s fair to everyone and best for society.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Coping with Clickbait

Call me naïve (“You’re naïve!” “Thank you.”), but I believe that most people want to be good.

That doesn’t mean that all people want to be good, or that most people are good all the time. Obviously, they’re not.

But most people want to believe that they do what’s right or at least what’s allowed.

If they do something they know is wrong, they try to convince themselves that they had no other choice. Circumstances forced them to do it, so it’s not really their fault.

Of course, the most effective way to avoid feelings of guilt is not to think at all. Just react emotionally.

Welcome to Twitter and the internet.

A big problem today is that emotional outrage sells. It’s profitable. It gets clicks.

The internet is incredibly efficient at spreading outrage. Thinking takes effort, and outrage is easy. Outrage also makes it harder to think clearly.

Consider this week’s earth-shaking outrage. Some high school kids were standing face to face with a man who was banging a drum at one of them. Apparently, neither the kids nor the man said anything obscene or hit anyone. They all just stood there. People took photos and made videos of it.

And suddenly, half the people on the internet were screaming hysterically at the other half. The boy’s smile was called a “smirk,” and the man was said to be an activist who’d staged similar encounters in the past. Many people read their worst fantasies and personal histories into the situation. A writer for Gizmodo said the boys reminded her of boys who were mean to her in high school. A professor deduced that they were worse than the bullies in his high school. Both of them clearly redirected their anger at past high school antagonists to a contemporary boy they saw in a photo, a boy who they never met.

High school, high school, high school. Are we ever going to stop settling scores from high school? We’re adults now, at least in theory. We can vote, buy liquor, and do our work in office cubicles that adjusted for body size would be considered inhumane for lab rats.

Please. Stop. And. Think.

And then ask yourself: Has everyone gone nuts?

How is this event even newsworthy at all, let alone enough to cause a nation-wide nervous breakdown with florid psychotic fantasies? Nobody was hurt, no laws were broken, and none of the principals on either side did anything worse than act obnoxiously — if they even did that.

If you want to be good — and as I said, I believe in you — then don’t let the outrage machine manipulate you. Stop and think. When you hear an outrageous story or see a video clip, ask yourself:

  • Does this story make sense?
  • Who is telling the story? Do they have an agenda?
  • Is the evidence really sufficient to prove the conclusion?
  • Am I getting only one side of the story? Only part of it? From only one source?
  • Am I stereotyping the people involved, based on my own prejudices or personal history?
  • Am I biased in favor of believing the story? If so, be extra careful about believing too easily.
  • Am I biased against believing the story? If so, be extra careful about rejecting beliefs too easily.

There’s an old joke that says, “If you can’t be good, be careful.”

However, in emotionally-charged disputes, the best way to be good is to be careful.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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We Don’t Always Need to Talk

“We need to talk.”

Those words inspire dread. They usually portend something unpleasant.

At home, your spouse might be angry because you forgot to take out the trash. At work, your boss might scold you for neglecting to put cover sheets on your TPS reports.

But in general, we don’t always need to talk. Sometimes, talking is counter-productive.

And that’s often the question: Will talking make things better or make things worse? Is it even needed?

The wisdom of silence

The Chinese philosopher Confucius advised that “silence is a friend who never betrays.”

Sometimes, silence isn’t an option. If we can prevent a serious wrong, then we have a duty to speak up.

At other times, the situation isn’t as clear:

  • Maybe speaking up would cause trouble but have no positive effect.
  • Maybe we’re not completely sure of the facts.
  • Maybe the problem itself is of borderline importance.
  • And maybe we’re just making excuses for ourselves because we don’t want to rock the boat.

So there’s no simple formula that tells us when to speak up and when to remain silent. We have to use our judgment.

The modern version of Confucius’s advice is that it’s better to keep our mouths shut and let people wonder if we’re fools, instead of opening our mouths and removing all doubt.

Make small talk about nothing

There are three things I didn’t learn how to do until my early 30s: juggle, whistle, and make small talk.

As a nerd, I was mystified by small talk. I thought that conversation always had to have a subject and purpose, preferably important ones. The idea of talking about nothing seemed insane.

And then one day, I was sitting on the porch at my parents’ house. My father was sitting across the table drinking a Heineken. We were talking about nothing. At times, we didn’t say anything. We just listened to the rustle of the wind in the trees, or watched the birds and the squirrels.

It suddenly dawned on me: talking wasn’t the point. The point of small talk was simply to be present with a person, to share the moment and the experience. It was “I care enough about you to spend time with you even if there’s no other purpose.” We were making small talk.

Not everything needs a purpose external to itself. Sometimes, the experience itself is the purpose. Like small talk.

Don’t shed your neighbor’s blood

The heading sounds scary, but fear not: It’s just a metaphor. It refers to a saying in the Talmud:

“Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood.”

And the ancient rabbis were quite emphatic about it. One of them added that it would be better to engage in adultery than to shame someone in public.

Some statements are true but they humiliate people or hurt their feelings. Honesty does not require us to announce such truths publicly unless there’s a serious reason to do so.

If there isn’t, then we should refrain from “shedding the blood” of people for whom those truths are emotionally painful.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Three Ways to Understand People

If you want to understand why people believe and act as they do, three ideas will get you a long way:

People want the world to make sense

They make sense of the world in various ways, based on different assumptions and biases. They feel as if their worldview is part of who they are. If you dispute their their cherished beliefs, they feel as if you’re attacking them personally.   

Therefore, if a cherished belief has no practical impact, just leave it alone. Nobody elected you as Sheriff to correct all the mistaken beliefs in the world.

If there’s a good reason to dispute the belief, approach it calmly. Show respect for the other person. Focus only on the issue at hand. Then listen sincerely to the person’s reply. It’s not impossible that you’re the one who’s mistaken.

People want to feel important

They get their feeling of importance in various ways. Some people get it from being good parents, guiding their children and celebrating their accomplishments. Other people get it from work, religious faith, intellectual achievement, or involvement in political causes.

If people believe something because it makes them feel important, they won’t change their minds just because you made a logical argument. You must first give them a substitute way to feel important.

We’ve all got issues

Our emotions and our biology influence us a lot more than we usually realize. We are loyal to our peer groups and tend to see things through their eyes. We’ve had life experiences that biased us about certain things. Regardless of the merits, we feel warmly toward some  symbols and stories, while we feel hostile toward others.

Those flaws are part of being human. We can’t avoid having them. But we can try to be aware of how they affect us and other people. It can help us be more patient and forgiving — toward both them and ourselves.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital for living.”

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Is There a “Problem of Goodness”?

The problem of evil” has long been a thorn in the side of Judaism and Christianity. It’s a fairly simple argument:

  • Judaism and Christianity say that God is infinitely good and infinitely powerful.
  • If God is infinitely good, then He wants the world to be free of evil.
  • If God is infinitely powerful, then He can make the world free of evil.
  • But the world is not free of evil.
  • Therefore, an infinitely good and infinitely powerful God does not exist.

People have been arguing about the problem of evil for over 2,000 years. An early version appears in the Bible’s Book of Job.

The bottom line is that if you believe in God, then you can find a way to explain the existence of evil. If you don’t believe in God, then you think you’ve already got the explanation.

But what about “the problem of goodness?”

Philosopher Jonathan Garner points out that the problem of goodness is a mirror image of the problem of evil. It casts doubt on the existence of an evil God:

“The alleged ‘Problem of Good’ refers to the fact that if a good God doesn’t exist, then why is there so much pleasure, beauty, and good-will in the world? And aren’t all the good things in the world evidence that an evil god doesn’t exist?

I do think that the existence of pleasure and experience of beauty is indeed evidence against an evil god. I also think that the existence of pleasure and beauty could be some evidence for God’s existence, but we must tread carefully here.”

“Tread carefully” is good advice.

One error it’s easy to make is to think that goodness and evil are qualities like size or shape. Such qualities are aspects of the objects that have them. On that view, a good thing would have goodness in it and an evil thing would have evil. That was part of what G.E. Moore argued in his book Principia Ethica, ultimately without success.

A more defensible view is that goodness and evil are relational properties. They depend on how things affect the welfare of living beings. We apply the label “good” to things and events that help us (and other living creatures) enjoy life, achieve our goals, and fulfill our potential. We apply the label “evil” to things and events that have the opposite effect.

On that view, the mere existence of living, conscious beings that have a specific nature would logically require the existence of good and evil:

  • Living, conscious beings must act to achieve goals, even if only getting food to eat.
  • A specific nature means they would have certain needs, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • A thing or event that helped them satisfy their needs would be good, relative to them.
  • A thing or event that frustrated their needs or actively harmed them would be evil, relative to them.

It seems to me that if any universe contains living, conscious beings who must act to sustain their existence, then good and evil must also exist.

That applies whether or not God exists, and whether God is good, evil, or indifferent.

Even an infinitely good God, if He wanted to create a universe that had conscious, living beings, could not avoid the existence of evil.

That amounts to rejecting premise 3 of the problem of evil’s argument. Either:

  • God might be infinitely powerful, but even infinite power is not unlimited in every direction. Some laws of logic are so fundamental that not even God can violate them; or
  • God really can do anything at all, but since our minds operate by the laws of logic, we can’t understand it if He does. As a result, we shouldn’t expect it to make sense to us. Maimonides held something like that view in his Guide for the Perplexed.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital for living.”

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Learn How to Trust People

You can trust people. Honest. That’s not a joke. Trust me.

But it’s important to know what trust is. Then you can trust people in the right way.

A couple of analogies might help explain the point.

Suppose that you see a big rock on the grass in front of you. Based on your previous experience, you know at least two more things about it. First, if you drop it on your foot, it will hurt. Second, the rock won’t jump up by itself and hit you in the head. You can predict what it will and won’t do. In that sense, you can trust it — to be a rock.

Of course, it’s possible that your trust is mistaken. The rock might only look like a rock, but in fact be a camouflaged drone that’s programmed to jump up and hit you in the head. However, such possibilities are too remote to be worth considering. If you see a rock, you know beyond a reasonable doubt what to expect from it.

Or suppose you encounter an unfamiliar dog that growls at you, bares its teeth, and takes an aggressive posture. It might only be playing: dogs at times do that. One of our family’s dogs likes to play tug of war with a toy rope, and it growls as it plays.

But with an unfamiliar dog, the situation is different. You know much less about the dog. If you assume the dog is hostile when it isn’t, you miss a chance to play with the dog. If you assume it’s friendly when it isn’t, you might be seriously injured. As a result, the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt” has changed. The potential benefit is much less than the potential harm. You know beyond a reasonable doubt that the dog is hostile. You avoid it. You trust it to be just what it appears to be.

In both cases, you made predictions about how the rock or the dog would behave. You could make those predictions because you understood things about them. The more you understand, the more accurately you can predict.

Now, think about people. Trusting people depends on understanding them. If you understand them, you can predict how they will act. Your predictions won’t always be right, but they don’t need to be infallible. They only need to be good enough for the situation and the stakes involved. The principle is this:

You can trust people to be exactly what they are, and to act accordingly.

Exactly how you trust them, and how much, depends on the situation.

When the stakes are high, then you need to know a lot about people before you can reasonably trust them. When the stakes are lower, then you don’t need to know as much. But the more you know, the more trust you can have.

Suppose you’ve known someone for a long time and he’s almost always late. In that case, you should not trust him to be on time. Even if he intends to be on time, promises to be on time, and does his best to be on time, there’s something about him that usually makes him late. That factor doesn’t change just because he promised and has good intentions. You should be ready just in case he actually is on time for once, but you should expect him to be late and try not to get annoyed about it.

When people disappoint your trust, it’s because you failed to understand them, their motivations, or the situation. If you understood those things, then you could predict what the people would do. And you could trust them to do it.

Bottom line: People are what they are, and they act accordingly.

If you expect otherwise, you’re being unfair both to them and to yourself.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. One Amazon reviewer said: “Using a dash of humor and an accessible style of writing, this book will delight fans of books like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens. Highly Recommended.”

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