People who disagree with you are not stupid. Or insane. 7

Just as a quick note, since I know a lot of people (including myself) have been scratching out heads over the avalanche of straw men that kicked off this mess, and wondering what the heck is going on with that. I’ve had and observed several conversations that basically go:

  • Other person: Alex said X.
  • Me: No she didn’t. She said Z.
  • Other person: No, she said X.
  • Me: But see here? Look. At the words. She says Z.
  • Other person: Well I disagree. She said X.
  • And so on forever until I gnaw on my desk.

I know I’m not the only one. And I’ve seen a lot of dismissive variations on “these people are idiots.” Yeah, I get that this is frustrating, when you can’t even get the other person to acknowledge that a fact is, you know, actually a fact1. But it’s an enormous mistake to dismiss people who disagree with you like this as stupid/delusional/insane2.

[ETA: Please note that this is specifically in regards to arguments that involve untrue facts or statements that are provably untrue. Policy arguments, value judgments, and the like? I don’t think you should be dismissing people as stupid/delusional/insane over that either, but it’s also not the topic at hand here.]

To start with, then you start sounding like people who say things like, “All liberals want to destroy free speech.” Or whatever. It’s sloppy thinking, it’s dehumanizing, and if your opponent in an argument is doing a thing that’s pissing you off, it behooves you to not retaliate by doing the same thing.

The thing you have to realize is generally, people who point at an untrue fact or statement and indicate that this is the hill they are willing to die on are not stupid. They are more likely just very, very invested in a worldview that requires said untrue fact or statement to be true.

Carol Tavris did an excellent talk about this at TAM 2011, in regards to dissonance theory: (start at around 10:30 for the really pertinent stuff)

This is the money quote:

The problem we face then is not just bad or foolish people doing bad and foolish things and justifying them. It’s good people, smart people, ethical people, competent people who do foolish and wrongheaded things and justify them in order to preserve their belief that they’re smart, good, ethical, and competent.

Does considering the situation from this angle make any difference to the current argument? Eh, probably not. Lines have already been drawn, and I feel like a certain set of self identified “conservatives” are invested in the idea that Alex is the evil queen of the liberal literati and wants to force every writer to adhere to a ridiculous checklist. Somehow. (Originally a hyperbolic statement? Quite possibly. When it’s being repeated and defended like actual truth, though, it stops being merely a ridiculous rhetorical device.)

But I really wanted to point this out because it happens on the internet. A lot. And it’s easy to dismiss other people as stupid and willfully blind, particularly when the frustration level starts to climb. But if nothing else, going to that mental place effects your rhetoric, which can mean sounding like a total jerk if there are undecided bystanders, and also act as confirmation for such belief affirming statements as, “all [group] are whiny assholes.” Etc.

And I also wanted to point this out because each and every one of us is capable of being in this mental position. (I know I sure have been before, and it’s not a fun hole to climb out of.) So be mindful of that. Be as critical toward your own reasoning as you are to anyone else’s.

As in all things, your mileage may vary. Goodness knows I’m not perfect at this, and I have zero room to be preaching at people. But I felt compelled to point this out because I’ve been making a very conscious effort lately to be mindful of the basic humanity in other people, even if they lack the courtesy to recognize my basic humanity and that of my friends in return.

That’s the kind of person I want to be. Even if sometimes I can only manage it after I’ve stepped away from the keyboard, taken some deep breaths, and counted to ten. Twice. In every language I know the numbers for.


1 – Welcome to the goddamn life of anyone who has ever done any research related to climate science. Whee.

2 – And seriously stop using insanity or implications of mental illness as a go-to. Political opinions and nearly all conspiracy thinking are not mental illness. This is not a path you want to go down, and it’s extremely insulting and dismissive to anyone who has an actual mental illness. (And this is a thing I need to be aware of myself, since I have a tendency to throw around the word crazy. Sigh.)

7 thoughts on “People who disagree with you are not stupid. Or insane.

  1. Reply Van Aaron Hughes Jan 31,2014 00:56

    Rachael, I’m glad you’re trying to resist the common impulse to label anybody who disagrees with you as stupid or insane (or evil). But suggesting that they’re foolish and wrongheaded and have a compulsive need to justify their foolishness is not a very great improvement. How about just allowing that intelligent people can disagree about lots of things, especially when it comes to politics?

    • Reply Rachael Jan 31,2014 01:07

      Maybe I should put a clarification in the post, because this isn’t about disagreeing over, say, how we think taxes should be handled. People can disagree until the cows come home about matters of policy and stuff that’s ultimately judgment calls, and that’s just the way it is. Sometimes differences of opinion are just that, it is what it is, time to move on.

      This on the other hand is very much about people disagreeing over actual facts despite evidence. Like the age of the Earth, or climate change, or in this particular example, claiming someone has said something they manifestly did not say and wants something they have repeatedly stated they do not want.

    • Reply Rachael Jan 31,2014 01:19

      There, put a little ETA in. Hopefully that makes the aim a bit more clear.

  2. Reply Van Aaron Hughes Jan 31,2014 02:04

    That helps. I still think usually an argument that one side or the other wants to characterize as being over a demonstrable fact is really an argument over something else. But I don’t want to press the point, lest I sound like I’m defending Correia, who is being an ass.

    • Reply Rachael Jan 31,2014 06:32

      I’ve run into that kind of thing a lot…but that may be because I used to be relatively active in the skeptic’s movement and still do science talks. Global climate change and abiotic oil, man. Brings ’em all out of the woodwork.

      This entire thing with Correia has been bugging me in a lot of ways, but particularly the way it was set up like some kind of liberal versus conservative thing. I’m still having a really hard time completely articulating why. But if nothing else the way it kind of encourages these blanket statements of “liberals this” and “conservatives that” is just…ugh. Ugh ugh ugh.

  3. Reply janiece65 Jan 31,2014 07:39

    Just so. I have a good friend who calls this the “No one is the villain in their own story” paradox.

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