Tell Me How You Really Feel

This post has 2592 words. Reading it will take approximately 13 minutes.

When I originally started studying psychology, one of the reasons were that I was fascinated by public discourse, in particular how it takes place on the internet, be it in sophisticated fora like newspaper comment sections, Youtube comments or under memes that have been shared to a point where the JPEG artefacts make them look like slightly cat-shaped legos.  I won’t say that I have finally come to understand, and here’s why you are all wrong, but one thing has been nagging me for a while: the way people argue against one another and seemingly don’t hear what the other has to say.

Going back 10-15 years, I would wildly agree with friends putting forward statements like “I don’t go into a discussion if I am not 100% certain I am right.”  It made sense: why discuss if you didn’t believe in what you were defending?  That perspective will obviously shut you down from other sides.  If you believe so strongly in your side, why listen to arguments from the other side – they are so obviously wrong about the topic of discussion so their arguments must be as well.  Listening becomes at best waiting to speak.

As I left my home country 8 years ago but still keeping up with some of the Danish media (though to a wildly diminishing degree), I am in a rare situation: I can listen to a lot of discussions without really having a horse in the race.  I don’t care if the socialists or the conservative win, so that means I don’t have to pick a side for the eternal game of “them and us.”  No, I don’t think that’s a unique perspective at all; it was just a thing that happened.

In the meantime, I have listened to arguments and have made a sport of arguing against details used as arguments for things I agree with.  The funniest thing happened: people did not take my arguments as “I disagree with this minor detail,” but rather as “I disagree with everything you say.”  People put on the “them an us” hat and saw my opposition to a minor point as an attack on their entire ideology and being, even when they knew I was 95% in agreement with them.

I have caught myself doing the same.  I can go back to old arguments and realize that at times I would try to defend some minor point that wasn’t really that important, getting completely distracted from the actual issue.  I like to believe I have become better at catching this, first after cooling down after the discussion, then during the discussion and now I’m trying to use that to prevent it from happening.

A large part of that, I believe is because we are afraid that if arguments for a position we hold strongly fall, that position may also fall.  Research shows this is far from the case, however.  I have already written a post about how there is very little cause and effect in the way we think; the gist of it is that we rarely hold opinions for rational reasons.  We hold positions and a very strong desire for reason makes us conjure arguments.  We do this super-fast, so our conscious mind doesn’t even realize that the effect (the opinion) actually came before the cause (the argument).

I had a discussion about setting the temperature on an airco.  A friend was cold and cranked it way up.  I was not happy with that and turned it down (but still higher than I would normally do), and it ended in an argument.  My real reason was that I had to sleep in the room with the airco, and knew I would wake up drenched in sweat during the night with it that high, yet the argument that initially came out of my mouth was “running it at this high setting might burn it out.”  I just intended this as a warm-up (ha!) argument before getting to the real reason, but instead we got stuck arguing for a long time, me defending a rather indefensible argument (of course an airco would be able to switch off if there was any risk of overheating) rather than arguing what really bugged me.  My friend would rightfully shoot down my argument, and I’d try moving on to my real reason (though without really acknowledging that they were right).  In the end, we didn’t really come to a reasonable conclusion for either.

The same is seen when somebody argues that gay marriage hurts the sanctimony of marriage.  Their real reason is often the much harder to defend “homos are icky,” so arguments like “high divorce percentages don’t?” or “celebrity 55-hour marriages don’t?” mean nothing.  The arguments do not counter the real reason a person is against gay marriage. And worse yet, the bigot has some kind of (very far-fetched and technical) point: my allowing more people to marry, it really does become less special. A very good counter-argument to that is “I don’t care.”

I, in general, think that better counters to “gay marriage hurting the institution of marriage” are 1) I don’t care and 2) I don’t think it hurts it.  Both points touch on something that I believe is important: the first point shows that sometimes an argument may be technically correct but just not have any impact on the other person.  They may simply think that it’s more important that same-gender couples have the same rights as everybody else (because they are just everybody else) than whatever minuscule or theoretical impact it may have on some institution.  At the same time, it is possible to acknowledge that the argument may mean something to the other person, but that stating the argument louder won’t help and that providing evidence for the argument won’t help.  The second argument is a natural extension of what should be the conclusion: there is a degree of opinion involved here; it’s not about dry facts.  Such a discussion is likely to devolve into “Britney Spears hurts marriage more than gay couples” vs. “divorce rates is 93% after gay marriage was legalized against 0.002% before,” two arguments that have nothing to do with one another and even less with what the argument is supposedly about.

We see the same in a currently relevant topic that I didn’t want to touch when it was Facebook-relevant for what shall become clear later: school shootings vs. gun control.  I think anybody arguing for gun control in the wake of any school shooting should ask themselves a very important question: “Am I against school shooting or for gun control?”  Think really good about it.  Remember that our brain will shuffle cause and effect around; are you for control because it will reduce school shootings or are you for gun control and school shootings a very convenient to get that passed?

If your reasoning is the first one consider this: when pornography was first legalized in Denmark in the late 1960s, it caused rape rates to go down.  This was a very important reason for most other countries following thru with legalizing pornography subsequently.  This, however, did not mean that the rape rates went down everywhere; in some places, it actually went up.  Maybe legalizing pornography reduced rape, maybe rape decreased despite it, or maybe the two were entirely unrelated.  It is not too important but means that it is very hard to say that something will for sure work.  Maybe gun control will reduce school shootings and maybe it will not.

But like divorce statistics, it doesn’t matter.  If you were on the one side, you were likely pulling statistics from Australia showing that shootings went down after banning guns, and if you were on the other, you were probably pulling statistics showing that Switzerland is the safest country despite having the most guns per capita.  Are you discussing an argument that doesn’t matter?

Consider instead this: every time there’s a terror attack (or even just a terror scare because the newspapers are bored and Trump inexplicable has been keeping quiet for a good 12-15 hours), the usual suspects pop out of the ground like a very racist game of whack-a-mole, calling for a ban on Muslims.  Muslims are the cause of terror, so banning them will stop it for sure.  Just see the terror statistics for the South Pole and compare them with the Muslim population there.  Proof.  In fact, try any argument for banning Muslims to prevent terror and try using it for banning guns to prevent school shootings.  “There is no guarantee that banning Muslims/guns will stop all terror/school violence.”  “A good guy with a gun/A non-radical Muslim can prevent a bad guy with a gun/another Muslim from becoming radicalized.”  I intend no other comparison between the two examples; they are picked solely as some most people have an opinion about and many will be in support of one argument when applied in the one situation but dislike when the mirror argument is applied in the other.

But, you may say, the two situations are completely different: I just want to ban guns to prevent school shootings while the other people want to ban Muslims for racist reasons.  But that’s just the point and at the same time entirely irrelevant.  I do not believe anybody thinks of themselves as “a racist shit;” cause and effect get all mixed up in our heads.  And as mentioned, it’s entirely irrelevant if one side believes the other side argues “we should ban Muslims and terror is a good argument for that” while they believe they argue “Muslims cause terror so we should ban them.”  And that brings us back to the school shooting: even if you believe that guns cause school shoots so they should be banned, you might very well be arguing somebody that believe you argue for gun control using school shootings as a reason.  Regardless of who is right, the discussion will devolve into loud arguments about broken aircos in divorce statistics for Muslims to guns.  Which will not lead to any understanding.

I am not saying that you should use this information to try and tease out what the other side really thinks; I am saying you should try using it to tease out what you really think.  I think a good litmus test is “what if somebody else suggested an alternative way to solve the problem (of school shootings/terror), would I be willing to consider that instead?”  If somebody suggests an alternative to gun control as a means of stopping school shooting, but you answer with statistics about gun control in Australia, you are probably closer to “I want to ban guns and school shooting are a good means to that,” than the much more socially acceptable “I want to solve school shootings and therefore want to ban guns.”  Same goes for terror, Muslims, and racism.  And frankly, if you use school shootings as an excuse to promote your political opinion of the day you are as much of an ass as whichever Twitter-lord feels the need to start spewing triple-parentheses at @jack as soon as somebody forgets a backpack1).

If the goal really is to stop school shootings, I think we need to go back to my two arguments against marriage statistics in the gay marriage example: 1) I don’t care and 2) I don’t think so.  Both arguments are valid for both sides.  It is perfectly valid to say “I am willing to accept the minuscule risk of terror (I don’t care) to help fugitives in need.”  It is also perfectly valid to say “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”  And the other side is perfectly ok to disagree with you.  It is also perfectly ok to say “(I don’t think) the Muslim faith is what causes terrorism” or “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

We need to realize that arguments can be correct without supporting our argument as strongly as we believe in the eyes of others.  The arguments support our preconceived opinions built up thru a life of experiences.  Arguments do change our opinions, but it is very unlikely that one strong argument will sway anybody, and not just due to the backfire effect, but also because we live in a world of false dichotomies (them and us) where a lot of opinions really live on a spectrum where everybody who goes faster than un in traffic are reckless maniacs while anybody going slower is a moron delaying everybody else on the road.

And that’s ok.  If we want to get rid of school shootings (in the US), the way is unlikely to be banning guns.  It might be the objectively best way.  It may work without a hitch.  But there will be very strong opposition, from people who don’t buy arguments because they really like guns.  If the goal is to stop school shootings, I think the discussion needs to move away from divorce statistics and instead try and think of other resolutions that people can agree on.  Here are two ideas for fixing the school shooting problems: 1) pre-shoot everybody as soon as they enroll in school.  If they’re already shot dead a school-shooter cannot harm them. 2) establish 5 levels of walls in a perimeter around each school; have students strip naked at the first wall and dump everything they carry into a big hell-fire.  At the second wall, expose students to 5 minutes of a very powerful electromagnet to ensure they have no metal objects hidden anywhere. At the third wall zap them with a good dose of x-ray to ensure they have no other solid objects like plastic butt-gun.  At the fourth wall supply students with gray, loose, identical coveralls straight out of prison fashion 1950, and supply students with (soft and round-edged) school materials.  Neither solution is really practical, but both would undeniably likely solve the issue of school shootings proving that there are other solutions out there with different cost-benefit tradeoffs so it’s just a matter of finding one both sides can live with.

This also applies to other controversial topics.  Contemplate why we need to take action global warming.  There are actually many answers to this question, and an agreeable solution for everybody depends on the answer (is it to save lives? ensure Lebensraum? because we owe it to Gaia? because corporations are evil and global warming is a good excuse to get back at GE? no reason it’s all fake?).  Why should we minimize inequality?  Why is abortion good/bad?

I strongly believe that by discussing the color of the bike shed instead of the design of the nuclear plant we ignore solutions that might not be objectively optimal but might be optimal in the sense of maximizing costs and benefits for all, thereby making them more practical.  I also think that have observed opinion changes in myself when I have challenged why I hold this or that opinion.  A bit of introspection might not change the world, but it will certainly lead to better understanding ourselves and perhaps even others.

And that’s how I really feel about discussions on the internet.

Time person of the year 2006, Nobel Peace Prize winner 2012.


  1. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with arguing for gun control – I really don’t care either way – I’m just saying choose your moment. []

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