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A simple case for respectful disagreement

Should bad opinions be punished?

Much has been written about the dynamics of anger. Community offers identity and purpose. Groups tend to dislike one another. It's easy to live in a bubble without realizing it. It can feel good to knock down others' sand castles. This sort of social analysis is interesting and worthwhile, but it doesn't usually propose solutions or directly make a case for being nice. Unfortunately, much more has been written about the Bad People who live in a bubble and want to knock down everyone else's sand castles - just look at these offensive things some of them said! - and that's why their own sand castles have to go. With this page, I'll attempt to show that this "righteous indignation" is actually unhelpful and destructive via some simple, obvious arguments that directly counter various justifications I've heard for it. Specifically, I propose that we all live in our own bubbles, the Bad People don't uniformly agree, having bad opinions doesn't make people bad anyway, being antagonistic hurts everyone, and being nice actually would help your cause.

You live in a bubble

Do you think the universe is more or less 14 billion years old and people who still insist it's millions of times younger than that are blithering idiots? If so, it may please you to hear that a large majority of Americans think so, too; even looking just at religious Americans, about as many say that God directed evolution as say that the universe literally has a four-digit age. If your response to the preceding sentence was along the lines of "makes sense, sounds right," then follow this link and pay special attention to that unpleasant bubble-bursting sensation. If your response was instead along the lines of "I hope that link in the next sentence has some numbers because I want to see them," then you have won this paragraph.

As instructive as it can be, though, compulsively looking up polls isn't enough to avoid the false-consensus effect, since there aren't good polls for everything. Want to know how many people liked a film without just projecting you and your circles' opinions onto everyone else? Box office numbers and the Rotten Tomatoes user score won't do you better than a guess. No matter how conscientious we are, all we get to know about many subjects is what we can personally experience or anecdotally hear about - that is, everyone necessarily lives in a bubble. So, before you decide a group is full of Bad People, consider that that might be a great many more people than you know. If the idea that you are one of the heroic few Good People in a world of Bad People appeals to you regardless, keep reading.

Opinions lie on a spectrum

Consider the difference between the statements, "I enjoy sauerkraut sometimes," and "Hitler is all right." Do they sound similar? There was a time when you could earn nasty looks for not switching to the preferred term, liberty cabbage. Humanity overcame a great deal of ugliness by the end of the last century, but we're still prone to mentally replace relatively innocent statements with the worst thing possible - as if the world is full of secretly Bad People who feign Goodness but occasionally slip and reveal their true nature. With this paranoid logic, literally anything that might possibly imply a bad opinion (e.g. word choice, topical humor) is incriminating. All you have to do is associate it with something really offensive you've heard before, and you've caught a Bad Person!

As a direct result, those who don't want to risk being lumped in with the Bad People have to screen their words carefully and signal their virtue as much as possible. This makes it impossible to have any nuanced conversations - which is the only way to explore controversial topics, since they are always fundamentally complicated. It can also make it hard to have any fun conversations. If that sounds vaguely dystopian, you can do your part to fix it by taking people's words exactly as given without making assumptions about what else they might think. But what about when someone explicitly says something terrible?

The Bad People aren't bad

It's possible for a talented engineer who is changing the world dramatically for the better to have the worst politics you could imagine, and it's also possible a total jerk to like exactly the same videogames as you. Character doesn't predict opinions and opinions don't indicate character. Don't believe me? Pick a contentious topic and interview your friends. Even in your own circles, you're bound to find some offensive opinions if you look. This does not mean you have bad friends!

This same principle applies to most actions as well. Even though actions are the only indication of character, if all you know about someone is something bad, then you necessarily don't know what good qualities they might possess. Why not offer benefit of the doubt? It's irrational to dismiss someone completely unless the bad thing outweighs all the good that person has ever done or ever will do.

Shame doesn't work

Lack of compassion means punishments vastly outweigh offenses. Societal lack of compassion leads to everything from police brutality to war crimes. Less civilized places sometimes dispense with formality and just lynch people. It isn't as severe, but internet drama is damaging as well: a sufficiently large or determined mob can trash someone's name so badly that the target will never maintain relationships as easily again. Even the lowest-effort kind of punishment, petty insults, mentally wears the target down, as anyone who reaches a large enough audience through the internet will attest.

But what if shaming does enough good to outweigh the harm? Sure, it makes public spaces needlessly scary for everyone, but at least it's fighting the virus, right? Well, blacklisted ideas don't disappear, they just move. There is always a safer space somewhere (secrecy or anonymity is an option if all else fails) and those affected will make up for any loss of visibility with renewed determination now that they can think of themselves as oppressed. Disrespect doesn't keep the virus from spreading, it's practically what viruses are made of!

Respect does work

One of the root causes of all this is our well-known tendency to reject people who are different from us in any way - they must be stupid, or hateful, or something. Contrary to what bad screenwriters tell us, though, people are basically rational. We like to feel like we have good reasons for our beliefs. If it's demonstrated that our reasons don't hold up, we will search for other reasons; and if we can't find any, we will update our conclusions.

So, if you want to do something about bad opinions, rational discussion is the most direct course of action. Find the underlying reasons for belief and address them directly. If you're given different reasons, address those, too. Get as deep as you can until you reach the original bad link on the logic chain. Never insult anyone's character or intelligence. If someone insists on being antagonistic, instead of responding in kind, consider what silent observers will think of the exchange. Ideas are very often judged based on those who think them, so why discourage anyone from liking you? Rationality and respect are the best qualities you could hope for people to associate with your cause, so represent those qualities.

The problem with the world

Almost everywhere in the world and the internet, universal compassion is uncommon. We'd like to think we're Good People, but we have an alarming tendency to arbitrarily decide not to care about certain others. This exception making directly causes the world's most preventable problems, and almost everyone is guilty of it. Being a part of the solution is simple: just respect everyone! Respect may not come naturally, but it's always better than the alternative. Isn't that pretty obvious?