Malice, Stupidity, Other

When someone does something you don’t agree with, there are three possible explanations: Either they’re evil, they’re an idiot, or they know something you don’t know.

Most people aren’t evil. Most people aren’t stupid, either, as long as they’re in their general wheelhouse. (Side note: many people uncharitably define “stupid” as “having different information than me.” Try to avoid this!) Because I don’t want to go through life assuming that people who do anything I wouldn’t do are stupid or evil, I find myself very often asking “What do they know that I don’t?”

This leads me down all sorts of fascinating rabbit-holes.

For instance, earlier this evening I stumbled on a Reddit thread of people having arguments over whether or not their witchcraft being used to send rain to Australia was a good thing or not. (If you’re reading this at some point in the future – in 2019/2020, Australia was having a super bad drought and tons of fires, and then they suddenly got a ton of rain which was good except then it was too much rain and there were floods.) This wasn’t a joke; these were people who sincerely believed they had magical powers, and were debating whether too many of them had been irresponsible with their powers and caused flooding, and some other people were saying things like “don’t be silly, the rain was brought by aboriginal shamans, not some dabbling witch halfway around the world.” Oh, of course, how silly of me.

Me dismissing those people as delusional idiots is easy. And in this case, possibly still justified. But my intellectual curiosity won’t let me off that easy – lots of people might make foolish choices or have incorrect information, but not all of them think they’re real witches with the power to flood a continent. It made me wonder what particular set of experiences and information led to this particular style of being wrong, rather than the general case.

Tangent: Intelligence as Moral Worth

I notice a strange thing happens when we talk about how ‘smart’ someone is. First off, intelligence is complex, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t measurable. There are real ways of getting a pretty specific read on how intelligent someone is. Some people will say things like “there are lots of different ways to be smart,” and that’s totally true. But within each of those ways, we can take measurements.

Let’s say two people go to the gym together. One of them can do more reps than the other on a particular machine, but the other person can lift more weight on a different machine, and one can work out for longer, but the other has more intense peaks, and so on. One of them has a better BMI but the other one has a better heart rate and lower blood pressure. Which one of them is “in better shape?” You can make a case, but it’s not clear-cut, since “being in shape” clearly has so many variables. But within each of those variables, you can absolutely measure and compare.

Here’s another weird thing, though: Let’s say those same two people come to the gym, and they’re the same age, height/weight, gender, etc. One of them can lift 20% more than the other on every single machine or technique. So we say, “Person A is physically stronger than Person B.” Virtually no one interprets that as “Person A has more moral worth than Person B.” Most people wouldn’t take a straightforward observation like that as an insult. If you tell me I’m not as strong as someone else, that holds as much emotional weight for me as you telling me my shirt is a different color than theirs.

That’s true of almost every trait, except intelligence. Even though it’s just one trait among many, people get surprisingly emotionally invested when talking about intelligence. To the point where we’re it’s often taboo to even talk about intelligence as a measurable thing. If person A runs faster than person B, we say they’re faster. If person A lifts more than person B, we say they’re stronger. But if person A scores better on an IQ test than person B, we’re very uncomfortable saying they’re smarter. “You’re not as fast as Bob” is seen as a fact of life. “You’re not as smart as Bob” is seen as a vile insult.

My thoughts on this are that one, we’ve bundled way too many concepts under the umbrella term “smart” or “intelligent.” Saying someone is “smart” is as precise as saying they’re “healthy.” It can mean so many things and has so many variables that it becomes immeasurable as a total concept, but that doesn’t mean we can’t (or shouldn’t!) examine the components, especially if that means we could get better at them. Studying health made us healthier. Studying intelligence could make us smarter, if we move away from the taboos surrounding the discussion. And two, for some reason as a society we’ve bundled moral worth and intelligence together in a way that we don’t do with any other trait. Sure, calling someone “dumb” is rightfully seen as an insult – but so is calling someone a “weakling.” In both cases, you’re just deliberately being insulting, so there’s no surprise there. What’s surprising is that people are insulted even when you’re not being a deliberate jerk, as in the examples above.

If someone told you that you aren’t as strong as one of your peers, you might object and want to see the results of the tests, but once you saw them you’d (maybe begrudgingly) accept it. The same isn’t true with intelligence – no matter how many tests, exams, challenges and the like you take and score lower on than Person B, you’ll keep making excuses, saying things like, “well, I’m smarter in other ways.” That might be true, but we can measure those, too. Also, there’s so much knowledge out there that just knowing something that someone else doesn’t know doesn’t make you smarter than them. I’m 99% sure I know more about Kevin Smith’s films than Stephen Hawking did, but that doesn’t mean that I was smarter than he was.

I think a huge part of the cause of this phenomenon is that most Americans (and indeed, most first-worlders in general) spend the first 18-22 years of their life being evaluated exclusively on intelligence. School doesn’t actually test for intelligence as much as they test for memorization skills and obedience, but they tell you they’re testing for intelligence, so that’s the message you get. “Intelligence” as they define it is the sole determinant of your progress through the system – even though a thousand other factors will determine your actual success in the real world, only “book smarts” matters in the primary activity you’re forced to engage with during the entire formative period of your life. If you can run faster or build better birdhouses or are more creative, those are fun “extras,” but only in very rare and exceptional circumstances do they carry even a tiny bit of weight in terms of your evaluations.

So almost everyone gets the message that “intelligence” is the only thing that matters, and only in the strange way it gets defined by K-12 schooling. No wonder people are sensitive about it.

End tangent.

That does bring me back around to my main point – which wasn’t about witches, but about understanding the different information other people have. I try to learn everything someone else knows about an area of disagreement, and only then do I fall back on “stupid” or “evil” as an explanation if I haven’t found another. In 99% of circumstances, I find another, of course. As I said, most people aren’t stupid nor evil.

In fact, my prior belief that people aren’t stupid or evil often leads me to be pretty stubborn. Sometimes I’ll find a lot of information that someone simply acted in an evil way, but I’ll still keep looking for an explanation that makes me say, “Oh, I get it – I’d have done the same, knowing what that person knew.” I know how strong our inclination is to label people as foolish or bad in order to justify our own beliefs, and I don’t ever want to fall into that trap, so I fight it tooth and nail. I seriously want to know if there’s some reasonable set of information that could justify believing that real witches made it rain in Australia, and only once I’m satisfied that I gave genuine effort towards finding that information (and coming up wanting) am I comfortable dismissing the belief as foolish.

Lately I’ve been grappling with a particular belief that my lizard brain really, really wants me to label as “stupid” or “evil” or both, and I’m having a more difficult than usual time combating it. Because I don’t tend to get real political on this blog (for a variety of reasons), I won’t go into the actual debate. I know how easy it is to assume your political position is the only reasonable one and clearly no debate can exist, so I don’t want to fall into that cognitive trap. I want to understand the set of information that would lead someone to agree with the opposite side. So I’ll end this post with an ask: what techniques do you use to find the most reasonable arguments from “the other side” of a debate?

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