Other People Are Not Idiots

Monday, January 23, 2012
So I was reading an entry in a blog I really like, and the author indicated that he and his wife were trying to adopt a new attitude about other people. He called the theory "Other People Are Not Idiots," and it basically posits that "Other people are not idiots. They have reasons for doing what they do and standing by the things they stand by."

This gave me pause.

I have a tendency towards intellectual elitism. It's not becoming, I know, and I continuously struggle with it. But the fact of the matter is that I often fail in my efforts to place a higher value on human attributes that are under the control of the individual. I often assume that other people are idiots, and so become a purveyor of snobbish and cynical arrogance.

My failure to correct this aspect of my life benefits no one, least of all me. I don't want to become a bitter old woman, constantly angry, constantly holding others in contempt because they fail to see - and value - the world in the same way that I do. Such an attitude implies a stunning failure of empathy on my part, not to mention being inherently unkind.

So I've decided to make a concerted effort to be more mindful and more empathic towards the viewpoints and beliefs of others. There's a reason they disagree with me. There's a reason they may interpret specific events differently than me. There's a reason they may choose not to embrace new ideas or change their minds about old ones.

The challenge, of course, is discovering those reasons, and trying to see the world from their point of view in light of those reasons. Often people (including me) can't articulate the reasons for a specific belief, and become defensive if asked to defend their position. So I must learn to tread lightly, instead of approaching such matters like a bull in a china shop, as is my custom.

Repeat after me: Other people are not idiots. They have reasons for doing what they do and standing by the things they stand by. It's not fair to label someone an idiot without having a full understanding of their thought process and reasons for the conclusion. If I don't agree, it's my responsibility to bridge that gap.

It's only fair.

14 comments:

Jeri said...

I agree that just because a person disagrees with me does not make them an idiot. In fact, many people with IQs and life experience much greater than my own probably have almost polar ideologies to mine. In that respect it wouldn't be rational to call them idiots, but I'm nothing if not irrational.

Idiots whose ideologies are based on privileged, selfish, hypocritical, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, chauvinistic, entitled feelings are, well, idiots. I don't care if religion, upbringing, a couple bad experiences, ego or whatever is the root of their beliefs.

If there's one thing I would say that most progressives and liberals have an overabundance of it would be empathy -- and believe it or not I include myself and you in that group. It's why we rail against unfair treatment of groups of people completely different from ourselves even when we have nothing to gain from it. But, you have to be able to hypothetically relate to the humanity of all people in order to do that, and by my definition anyone who refuses to do that is an idiot. Do you really want to waste your effort empathizing with them?

LucyInDisguise said...

Take it from me - as a professional driver - my observation in my daily turn around the highways and byways of this great land has been that there is one incontrovertible and indisputable fact:

People are, in actual fact, idiots. e.g.: Four separate people in four different cars between 4 am and 6 am this morning during a moderately severe snowstorm. No lights on. Windows covered with snow and ice, and it's dark out side. On icy roads. Visibility about 150 yards. And traveling at 75 miles per hour on unplowed roads.

The only thing that would have been more idiotic would to have been doing the Blues Brothers' bit with the sunglasses. Oh, wait ...

Lucy

Word: ronsob - what you do when you drive with these idiots out on the road ...

Janiece said...

Jeri, I don't think attempting to empathize with others is ever a waste of my time. I happen to agree with you that the liberal philosophy is far more compassionate than the conservative, but which requires more "empathy muscle:" Seeing things from the perspective of the least among us, or seeing things from the perspective of say, Newt the Fruit?

Now, having said that, it's still true that I gotta be me. If, after making a concerted effort to understand someone else's worldview, I conclude that they're immoral, unethical, dumber than a box of rocks? I'll call 'em as I see 'em. But I'm trying to train myself out of the habit of assuming they're immoral, unethical, dumber than a box of rocks simply because they're "not like me."

Lucy, I'll take your word for it as it relates to people on the road. There's something about operating a motor vehicle that makes people act the fool.

LucyInDisguise said...

"... I'm trying to train myself out of the habit of assuming they're immoral, unethical, dumber than a box of rocks simply because they're "not like me." ..."

I agree that is a laudable goal - keeping in mind that, how did K put it in MIB?

"An individual is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it ..."

So maybe some clarification is in order. You said:

"The challenge, of course, is discovering those reasons, and trying to see the world from their point of view in light of those reasons. ..."

Frequently, we all say things and do stuff without engaging our brains - without thinking about what we are going to say or do.

"Without thinking" + "brainless" = idiot.

"Discovering ... reasons" is impossible when "reason" is not part of the equation. Sometimes, not to put too fine an edge on it, the "reason" is that the individual is an idiot.

[Sidebar] When I observe that "people" are idiots, all to frequently I find that I must include myself in the group "people". Therefore, what I try to do is to be less a part of the group "people" and engage my brain a smidgen more frequently.

Just a smidgen, though.

Wouldn't want to be labeled as a radical ... or something.[Sidebar]

Lucy

Janiece said...

Some of my best friends are radicals. Just sayin'.

Eric said...

I think patience, empathy and humility are not merely laudable goals, but essential qualities if one wants to consider oneself truly human.

That said, people are idiots.

Some people all the time, all people some of the time. Idiocy is an essential part of the human condition, and runs in degrees in all of us. We have not been designed by nature to be reasonable, but rather to have the capacity to reason; it must also be observed in that vein that there are elements in our design that cut both ways vis-a-vis reason: e.g. the pattern-recognition wetware that has evolved in our brains makes us scientists and makes us superstitious.

As Lucy points out, sometimes the reasons people have for doing something aren't very good ones. Concluding that President Obama should be defeated because he's a Kenyan Manchurian Candidate who was planted in the United States to wreak mayhem is actually quite "rational" in the sense that the conclusion absolutely follows from the premise--I think we can all agree that a Kenyan Manchurian Candidate shouldn't be President, can't we?--the problem, of course, isn't with the logic, it's that the premises are crap--the overwhelming evidence is that Barack Obama is, in fact, an American citizen who is eligible to serve as President Of The United States. You know, "Garbage In, Garbage Out".

As you may have noticed, I respectfully disagreed with almost everything Seth had to say in the posts you cited, Janiece. I don't think we talked about the idiots thing all that much, but I thought the interesting thing about his example was that what he used to illustrate his "other people aren't idiots" point was an instance when he and his wife were being... extremely mistaken re: their assumptions about a piece of furniture. They had been making a final judgement about a chair (that it was big and ugly) without an important datum (it's also, apparently, very comfortable). They had, in short, jumped to a conclusion, something we all do at one point or another. At the risk of rekindling an argument that was settled in favor of cordially agreeing to disagree, I also can't resist pointing out that the larger subject of discussion--the relative merits of Ron Paul as a Presidential candidate--was at least partly an issue of certain observers (including myself) trying to point out that liberal supporters of Ron Paul were arguably jumping to a conclusion about Paul (that he's worth supporting) based on certain data points (he's anti-American intervention) without, perhaps, considering other important data points (that he's anti-American intervention because he subscribes to an isolationist worldview as part-and-parcel of a libertarian ideology that would return the United States to a pre-20th Century status and includes some distressing--but internally consistent (if not internally necessary)--ideas about racial and economic justice.

I know I've gone on and on, but I did want to make one last point. The bigger issue I think you're mulling, Janiece, is probably snobbery (you call it "intellectual elitism", but "elitism" isn't always per se bad). I think the problem isn't when you recognize that somebody is being an idiot about one thing (or many things, or everything), it's when one mistakes that recognition for a judgement of intrinsic worth. So somebody is an idiot, am I any better? Have I never been an idiot? Is that person somehow a "bad" person because they're being an idiot? Would I do better in their shoes? There, perhaps, but for the grace of random chance and shifting probability, go I. Shaking your head at a fellow idiot is one thing, looking down at a fellow idiot is something worse.

My two pennies, adjusted for currency fluctuations.

Janiece said...

Eric, your last paragraph was entirely what I meant.

So you either need to a) get the hell out of my brain, or b) start writing my self-improvement blog entries for me.

I vote for the latter.

Anne C. said...

I love your self-improvement blogs, Janiece, and would rather Eric not write them. For one thing, you're more concise than he is. ;)

I think it's important to flex this "empathy muscle" as you're doing, as leads to greater flexibility of thought and a better ability to find the wheat amongst the chaff.

Nathan said...

I think lots of people are idiots. If you disagree, you may be an idiot.

Steve Buchheit said...

"Other people are not idiots. They have reasons for doing what they do and standing by the things they stand by."

Um, that they have reasons doesn't mean they aren't idiotic reasons. It just means they've self-justified their idiocy.

And I'll further expound on Eric's point. Hell, I have an IQ that makes Mensa membership a relatively easy prospect for me. But in my own case, and as you've shown before, just because your smart doesn't mean you're not an idiot. In my own case, sometimes I put on the fool's cap and do my sacred clown thing looking like an idiot. And sometimes my brain just tilts and I go off foraging into idiot land on my own.

So it's a matter of percentages. IMHO, there are people who enjoy being in idiot land (or don't know the difference), and so refuse to leave even after we've given them their signs. Those people are idiots in the classical terminology. Some of them may not be able to leave, and those we should help as much as we can. But then, some pigs just like the mud and don't care if it helps them cool off as well as long as they can remain dirty. Know what I'm saying?

Anyway. Idiots. Can't live with them. Can't send them to Congress anymore. They're all full up there.

Janiece said...

Also: I did not mean to imply Seth was right about Ron Paul. The good doctor is an emotionally retarded whack-job, whose politics are so immoral they make me want to hit him in the face with a shovel.

Which is quite different than being an idiot, I think.

Janiece said...

Steve, I personally love the term "Climbing Mount Stupid" to describe those occasions when we end up in the weeds of our own volition.

The good news is that some of us occasionally go camping there, then return. Others, however, build a chalet on the mountainside and have supplies flown in.

Fashion Share said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Janiece said...

*TONG*