You can understand without approval

The internet was supposed to unite everyone in the world, but algorithms and nuance-free formats have made us more divided than ever. The U.S. election is a perfect example, with people on both sides appalled by the way people vote.

Any nuance is gone from the debate:

  • You want poor people not to go hungry? Socialist!!
  • You think rich people should pay a little bit more tax? Communist!!
  • You think the Democratic Party is too bureaucratic? Republican!!
  • You voted for Trump? You disgusting human being!

And sure — you can go through life being appalled by other people all the time, but maybe at some time you can stop and try to understand why people vote that way. Yet on the internet that voice of reason is buried in cacophony, the most damaging of these being ‘cancel culture’.

The canceling of J.K. Rowling is a prime example. Nick Cohen from the Spectator wrote: “No honest person who takes the trouble to read J.K. Rowling’s latest book can see the novel as transphobic. But then honest people are hard to find in a culture war.” And Cohen continues: “In this sense, if nothing else, Rowling’s latest work honestly mirrors her online life. She knows, as her characters know, that women who speak out of turn find themselves alone in a free-fire zone.”

I’m reminded of this quote from a science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, where humans meet two new alien species. Even though it takes place on faraway planets, the quote is full of humanity:
“Once you understand what people really want, you can’t hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can’t hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart.”

At no place does the quote say you need to agree with them, or that we all need to have the same beliefs. But it does say that once you understand others, you stop hating them. Dialogue can begin.

For instance, I can ridicule my church-going family members for ‘listening to fairytales’ every Sunday, and I’d be totally right. Or I can understand people bond with other people in the village that way, plus they get some guidance in life — which are desires I also have.

In the book Hackers & Painters, Paul Graham says that it’s usually the not-so-popular kids in U.S. highschools bully the nerds because they’re one rank below them — and they feel threatened and need to one-up them. And Graham says this is also happening in real society: it’s poor whites in the U.S. that are most hostile to blacks.

You can be appalled by white supremacists, but you can simultaneously try to understand them. That doesn’t mean you approve of them. But once you show some understanding, maybe you’ll realize part of their anger comes from not being heard. Perhaps once you understand why they feel hurt, and why they feel lost, where they got their ideas from. Maybe then you can create a message that resonates with them. And maybe from there you can convince them their prejudices are misguided. But it starts with understanding, not cacophony.

Another example is smokers. So many people or advertisements just repeat a version of “Smokers die young” or “Smokers are annoying”. About how stupid smoking is, how bad it is for your health, how much sooner you will die. I guess non-smokers write these advertisements. But Nicorette shows some understanding that quitting just sucks. Quitting is hard and difficult, and when you quit smoking, smoking is all that’s on your mind. So there’s a commercial with a man bitten by a shark, and yet still doesn’t notice it: he’s only thinking about smoking: a message that resonates with smokers and helped more smokers quit than bashers ever did.

I’d argue many of the messaging around climate change is similar. But the thing is: if you continue to confront people with negative impulses over which they have no influence, then they become hopeless, apathetic. And that’s the opposite of conversion. This is why environmental NGO’s never create widely resonating messages: it’s always drenched in negativity. Even telling us to recycle plastic sounds kinda miserable to me.

In the Netherlands, there’s now a big discussion ongoing about Black Pete, a blackfaced-helper for our version of Christmas, held at the 5th of December. One side of the argument is about how racist Black Pete is and the real pain felt by people of color. On the other side are Dutch natives who think that the children of immigrants shouldn’t try to change Dutch traditions. None of the sides are really talking to each other. None of the sides try to understand, because perhaps they think understanding equals approval.

Then in Spain, it’s probably the same with a part of their culture. Spanish people may look at our Black Pete and wonder why the hell we continue that tradition. Dutch people look at bullfighting and think it’s barbaric. We think bullfighting should stop, but when the United Nations advices the Netherlands to stop with Black Pete, many think “Mind your own business!”

Understanding others is hard. Enemies of understanding are time and effort (because it takes both), assumptions or ignorance (“They wear nikab’s for this reason”), fear (few people want their own ideas to be challenged), and arrogance (“My way of thinking is the only right way).

It’s hard because people derive their identity from their own ideas and they see themselves. To change your views would be to change how you feel about yourself. To give an example, I used to think the Netherlands was a very special country, but now living in China for over two years, I think the Netherlands is rather similar to Denmark: small, well-organized, safe to cyclist, not a very important country actually.

I used to think I was such a world-citizen, but now living in China I realize how Dutch I am; the customs and cultures I cannot escape.

The Belgian sinologist Ulrich Libbrecht once asked a Chinese man about what he thought of Western dining habits, who answered: “I think it’s rather barbaric. I would never think that you would constantly put those sharp iron things in your mouth. They are not eating utensils, but weapons. I think in their origin they are weapons. Who brings knives to the table?”

The most extreme example I can think of is the thought-experiment that we are living in a computer simulation. There are very valid reasons why this is true: if visual graphics of computers games can have progressed so massively in the past 30 years — from Pong to realistic football or racing games — then it’s very possible that on the span of 30 million (a very short time in the history of our planet) a simulation could be made that is indistinguishable from real life. But even if I am indeed living in a simulation, believing so isn’t an option. I must believe in the truth I tell myself to be true, because I base my judgment of myself on it. The same with Black Pete: I am not a racist, so Black Pete cannot be racist. Such are the truths that make us, and if we were to stop believing in those — if we’d question our subjective reality — we’d have no identity, no sense of self.

Even if you don’t want to understand others for altruistic reasons, it’s quite damaging if you work in marketing. Some marketers will laugh or tweet about people that don’t fit their political ideas, wonder why overweight people eat at KFC, why poor people have so many children, or why people voted for Brexit. But then the next day they’ll go to the office to work on marketing plans and boast about how well they understand common people, how much empathy they have. Junior marketeers will approach their job with a little bit more humility, but seniors often have a kind of narcissistic self-belief because they’ve done this profession for over a decade.

There are some things you can do to expand your empathy. The painter Paul Klee once said “You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox” — and Annie Dillard remarked on that: “The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”

And so too much we expand our own mind — our paintbox — to include more paints. Read books — from How to be both to Between the world and me — watch movies from other cultures — from Embrace of the Serpent to Lion — speak to people in totally different financial situations. Stop the cacophony.

Think about that if a person is afraid of flying, it’s no help to tell him or her how safe airplanes are, or to tell him or her that driving a car is much more dangerous. If someone is sad and in a break-up, don’t say they’ll find a new person in no-time. Empathy and understanding are the results of feeling, not reasoning. And you can do so without approving.