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In many ways, everyone who is different from us is a bewildering, inexplicable enigma. They arbitrarily hate the things we like and like the things we hate, and behave in ways we can't predict. That makes us hate them a little. We end up concluding that these people (members of the opposite sex, opposing political party, owners of a rival video game system) are just one-dimensional stock characters placed as obstacles or foils in the movie that is our life.

This has created a society that is almost sitcomlike in its huge, but simple, misunderstandings. It would be hilarious if the results weren't so tragic, and it's all due to the fact that we not only do not understand each other, but don't even try. That's because ...

We Think Trying to Understand Someone is the Same as Siding With Them


At some point after 9/11 when things had calmed down just a bit, some progressive guest on a news show was the first to say, "We need to understand why these people hate us." This person was immediately drowned out by a chorus of flag-pin-wearing pundits screaming, "The only thing we need to 'understand' about these maniacs is where to aim our cruise missiles! Now is no time to coddle terrorists, hippie!" You get the same reaction if you say you want to "understand" the motives of a spree killer or rapist, as if understanding bad guys is the same as giving in to them.

Somehow the idea has taken hold that understanding somebody you hate only benefits them, as if the only end goal is to be more sympathetic to the racist or terrorist or Wall Street crook or Star Wars prequel fan. Some people think that it's really about giving the awful people a chance to convince us they're not so bad.

Let them run free and this happens.

We're afraid that trying to understand a terrorist opens the door for us having to say that blowing up civilians really isn't that bad, or understanding a criminal means we have to excuse all his crimes because he had a bad childhood. That is silly. Understanding is just about gaining knowledge. Once you've gained that knowledge, you can decide what to do with it. This includes using that knowledge to defeat them, if that's what the situation calls for. It applies to terrorists or criminals or aggressive co-workers or Internet trolls. You can't fight what you don't understand.

As a wise man once said, "In order to trap him, he must become him."

Everyone quotes this wrong.

Sometimes you need to metaphorically undergo surgery to replace your face with your enemy's face, and (also metaphorically) infiltrate a prison and talk to your enemy's brother in order to find out where the metaphorical bomb is. You don't have to learn any lesson about how he's "really not that bad," and quite likely will learn he's even worse than you thought, murdering all your co-workers and displaying a creepy obsession with peaches.

I'm not going to dive into the debate about whether torture is effective, but I will say that interrogators have "broken" al-Qaida operatives with gestures as simple as bringing sugar-free cookies to a diabetic or finding a suspect's childhood nickname and calling him by it. One link in the chain to capturing al-Qaida's top guy in Iraq involved an American interrogator taking the time to find out why one imam was so pissed at Americans and then just saying sorry.

More effective than waterboarding?

If you're not in the habit of defusing bombs, in daily life you can still figure out what annoying people (salesmen, clingy friends, prickly co-workers) want so you can convince them you don't have it and get them to go away. For example, if you understand what kind of attention a certain type of Internet troll is looking for, you can make sure they don't get it, and often they'll move on to a new target.

So yeah, sometimes understanding other people helps them out, but it always helps you out, because knowledge, power, all that. You can learn to be nicer and more sympathetic to them, or you can learn how to push their buttons to get what you want. That's up to you, but you'll never even get that choice until you get through step one and try to understand them.

We Put Ourselves in Other People's Shoes


"But wait," you might think. "Isn't that exactly what we're supposed to do? Isn't it a good thing?" The problem, as I see it, is it only gets you halfway there. Too often you put yourself in someone else's shoes -- but you stay you. You basically Quantum Leap yourself into someone else's situation with all your knowledge and emotional resources.

In this awful, well-meaning article, a middle-aged white writer talks about what he would do if he were a poor black kid, and about how he would take advantage of all the resources and options available to poor black kids who have the memories and knowledge of a middle-aged white guy implanted into their brains.

Which probably torpedoes their basketball prospects.

Unfortunately, while we have the technology to surgically swap the face of a cop with that of a criminal, we don't yet have the technology to implant memories into kids' brains. And good luck getting Congress to fund that kind of procedure for inner city kids anyway.

On top of magically knowing how to hit up accounting and architecture firms for cheap or free computers and instinctively understanding all the specific technical and scientific jargon in the research papers he wants these kids to look up, the writer has also been able to carry along his free time and stable living situation when he Quantum Leaped into their bodies, which I'm pretty sure goes against the rules of the show.

Does the house have to do a good deed before it can leap, too?

People in a different economic class aren't just basically you, in a different zip code, with crappier stuff. "Imagine all the stuff I have is smaller and crappier and I live in a bad neighborhood" isn't going to cut it.

Having less money doesn't just mean they can't buy a computer; sometimes it means they don't have time to use any computer because they are working or running the household every non-school hour. And less money doesn't just mean a smaller house; sometimes it means getting evicted every few months because you don't have enough money to really rent anything. Good luck keeping your ISP when you can't even keep your apartment.

"Have you tried browsing Google Scholar?"

Instead of learning two or three facts about people in a different situation and trying to fill in the rest by picturing ourselves if those two or three facts were true about us, you get a lot further much faster by just putting yourself away for a bit and maybe asking, or reading about, what a typical day for the other person is like.

If you really want to know what it's like for someone else, you have to be able to picture them in their shoes. Not you.

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We Treat Other People Like Aliens/Robots


Curiously enough, while assuming too much in common with other people is a pitfall, it's just as bad to assume we have too little in common. You can see it in a lot of people's questions about the opposite sex. "Why do men do X?" "What do women want?" (As opposed to "Why does Eric do X?") We do things for our own individual reasons, because of experience, personality and other factors, but members of the opposite sex are clearly automatons who make most of their relationship decisions because of their gender programming.


It's the same thing with people on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. When extreme right-wingers go on about how Barack Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya when his Hawaiian birth certificate is publicly available and his last religious scandal was about his inflammatory Christian pastor, we wonder how on earth they can keep believing these crazy things.

It's easy to just say, "They're crazy, who can explain crazy people?" and be done with it. It's easy to act like there's a separate species of people that naturally believes only wrong things, like dogs chasing squirrels, or rabbits digging holes.

Or birds pooping on statues.

It's harder to think that these are human beings who probably don't arbitrarily decide on a hobby of being wrong about things because it is fun, and that they're being driven by basic human qualities that we also have, like fear or ego. Or that they feel the need to make larger-than-life monsters and heroes out of real people (throwing away facts to do so) in order to make sense out of the confusing and painful situation our country has been going through (the economy, the release of the Ghost Rider sequel, etc.).

They're not good reasons, but they are reasons, beyond just "They're bad people, that's what bad people do."

One of the most poorly used words to describe why bad people do what they do is "hate." Everything from racial attacks to bullying to terrorism to political rhetoric is driven by "hate," which has pretty much become a catch-all word to cover any kind of conflict.

Especially against playas.

Unfortunately, sometimes this gives the wrong impression that all the racists, sexists and demagogues are basically the same -- they have some kind of burning anger against people who are different and just want to lash out against them. Who knows where it comes from, and who cares?

I think it does matter where it comes from. "Hate" can come from motivations as diverse as fear, a misguided sense of protectiveness or plain anger. People can "hate" another group because they feel threatened or insecure (people who are afraid of losing jobs to Mexicans, people who think China is going to take over America). They might "hate" because they mistakenly think the other group wants to damage something important -- their culture or their families -- and while they're not scared for themselves, they believe they're bravely standing up to protect something good. Or they might just have a deep-seated anger from past experience and need someone to blame it on.

I'm normally not a fan of memes, but nobody says it better than this eagle.

Those are all bad, but they're not the same exact kind of people. Different things set them off. If you know the type you're dealing with, you know how to avoid giving them fuel and escalating a tense situation -- at a family gathering, at a party, at a political rally, on an Internet forum, wherever. If you try to reassure someone motivated more by anger than fear that they don't have to be afraid of that group, you could piss them off even more by mistakenly implying they're afraid. (Or if you accuse someone who mistakenly thinks they're protecting their family or livelihood of being motivated by revenge.) Or you can shake your head and say "Hate is so sad" and write them all off, whatever.

We Make Bad Guys into Cartoons

Beyond people who merely talk crazy are people who really seem to be straight-out evil, like terrorists or dictators. But they're human beings, too. Unlike in cartoons, evil people don't wake up in the morning and do things for the sake of evil, just because they are bad guys. They're motivated by the some of the same things we are -- self-interest, for one. No dictator wants to blow up a city just to further the cause of chaos in the world. He blows up cities to scare people into giving him what he wants -- land, power, money, whatever. Even Dr. Evil at least wanted one million dollars.

It was a lot of money in the sixties!

Militant zealots, on the other hand, are motivated by what they think is "a good cause." They think they are helping their country, people or religion by blowing up a bus. Terrorists don't "hate our freedom," they love their culture/religion/people and think that attacking Americans can help the things they love, or maybe just earn them 72 virgins, which goes back to self-interest.

Apparently there's no truth to the assertion that that passage can be misinterpreted as "72 raisins," which means I won't be martyring myself. Virgins taste terrible.

Most of us don't have to deal with dictators or terrorists every day, but we apply this same cartoon mentality to people in our own country. A lot of people didn't see President Bush as a guy with good intentions and stupid, wrong policies but as a vile being intentionally trying to "destroy America." Similarly, a lot of people opposed to Obama now are positive he can't really believe his policies will help America, but that he is deliberately, for some reason, trying to destroy America and make it inferior to Europe, because I guess he can't wait to be the leader of a second-rate country.

If that's what he wanted, he'd just run for prime minister of Canada. Ha ha! Wait, do they get Internet in Canada? Uh oh.

Sure, politicians might not have the purest motives, but nobody wants to fucking tank their own country while they are in charge so that everyone in the whole world can know that they screwed it up. A bad person might be motivated by greed, pride or any other deadly sin, but whatever awful thing they're after, it's supposed to benefit themselves in some way. At least the accusation about Bush starting the Iraq War just to get Halliburton some business made sense from a human nature perspective, even if it's pretty oversimplified and hyperbolic.

It's like Gargamel. He wanted to eat the Smurfs, or turn them into gold, depending on which episode you were watching. It didn't make a lot of sense but at least he got something out of it.

SharelleSimpson blog
Or would have if he could ever catch those blasted smurfs.

But no fucking human being wakes up in the morning and schemes about how they are going to "destroy America" for the sake of evil. No matter how awful you think abortion supporters or opponents are, they've convinced themselves that the side they picked is really the right thing to do or, at the very least, they are getting money or positive attention by lobbying for it. Even people who worship Satan do it because they think it will make them look cool. People do what they do because they think it's right, or to benefit themselves, or both. Nobody pursues evil like some kind of charitable cause.

Sure, villains like Cobra Commander, dedicated to pursuing pure evil in an almost selfless way (what does anybody get out of destroying the world?), are great for kids and their simple minds, but if adults hold on to that image of evil, we miss out on finding their motivations and therefore getting some key tips on how to negotiate with them or stop them -- or how to stop other people from turning out like them.

Film Flunkie
And eventually into a snake.

For more from Christina, check out 5 Reasons Women Are As Shallow As Men (According to Science) and 5 Examples of Americans Thinking Foreign People Are Magic.

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