Last time, I wrote about what it means to be wrong, stressing the importance of critical self-examination. In a way, this article will be a follow-up to that. In particular, two of the questions I ended with are relevant:
- What are my beliefs?
- Why do I believe them?
Without a specific context, is it possible for you to answer these two questions? Almost assuredly not. How could you possibly hope to detail the entire set of beliefs that you hold when so much of what happens in your mind lives below the level of conscious awareness?
Subconscious beliefs may be the most insidious of them all. Most people would deny being sexist or racist, but how many say and do things that are clearly ~ist? We’re chock-full of cognitive biases that color the way we think about the world (seriously, take a look at the list). In a number of ways, these biases govern the way we live—at least until we learn that they exist, at which point we can begin deliberately replacing them with better reasoning.
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The other day, a friend remarked that she had met one of her husband’s exes, and the three of them spent the day together. She had a wonderful time. I was moved by this because I can call to mind a near endless list of examples where people feel obligated to hate their significant others’ exes. The very idea sends me back to high school…
A: “Oh, you’re dating X? Did you know that Y also dated X?”
B: “Really? What an asshole.”
And from that point on, even if B doesn’t even know Y personally, B is under an implicit pressure to distrust (or even dislike) Y. What’s more, X is assumed to hate Y (because apparently people can’t part ways amicably), so B too is expected to hate Y.
How absurd! Upon hearing the tale of a day well spent, I wanted to remark on how absolutely wonderful it is to be an adult. We’re capable of discarding these silly presumptions, and that is glorious. Sure, intimate relationships often end poorly, but if you two chose to start such a relationship, you must’ve had enough in common to think of each other as decent people. That doesn’t necessarily go away when you break up. Why is there such an attitude of suspicion around exes who remain friends?* Shouldn’t the opposite view hold true, that if two people are mature enough to stay friendly, they’re more likely to be good relationship material? (If they were super crazy, after all, they wouldn’t be willing to talk to each other, right?)
In spite of the irrationality of it, this reaction is common. Maybe it’s the result of herd mentality, but the fallacious reasoning that goes into thinking that because everyone else is doing something, it must be right is a pervasive social cancer. Do people sit down and actively decide to hate someone for the mere historical fact of their dating background? Of course not. You may very well decide that someone is an asshole for the things they’ve done to your partner, but if your first impulse is to think, “Ah, John dated my girlfriend, so John is an asshole,” I’d say that speaks more to your own character (or your girlfriend’s) than to John’s.
Part of being an adult is taking responsibility for your own actions. You can’t blame your choices on other people. Even if we can explain bad behavior by intricately describing its causal factors, that doesn’t absolve the actor of the responsibility for any wrongdoing. We can understand crime as a consequence of social pressures, but we still insist upon holding the criminal accountable in some fashion.
You know what else is part of being an adult?
… Deciding what you want that to mean. It means we’re free to look at social trends and make real decisions about whether we want to follow them. As long as we do no harm, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to buck tradition.**
If you’d rather sit at home on a Friday night reading a good book, screw anyone who says you’re not cool.
If you want to watch a children’s TV show as an adult, screw anyone who tells you you’re too old.
If you love poetry, screw anyone who tells you that poetry is dorky.
If you want to play World of Warcraft, screw anyone who tells you MMOs are lame.
If you want to dress like it’s the 1960s, screw anyone who sneers at your fashion sense.
Screw anyone who ever says “that’s gay,” “man up,” or “don’t be such a pussy.” Or for that matter, “don’t be such a tomboy.” ***
And if you spurn someone merely for doing different things from you (or the same things but differently)? Yeah, that makes you an asshole.
We have a presupposition that we should hate our exes because other people often do, but there’s no reason to accept this, or any other idea, at face value. Historically, we have learned to cast off the bonds of groupthink when it comes to major issues like racism; when the majority of people were perceived as believing a given race was inferior based solely on that single genetic characteristic, racism was prevalent. Thankfully, now that we’ve grown to understand the harmful effects this belief had, we’ve begun to move past it. Ditto for sexism.
These ideas aren’t dead yet, by the way (more on that later). They’ve just grown better at hiding, which makes them worse in some ways. Still, this shift only became necessary due to their associated social stigma—another perception of social consensus. Thus, we see that merely being the status quo is an insufficient gauge for determining the worth of a value judgment; we have to find and use objective measures (e.g., the presence or absence of harm).
The relatively mundane act of meeting and not hating—perhaps even liking!—your significant other’s ex is an excellent model for confronting other subconscious social reflexes. How many of these reactions have we implicitly learned from role models? How many times have you fallen into this pattern today alone?
Ultimately, answering the questions I put forth at the beginning of this article takes a consistent effort to understand yourself. At first, it may take a lot of work to continuously reevaluate yourself in terms of the things that are going on around you, but when you can detach yourself from reflexive judgmentalism—when you can find the source of your own beliefs—you can use that knowledge to assess the validity of those beliefs and come to more accurate conclusions. What’s more, you will all the more ready to understand other people on their own terms, which is a great way to be less of an asshole.
Ideas spread virally, but we can use reason to inoculate ourselves against the bad ones. Let’s do more of that.
* It's a rhetorical question. The answer is obviously insecurity. ** Yes, some traditions have value. I'm not saying we should abolish all tradition, but "that's the way people have always done it" is not a good reason for doing things that way. *** Screw gender roles. Seriously. People who don't understand that gender is a social construct have no business judging people based on them. Also screw sexist insults—have you ever noticed how many ways there are to insult someone by comparing them to a woman? It's really hard to find examples of the converse!