How the other side was totally dogmatic: An example

A while ago I wrote about how I’m unlikely to be impressed if you come telling me how the people who don’t agree with you have bad arguments and are generally stupid. There were mostly two reasons: First, as the title of the article pointed out, there are people on every side of an issue that defend it badly and based on bad reasons, regardless of how right their side overall is. Second, because it’s hard not to be biased against those disagreeing with you and judge them more harshly.

This time, I’m writing about an example of the second thing — mostly. It’s about someone who was being quite unreasonable — but who, when I looked at things from his perspective, probably walked away thinking everyone else, people who disagreed with him, were being intolerant and closed-minded.

Without going into too much detail, this happened in what was advertised as a discussion about a new book concerning themes such as prejudice against immigrants in Finland. As a brief background, Finland of course never exported slaves from Africa or anything like that and doesn’t have much of a history of racism the way a place like the USA does — but that also means it’s been a much more ethnically homogenous country, so when refugees and immigrants that look different and have a different cultural background started coming in, people weren’t used to it and they started up their own, fresh version of racism. The fashionable “I’m not racist, but” term translates as “immigration-critical”, on the basis that we’re taking in way too many immigrants. By the way, what everyone points out in answer to that is that we’re taking in really few as it is.

I’m not qualified to give much more of an opinion on that, and that’s not what this is about anyway, so moving on.

So this was to be a discussion about a book that was basically against prejudice against immigrants. It was, I might add, held in a place frequented by people who would be sympathetic to the view of the book. It also quickly became evident that this wasn’t a free-for-all discussion. I’d kind of got that impression myself, but the people mainly talking were the invited speakers at the front. I think it was the authors of the book, or some of them, or some of them were. This was years ago and my memory is hazy.

Someone in the audience insisted on speaking all the time. It was obvious from the start that he just lacked social calibration in the situation. It was obvious at the scene, even if it might not have been from the advertisements for the event, that these specific people were the ones whom we were here to listen to. But he kept asking questions all the time.

Furthermore, the questions were largely unrelated to the specific points made. They were also antagonistic, in the lines of “If immigrants aren’t so bad, then what about this anecdote?”

Of course there is an obvious fallacy there, and I might as well go through it right away. Anyone in a minority group is taken to represent the whole group, no matter how ridiculously heterogenous, like “immigrants” or “foreigners”, and of course negative things can be noticed and generalised more than positive ones if you feel like it. Meanwhile, the same logic is not applied to the majority. Of course, just about everyone else present was likely familiar with this and the fallacy.

Some people pointed this out. One said basically, “If you’re going to accuse all immigrants based on those cases, couldn’t someone just as well judge you by the Prime Minister’s shady piles of planks?”

It’s relevant to the story that I was getting really annoyed and uncomfortable at this point, and both sides were causing it.

Firstly, there was the man who was defending prejudice against immigrants. He reacted as if that was a total non sequitur; what has that got to do with anything? And I could practically see inside his head at that moment. It’s totally illogical to generalise about the outgroup but not about the ingroup like that. (I should say: almost totally. There could be arguments that “well, there are still enough bad apples among immigrants that we need to limit them in general because that’s all we can do.” I don’t think I’d agree with that, but it’s internally consistent.) However, it’s also natural psychologically, and I could see that (il)logic working in my head and feel how it could feel right.

That was both painfully stupid but also painful in the sense that I could see how the true idea just wasn’t sinking in.

The second part of what was annoying me, though, was that there had been no shady planks. Someone in the media raised had a suspicion that Matti Vanhanen, Prime Minister at the time, might have got some construction material in some way that… you know, I don’t-know-don’t-care what it was about exactly, maybe he was supposed to be taking planks as a bribe or not paying taxes for them. It wasn’t a big thing, though it wouldn’t have been totally below notice if it had actually been true. The way I heard about it, though, he let the matter be investigated openly right away and came out clean. At least no-one called it Plankgate. Probably.

This also bothered me. Here’s someone defending my side and making just the right argument, and yet she’s speaking falsehoods at the same time. Giving more potential ammunition to the opposite side to dismiss the whole thing, and, besides, unfairly accusing someone of something in passing due to lazy ignorance about the matter.

…That was actually relevant, at least somewhat. Back to the main line of this story. This person kept putting in these questions, oblivious to the fact that everyone thought him a nuisance both because they disagreed but also objectively for how he was trying to make the whole occasion about himself. Eventually he went even further and started asking the people at the front to read some papers that he had with him. He seemed convinced that if they just actually read what one immigration critic (as it were) had written — someone whom I have not read but I had the impression was really not a serious thinker — they would come around. He also kept trying to talk over them when they refused.

Eventually someone told him that it was rude to keep talking over the speakers without asking for a permission to speak. He seemed to get that, at least, but what followed was of course that he kept holding his hand up and being ignored.

I didn’t see how this ended. I left during the half-time break because I couldn’t bear the psychic tension of the situation.

The point about this situation, as far as I can tell from what I saw of it, is twofold:

  • There was a person who was clearly out of line, but from his subjective point of view as far as I could make it out, he had every reason to think it was everyone else who was shutting him down because of his different opinion, and wouldn’t even listen to the arguments that he thought should have convinced anyone. (He also probably went on to tell everyone how intolerant and dogmatic those liberal lefties really are.)
  • Even though the one person was clearly more at fault, and I might add even though his opinions were based on much shakier understanding and knowledge of the matter and he seemed to have the bigger emotion-based attitude problems — the other side still could have handled it better and given him less reason to go away thinking all that.

As critical thinkers and communicators, we have to watch out for both situations. That is to say: Sometimes we might be more in the wrong but see the whole situation under the assumption that we are only being censored for disagreeing. And sometimes we might be more in the right overall but still treat the other party badly or not explain things in a way that they could understand.

The immigration-critical man was silenced by not taking any of his questions — after he’d already agreed to be nice about asking. That was not a good solution, even though his comments were getting clearly out of line. Of course, it was a difficult situation, and the people running the event probably just couldn’t think of anything better. What should have been done instead?

Well, as always, if you really have a reason to think or do something, you should identify that very reason and spell it out to any objectors. The man was told that the problem was that he was being impolite speaking without being given a turn. He even got that point. But that wasn’t the problem, and that wouldn’t have justified ignoring him for the rest of the time.

The problem was that the event had been set up for, and people had come there to hear, certain people talk about book X. This guy was running into the middle of it asking to make it about something else — for people even to start reading and then discussing some totally different text. Obviously this was not reasonable to ask. (Of course his contribution was also pretty bad otherwise, but trying to draw a line between thinking that for good reasons and just not listening to those who disagree — better not go there if you don’t have to.)

Maybe he would have got that point if someone had said that. Maybe not, since he was so freaking clueless. However that may be, no-one tried. It was probably just because they couldn’t cut to the heart of the matter in their minds (something I’m good at) so that they could have identified the central issue right away. Still, there was a chance to at least try to communicate, even to educate a pretty clueless person, and it was missed.

From the other side, remember this story when you hear a story about how group X were totally illogical, intolerant and closed-minded when someone tried to express an opposing opinion — or perhaps even when you are about to tell such a story yourself. Like I said in the other article, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were such people found on any given side in any issue, regardless of whether it’s the side that’s right overall, but as I also said there, often it can also be just because you’re being too uncharitable. Mix a bit of both and ugh. Then everyone is wrong but can point to legitimate reasons why they’re right.

I should add a disclaimer that I could certainly be wrong in my reading of people. In some ways, I absolutely suck at it. The reason I’m writing something like this at all is that I do seem to be good at seeing the different perspectives in a misunderstanding or miscommunication. I suppose I’m just not so stuck on any one perspective.

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