0224 – win the person, not the argument

A couple of vomits ago I wrote about how upset and frustrated I was because somebody was mean to me on the Internet. I decided to reply to him asking him about his life, and he responded telling me that his father worked in construction and was able to take care of 4 kids, while he’s a now a cubicle rat and struggling to make ends meet.

I replied with as much honesty and vulnerability as I could, telling him that I sincerely wish his situation gets better, and that my life has been kind of the opposite- I make a living as a marketer selling software online, and I believe I have a better quality of life than my parents did.

This whole little exchange has been very elucidatory for me, which is interesting because it’s not like this is the first time I’ve been a part of an Internet argument. What’s changed, what’s different? I guess I’ve become more thoughtful about it. I got out of the ‘little loop’ (and am probably in a bigger loop of some sort) and I recognized that I was responding to things in a certain way, in a predictable, scripted way.

Maybe my goals have changed. I used to want to win every single argument I could, I think, and along the way I decided that it’s not that interesting to live life that way. You can increase your win rate by some percentage, but you’re always going to lose people– by that I mean that you get to a point where the argument is intractable- either you’re clearly winning or you’re clearly stuck- but then the other person ceases to be interested in engaging with you.

The real challenge in any discussion is to keep the other person open, pliable, interested, engaged. Taking sides tends to ruin that. Telling them that they’re wrong tends to ruin that. Our experience of existence is cheapened when we use each other as stepping stones to victory, to feel better about ourselves. It’s all chemicals in the brain anyway. It makes way more sense to me to try and win the person rather than the argument.

What does that mean? Well– we’re all patterns in space-time, we’re all functions of the universe, of the galaxy. We’re here for a very short period of time- just a blip- and then we vanish. And we’re not alone, we have each other. But we’re each trapped inside our heads, inside our bodies. So it’s this bizzare MMORPG of sorts- we’re all hurtling towards our deaths, and we’re doing this hurtling besides everyone else. (I’m suddenly thinking of the ending of Toy Story 3, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.)

So when we’re doing this hurtling towards our deaths thing- does it really make sense to step on other people, to put them down, to make them feel like shit? Because… we’re all gonna goddamn die. That’s the real enemy, the incinerator at the bottom of the slide that we’re all on. That’s the real thing that’s gonna get us all. That’s the real thing we should be focused on.

So I think we should at least have a good time before we go, and that the more of us have a good time collectively, the better our experience will be. And this isn’t just purely touchy feely kum-bah-yah stuff [1]. A TED talk that blew my mind was Vilayanur Ramachandran talking about mirror neurons- the neurons that shaped civilization. Basically- and I paraphrase dramatically- mirror neurons are neurons in our brains that light up whenever we see other people doing things. So if we see somebody in pain, our mirror neurons light up. If we see someone laugh, or yawn, mirror neurons light up. We’re literally wired to empathize.

The only thing that stops us from LITERALLY feeling pain when somebody else is hurting is that we get a contrasting signal from our own skin, telling us that we’re okay. Meaning if not for our skins (and they proved this by experiments with anesthetic), we would literally feel other people’s pain as our own. Compassion. To suffer together.

I find that quite profound. This is a huge part of  what has helped the human species learn and grow as quickly as it has. It allows us to teach each other skills, to learn by seeing and doing.

I think we’re just scratching the surface with this research, and we’re going to learn that really, we are all connected in many, many more ways that we realize. To some people this is already stating the obvious, but I think in the pop-culture sense, with American Individual Free Will, and I Am In Control, and I Am In Charge Of My Life and rhetoric like that– in that sense we are lagging behind. We don’t adequately represent our own reality, and so we feel lost and alone and scared.

Clearly there is a superior middle path which will allow us to live our lives better- I’m thinking of Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape idea now. [2] It feels like the whole century-of-the-self thing should come to an end and we should try to accelerate it. (Speaking of which, I really need to get around to watching that video again. I shall add it to my tasks).

But all in all what I want to say is– have more compassion. Realize that people are in pain. When a person does nasty things, it could be because they’re sick, because their unit is faulty in some way, or it could be because they’ve been conditioned to by circumstances, all sorts of factors. Hard to tell. Cause and effect can be incredibly complex. Sometimes there are people who are so toxic that you can’t do anything for them, and you just got to get away and do what is best for yourself. But that doesn’t mean you should end up hating the person. Hate is short-sighted.

I might be time-blind, but I sure as hell aren’t going to waste my limited time hating people. Life is really too goddamn short, and I love all of you- even the weird, twisted sickos that I might not want to spend any time around. I root for your better selves within you. We can walk a better path.

[1] why do we always have to make that caveat? What’s so bad about kum-bah-yah? I guess there’s something about hippies and folksters? I think we should all sit down and think abit longer about the 60s and free love and all that, and why that played out the way that did. What happened to it? Where did it go?

[2] While he can be kinda annoying, his idea of how there are many ways to be moral and many ways to be immoral just as there are many ways to be healthy and unhealthy- that idea is pretty sticky and valid.


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