He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Other Side: The Philosopher Pig's Dilemma

I was recently reading a piece from Sam Harris entitled, "I'm Not the Sexist Pig You're Looking For" in which he describes an encounter with someone determined to see his remarks as bigotry and unwilling to grant that he might simply be operating out of a different and legitimate mode of dealing with issues of gender.

I have had very similar encounters, and not just on the topic of gender or sex, but on any topic that has emotional gravity, and with both men and women.  I like that Sam Harris doesn't just blame feminism for the problem like plenty of others do, probably because he is a feminist and understands the problems with how we treat women individually and as a society.  So why would a man who has previously pointed out those problems and shaped his political beliefs around what would be empowering for women be on the receiving end of an accusation of anti-woman bigotry?

As I've mentioned before, men and women tend to reason differently on average because of how we have needed to evaluate risk for the sake of our survival.  These are trends driven by the somewhat different physiological characteristics of men and women and how human beings have adapted to surviving with those differences over the course of millenia.  It's really not a matter of men being stupid or women being stupid.  We're just employing somewhat different risk management heuristics in many cases, though we can and should certainly learn about other approaches.

But telling someone that, much like Sam Harris explaining that he was talking about general tendencies and facts rather than outlandishly suggesting that men couldn't be just as nurturing as women or that women can't think just as critically as men (the straw men his interlocutor allegedly used), simply isn't persuasive or helpful.  Why? 

Most people really aren't that interested in critically examining every proposition.  They are more interested in knowing who their allies are and who their enemies are; particularly when it comes to an issue of emotional significance, we are very likely to pay close attention to which people are on "our side" and which people are on "the other side" for what are perhaps obvious reasons when we understand that our survival has long depended on knowing friend from foe.

What happened in this case is that someone let Sam Harris know that she believed he was on "the other side" when he ought to be on "our side".  And when this situation is brought to his attention, he has two options from the interlocutor's standpoint.  He can apologize and come over to "our side" by submitting himself to her judgment that he's got all this unexamined bigotry or he can do absolutely anything else and ratify her view that he is an unknowing enemy of all things good and feminist.

The first option is unlikely to be the choice of a guy who spends a lot of time in self-examination and bias self-checks who probably really does have a bias in favor of women's empowerment as far as I can tell.  Which leaves him to do something other than the first option and cement himself in her eyes as an enemy.  As one of my young friends observed, "There's no way to win."  If winning means being seen as a friend rather than a foe, then he's absolutely correct.  When the options are to accept a lie about one's self and make a false apology or to stick with the truth and gain an enemy, you aren't going to have it all.

It might seem unfair to lump people into categories in which either they are either with us or against us, and maybe it is, but it's also quite sensible as an approach to managing risk with regard to relationships with other human beings.  It is much safer to assume that someone who seems unaffected and cool towards us (or our concerns) is hostile than it is to assume that the person is a friend.  We lose a great deal if we are wrong about them being a friend, and we have very little certainty about what we might gain if they are in fact a friend.

Of course, my defense of her behavior as an exercise in perfectly normal human rational risk management doesn't sound sufficiently warm and friendly, so I would probably get put in "the other side" category pretty promptly right along with Sam Harris despite my strong disagreements with him.  And maybe that is fair.  After all, my purpose here was to explore the truth of the situation rather than to make friends.  So why should I be surprised when it doesn't make friends? 

I'm not surprised at all that it doesn't make friends, but I can understand why it might be cause for Sam Harris to be disappointed that it breaks down the understanding that he wants very much to cultivate.  There will always be a disjunction created when those whose primary concern is finding truth and those whose primary concern is finding out who cares about them very strongly find themselves trying to use those very different approaches to communicate with each other.

I hope that some day the latter can understand that a sexist pig is not at all the same as a philosopher pig and that those of us who are in the former group can understand that it's a legitimate choice to care more about determining who our friends are than about pondering the mysteries of the universe when they have more immediately pressing issues to address in their lives.

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