Sagacious | Painting a Portrait of “The Other”

Hypocrisy is frustrating, and we – it’s human nature, it seems – neglect our own but are very much eager to point it out in others.

“You hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:5

Identifying hypocrisy isn’t a bad thing. Criticism is one way we learn and grow, particularly when we reflect on it and accept feedback graciously. It becomes problematic when we create our own Bogeymen to criticize and act as though it applies en masse.

This post uses charged examples from abortion debates, gun control, and climate change, but it is not about abortion, gun control, or climate change. It is about the danger of painting a portrait of “The Other”.

Othering on Social Media

For being a playground of memes, baby photos, and political grandstanding, social media has evolved complex social dynamics between an individual speaker and a vast, undefined audience.

Othering is one example of communication that uses a broad, accusatory tone and places the speaker on a seemingly unambiguous moral high ground. It’s also a form of tribe-signaling or virtue-signaling, letting your community know where you stand on a particular issue and shaping your reputation.

When I say “painting a portrait of the other”, I mean something like this:

“They don’t support free childcare.
They don’t support services that aid single mothers.
They don’t support subsidizing early education programs.
Conservatives are only pro-life before the baby is born.

Or this:

“If you shoot an animal, you are evil.
If you shoot a human, guns are evil.
Liberal ‘logic’.”

In these examples, the most negative or hypocritical traits are lumped together because they apply broadly to a particular group. They don’t make allowances for individuals, say, who are pro-life but also support free childcare, or animal rights advocates who don’t push for stricter gun control laws. It’s a compelling form of message because it is strong, definitive, and places the “other” clearly in the wrong and “us” in the right.

Painting with broad strokes comes at the cost of nuance. It comes at the cost of details. And therefore, it comes at the cost of the complete and robust and messy truth. Other people, it turns out, are just as complex as we are.

Is there legislative hypocrisy that needs to be called out and addressed? Absolutely. But doing so in this form has other, unintended consequences, and it’s no coincidence that this pairs with rising anger and political divide.

Anger Germs and Inflammatory Language

Charged emotions travel faster through social networks than thoughtful understanding. CGP Grey calls this phenomenon “Anger Germs.”

“This Video Will Make You Angry”, CGP Grey

These germs often take the shape of images paired with inflammatory language – harsh, even hyperbolic text designed to elicit a strong emotional response.

Consider three different ways of referring to abortion, each of which have appeared in my newsfeed in recent days:

“Stop policing my uterus”
“The right to terminate a pregnancy”
“Murdering unborn babies”

That’s not to say this issue, or any issue, is neutral or undeserving of a strong emotional response. Anger is a correct response to injustice of all forms. But notice how each manner of speaking aims for a different reaction from a different group of people and consider how those aims align with larger goals. Igniting rage? Calling attention to a critical issue? Mobilizing your base? Not to mention that in the anonymity of the internet, some argue in bad faith, trolling at best or being maliciously destructive at worst.

Thoughtful understanding is long and often complex; it is nuanced and unlikely to fit a simple narrative. It’s likely less colorful than its meme-filled, inflammatory counterpart, and for these reasons it spreads more slowly but contains more truth.

Imagine Others Complexly

Not all healthy debate ends in compromise, and compromise is not always appropriate. Sometimes the right answer is a hard “yes” or a hard “no” or a bold line drawn in the sand.

“I believe that truth does not lie in the middle… the truth is often on one side or the other, whether it is sleep, or climate change, or smoking.”

Arianna Huffington on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, ep. 65

But all difficult conversations, even when there is a clear moral divide, benefit from acknowledging individuals and their very human nature. People speak back more loudly when they don’t feel heard. People become defensive when attacked. And painting a portrait of the “other” is the worst combination of both. It combines attributes that do and don’t apply to someone – making them feel misunderstood – with an attack on their character for a hypocrisy that may or may not be accurate to them specifically.

Better to keep criticism focused and specific, and imagine others with the complexity that you attribute to yourself.

“The biggest problem with being alive is that you can only see the world out of your eyes. You can only live inside of your skin, your consciousness. You can’t effectively imagine what it’s like to be someone else. But the study of history allows you to empathize better, it allows you to think more complexly about others.

John Green, YouTube Crash Course History

History, literature, psychology, just digging deeply into our own personal relationships – there are many paths towards empathy and better understanding our world, and therefore a better world.

Dwan Light Sanctuary, May 2019

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