You Have More In Common With Your Enemies Than You Like To Admit.
Here’s how to use that fact to be a better person.
We’ve really figured out how to codify people we don’t like. We’ve moved beyond the simple pleasures of naming people after unsavoury parts of our anatomy, and fully embraced the science of it.
In this new order, people who make us feel bad aren’t thoughtless or selfish or just having a bad day, they’re toxic and/or narcissistic. There’s no longer any need to listen to or try to understand people who disagree with us. After all, they’re just trying to oppress and/or cancel us. Those who belong to a group that contains people who have marginalised our group are privileged and anybody who complains about failing to achieve what we have achiieved, are just being victims. Then, of course, there are your Karens and Chads and the rest of the losers.
The reason it’s okay to classify the entirety of a person in this way is not just because they’re bad and we’re good, it’s because we’ve somehow agreed to judge their entire existence based on this one lapse of compassion or difference of opinion. We’d never be so oblivious or selfish of course, so the fact that they would, means that there’s no hope of finding any shared humanity with this person. Right? Hmm, not exactly. The truth is that these labels aren’t designed to make it easier to categorise people who are different from us, they’re designed to divert our attention from all the ways these people are just like us.
I’ll give you a moment to recover from this appalling accusation. I know that being compared to people you despise is uncomfortable. So let’s start with the easy stuff. Even if you’re not ready to accept that the people you dislike are just like you, you have to admit that there’s a lot of emotional common ground that we share. Everybody wants to be loved and sometimes feels like they aren’t. Everybody wants to feel safe and will try to avoid situations when they don’t. Everybody worries that their life will get worse and tries to make it better.
Everybody is struggling in some way or another. It’s easy to look at other people’s lives and imagine that everything has been easy for them. That no pain or struggle has ever befallen them. This is nonsense. We’ve all been treated badly. We’ve all been hurt by someone we thought we could trust. We’ve all developed strategies to try to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Some of us have been more successful at creating those strategies. Some of us have done our best to do so in a way which doesn’t hurt other people. But we’ve all been in the same boat.
Likewise, we’ve all put ourselves and our needs before other people’s. We’ve all been selfish and cruel and thoughtless. It’s easy to look at other people’s actions and view them as representative of a deeper failing because we think we don’t know anything about their internal world. As the former U.S. ambassador Dwight Morrow once said: “We are too prone to judge ourselves by our ideals and other people by their acts.”
I’m not about to go full “Let he who is without sin…” on you here. Not all misdeeds are created equal. But it’s a fact of human nature that we judge other people’s actions more harshly than we judge our own.
Besides, it’s not just the negative stuff we have in common. All of us, even the most reprehensible of characters, has some good hiding in there somewhere. Just as we’ve all been thoughtless and selfish, we’ve also all been kind and considerate and done more than we needed to. Maybe it’s a less frequent occurrence for some. Certainly, some people don’t go as far as others. But how many of us seriously ask ourselves where we fit along that scale?
I remember thinking this during the “we are the 99%” protests back in 2011. Nobody could argue with the central point. It’s obscene that the richest 1% of humans own over 50% of the world’s wealth. But to see this fact being zealously protested in the streets by people who represented, conservatively, the worlds top 30% of wealthy human beings, seems a little disrespectful to the 70% who have real problems.
The point I’m making here is that we all have our privilege if we’re compared to the right person. Sure, some poor unfortunate soul is sitting right at the bottom of the privilege pile, but everybody else is luckier than, and had it easier than, somebody else. If you’re reading this, you’re luckier than billions of people. Billions. With a ‘B’.
But even though you’re life has been easier than billions of people, largely through pure flukes of birthplace and education, you feel as if you deserve to be where you are. You remember how hard you worked to get here. The struggles you had to overcome. And you’d have just as much trouble explaining that to some kid starving on the streets of Calcutta as Jeff Bezos would have explaining his billions to you. The world is horribly unfair. This isn’t my way of saying “suck it up and deal with it.” It’s my way of saying that one thing the 1% don’t have the monopoly on is self-interest.
Ok sure, you might be thinking. But what about the really heinous stuff? What about people who are just plain toxic? And I would agree that there are some truly awful human beings in the world, and I would ask if you’re certain that you wouldn’t be just as awful as they are if you’d lived the same lives as they did.
I’d ask if you’re certain that you’re a better person than those who took part in the famous Stanford prison experiment, where ordinary college students psychological tortured and abused their fellow students simply because they had been given the authority to do so? Would you be willing to bet that you’d be any different to the people who took part in the Milgram experiment and administered what they believed to be painful and even potentially lethal electric shocks to strangers, simply because an authority figure told them to continue?
The truth is, we’re all a bit of a mess. We’re all struggling to keep our heads above water as life whizzes by, blindsiding us with problems that we’re too dumb or distracted to make sense of. But if we recognise our capacity for weakness and selfishness, we don’t just become more empathetic, we can become better people.
This is exactly what happened 6 years after the Milgram experiment when one of the participants was drafted to the Vietnam war. Here he writes to Milgram to explain how his experience during the experiment affected his thinking:
While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority … To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself … I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience.
This man was only able to make the right decision because he’d been shown evidence of his ability to make mistakes. He knew that he was capable of acting in contrast to his beliefs and so was careful to avoid making the same mistake in future. Chances are he wouldn’t have been as vigilant if he hadn’t been aware of this.
Of course, acknowledging the fact that you’re imperfect doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have feelings about the actions of others. It doesn’t mean you have to like everybody, or that you need to tolerate people’s shitty behaviour. Even if you can admit that you’re capable of it yourself. It means that the people you struggle with can be treated with the compassion and fairness that you would want to be treated with.
Recognising ourselves in others dulls the instinct to seek revenge instead of seeking what’s right. It weakens the temptation to hold others to a standard we don’t hold ourselves to. It reminds us to be kind. Recognising ourselves in others shows us that people aren’t simple enough to be summed up by a label. That even if we disagree with them, we can do better than thinking of them only in terms of the worst aspect of their character. After all, God knows what would we be called if we were judged by that standard.