How To Reliably Identify A Fool (Newsletter 036)
There are a few reliable ways to identify a fool, and today I will teach you the best one. If you've been reading along with me a while, you know that interactions with other people present great opportunities to expose flawed thinking. How often have we been utterly convinced that our position was correct, only to have our conversational counterpart disagree with equal vehemence. Don't they hear how idiotic they sound?
First, we need to make a minor definitional detour. An idiot is assumed to be a person of low intelligence. A fool may or may not be stupid; their hallmark is in demonstrating bad judgment. In a way, the otherwise intelligent person who shows bad judgment is more deserving of our ire because they should know better.
It used to be the occasions for virulent disagreement were relatively limited, at least in the West. You may not remember, but long before COVID came along there were individuals who strongly opposed vaccinations, mostly of children. They largely kept to themselves and didn't make headlines, aside from being blamed for outbreaks of measles, mumps, and chicken pox, among otherwise eradicated or controlled infectious diseases.
Or maybe you remember those distant times when same-sex marriage was something a majority of the public disapproved of, some strongly. According to Pew Research Center polling, in 2004 60% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and 30% approved. Just fifteen years later, these percentages had flipped. New battle lines arise, with today's centering around transgender athletes' participation in sports. Abortion is also on the table with fresh vigor, given changes in the composition of the Supreme Court.
Of course, disagreements over the politics of the day are nothing new. The fights of recent decades seem like polite parlor talk, however, compared to the collective meltdown brought on by President Trump's candidacy and subsequent election. A large group of well-educated and otherwise ethical people determined that Trump was so personally abhorrent that any means were justified in bringing about the end of his administration. The country largely divided itself, with 100% of people believing half of their fellow citizens had lost their minds. President Biden so far has not de-escalated the level of rhetoric or the national temperature.
It seems that everyone has found someone to blame for their troubles, often multiple people. With opinions so polarized, and on so many topics, it is not surprising that we have more opportunities for disagreement than ever. What is surprising, at least to me, is how quickly we assume today that people who disagree with us are not just wrong, but dangerous idiots. With just about half of the country taking opposite sides on just about everything, it seems reckless to impute bad motives to the people who think differently than we do on a particular issue.
I touched on this issue some months ago in Don't Mistake Certainty For Correctness. My point there was that you personally feeling certain about an issue is no guarantee of being correct. One way to avoid blinding yourself is to leave open the possibility that you may be wrong.
My point today is a related, but different one. Rather than determining the correctness of your thinking, I promised to help you reliably identify a fool. Here is your fool-identification tool: whenever you assume a person who disagrees with you is an idiot because they disagree with you, you are being a fool.
There are many reasons for this. When you dismiss disagreers out of hand, you likely have not spent enough time considering other perspectives of the issue. You probably have not tried to put yourself in the other person's shoes to understand why they see things the way they do. By casting both the person and their views as illegitimate, you have closed yourself off from learning anything. You won't learn about the person, about the issue at hand, or how to make the world better. You're little better than a toddler having a tantrum until it gets what it wants.
Watch people react to a spoiled toddler acting out in public. They recoil, they turn away in embarrassment or disgust. The toddler embodies pure selfishness. Because of the reactions they prompt, children relatively quickly learn that they must take others into account. Some have a harder time "playing nice," but most learn how to at least act less selfishly in public settings.
It is interesting and alarming to observe how much of public discourse today has reverted to toddler-like selfishness and public tantrums. Otherwise reasonable people talking past each other, refusing to even consider whether the other side has a point. Individuals assuming they know something about the morals of the people on the other side because those people support a different politician or take a different stand on an issue.
This is foolish because it demonstrates bad judgment. As discussed in this week's Moral Letter 071 On The Greatest Good the Stoics advocated that the highest good we can attain is the exact opposite: a well-ordered mind, living according to reason. You achieve this honorable virtue by making true and consistent judgments about the nature of things.
I think we can go beyond this Stoic virtue, which is focused very much on the individual, and ask what is the effect that we are having on the world. Are we making the world a better place for others, or are we making it worse? This is why foolish behavior under the guise of selfishness is so damaging: we are more likely to be making the world a worse place.
There is another way. I discuss it in Moral Letter 072 On Business As A Distraction. Simply put, we do not need to pursue the same things as everyone else or play the same games as they do. We can choose not to engage in an argument at all. We can be entirely comfortable letting others believe what they do.
Much of success in life comes from choosing the right pursuits at the right time. Only fools fight every battle that is offered to them. A wise person knows when to turn aside from bitterness, and how to focus on the things that will bring them happiness.