The “Let’s talk”-or-“Fuck you” Response

So you’re in a conversation or a room and someone else has expressed an opinion or view you find unacceptable. There’s several things you could do here. You could try to discuss the large chasm between how you view a situation and how someone else does, and argue why you’re unokay with the other’s opinion, and they could defend their opinion and break down upon what principles and observations they form their opinion. Various things could come out of this conversation, including you getting convinced that the opposing opinion is actually reasonable, or you confirming a belief that the other person is nuts.

But you had a talk. What this means is that you had the chance to either civilly convince the other party that your view is more reasonable or bridge two very different opinions to find what in the differences in what you see about the world causes your different conclusions, and more importantly, even if you did not successfully reach an agreement, you reached a better understanding of how the other person built their views, and hopefully, vice versa. This is the “Let’s talk” response.

Alternatively, you could decide to not move to conversation and debate, possibly announce your disapproval briefly, and either silently judge the person inside or just loudly claim the view unacceptable. You may decide to avoid this person, or make a note to yourself to make choices or suggest to others to make choices to exclude or condemn this person. This is the “Fuck you” response. Unlike after the “Let’s talk” response scenario, either of you that was wrong about a fact will continue believing incorrect facts, you never got to try to understand where the difference in belief of the state of reality actually lies, and/or you never realize what the change in values between you and this other person is. And more importantly, at least one (and possibly the other) continues to believe the other person is just a sick and disgusting human being.

But chances are you’ve participated both in “Let’s talk” scenarios and “Fuck you” scenarios. Are you just acting suboptimally every time you decide to take the “Fuck you” route?

(I’m ignoring for now the other cases that sprawl on the various other dimensions of conversation on disagreement, for instance, being unwilling to discuss an issue because of the venue or environment in which a conversation happens—”Let’s talk, but not here.”.)

No, because the “Fuck you” response could be very appropriate. You’re here in the world, living, for only a few decades, you don’t have unlimited energy, and debating could be draining on your emotions. When you have to explain your perception of unacceptability again and again, you can easily get jaded. When you are discussing a topic for which one side has had a significant negative impact on your life, it can be emotionally difficult to discuss a topic. It’s also a big problem when the population of people that hold what you consider is an unacceptable belief is very large; you’d really squander your life choosing “Let’s talk” on every encounter. It’s important to weigh how important one thinks a belief is, how likely they think another person is to change their mind or more deeply understand opposing views, and how emotionally painful you expect talking about the topic in question with the person in question is, when one decides what side of the “Let’s talk”-“Fuck you” line a disagreement lies on.

There are many cases where locally the “Fuck you” response brings happier results than the “Let’s talk” response. But it’s important to realize that in the grand scheme of society, “Fuck you” builds tension and resentment in a way that the “Let’s talk” response doesn’t, and every “Fuck you” decision makes groups of differing ideology drift further and have more contempt and distaste for the other group. What this means is that those in the groups that believe that their answer to the question is that important, having seen that verbal communication fails, are more likely to support changing the other side by force, maybe by oppression, maybe by violence. The fault lines of ideological difference must quake when the slow-and-steady creep of discussion won’t do to release tension. We debate because we decide, probably pretty correctly, that exchanging words leaves life nicer than exchanging blows, and in order to keep this standard up, it is important to keep the size of views one says “Fuck you” to small, as well as curb the frequency with which we allow moments when we get angered by someone else merely saying something, in alternative to acting on it, to manifest outwards.

Now, across many forms of media, one can hear a lot these days, people asking “How did the rise of Donald Trump happen? How could it actually be the case that this much of this country loves Donald Trump?” Here comes my take.

There are a lot of views of people that support Donald Trump that are views that a lot of opponents consider completely unacceptable—”Fuck you” views. For no candidate for quite a while has there been as much discourse condemning a presumptive major party presidential nominee as for him. And they also have been for quite a while. Even if these people tried to openly express why they had those views, the frequency with which the response is “Fuck you”, the response in which they have no opportunity to learn what the other side considers the flaw in the view, causes them to realize that they just shouldn’t display their opinion publicly, but keep in mind to seek changes that would be more friendly to their particular views, when the opportunity comes. Meanwhile, the only group of people they decide to discuss ideas with is people on their side.

But because these views are considered completely unacceptable, it becomes the presumption outside the Trump camp that the set of people for which this set of views exists must be ignorably small, and the number of people that actually displays these views that one sees being so small due to the effect mentioned above reinforces this idea. Oops! It turns out the size of the crowd left behind the “Fuck you” curtain turned out to be nearly half the country. Eventually, Donald Trump made his campaign for president, and this crowd seized the opportunity for their views to come alive. And the population of America realized that it has significantly-sized subpopulations, once divided and now very divided, a chasm of “Fuck you” in between. The Trump clan is beyond the acceptability horizon of most liberals, and the reciprocal is also probably the case.

The last few years in liberal media saw the rise of the liberal pundit, people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver. Not only did we see the rise of the liberal pundit, though, but also we see the gradual replacement of “Let’s talk” discourse with “Fuck you” discourse. Less and less time is spent explaining the values that lead to liberal conclusions and more time is spent making fun of the other side or calling them names. I find John Oliver to be the epitome of the new “Fuck you” discourse, his episodes littered with ad hominems and dedicated to telling the other side they’re horrible over stating what value judgments are being made. (It is certainly not impossible to compare values and still retain humor.) The “Fuck you” discourse does effectively deal blows against conservatives, but it end up hurting liberals as well, because it makes us more open to surprises, because, shocker, when people are widely told their views make them a terrible person, they don’t say them as much, but they don’t go away and now we see the size of the population we think are just terrible people that we didn’t know was so large and for which we do not have the experience to deal with because we didn’t have the previous experiences with which to understand them.

Let’s look over this again. You’re A. B has said something you find unacceptable.

Decision I, for you, A.

Ia) Silently judge B(, remember this about B). Interaction ends, A builds resentment of B, B’s opinion of A doesn’t change, potential emotional drain of conflict averted, negative emotions related to issues averted, no increase in understanding, no one convinced of any amount of each other’s positions.
Ib) Tell B they’re a terrible person. Interaction ends, A builds resentment of B, B’s opinion of A could also have dropped, others’ opinion of you may increase or decrease, most of potential emotional drain of conflict averted, negative emotions related to issues averted, positive feelings with expression of emotion gained, no one convinced of any amount of each other’s positions. If A in position of power and pushes A’s view anyway, additional resentment may build due to perception of oppression.
Ic) Tell B you’re unokay with that view, and prompt or wait for a response.

Decision II, for them, B.

IIa) Walk away(, remember this about A)). See above, subtract out some amount of emotional drain. Safe to judge B as having views you’re unokay with that they won’t defend. Knowledge of mutual belief of terribleness gained, knowledge that you two won’t get along at least on this front, but also knowledge that you couldn’t have done better. Some amount of emotional drain averted.
IIb) Tell A they’re a terrible person. See above, etc. Safe to judge B as having views you’re unokay with that they won’t defend using any reasonable means. Knowledge of mutual belief of terribleness gained, knowledge that you two won’t get along at least on this front, but also knowledge that you couldn’t have done better. Some amount of emotional drain averted. If B in position of power and pushes B’s view anyway, additional resentment may build due to perception of oppression. IIc) Tell A the basis of their beliefs; debate ensues.

Debate happens, incompletion results N:

Na) One side tells another they don’t want to argue with them anymore, deciding to ignore the rest of assertions. Partial benefits on considerations. If side quitting is in position of power, additional resentment may build due to perception of oppression.

Debate happens, completion results R:

Ra) A convinces B to accept A’s views. A is happy to bring someone to A’s side, can feel contentedness about winning. B gets to learn something, may need to suffer perception from the crowd for being the losing side of a debate.
Rb) B convinces A to accept B’s views. B is happy to bring someone to B’s side, can feel contentedness about winning. A gets to learn something, may need to suffer perception from the crowd for being the losing side of a debate.
Rc) Partial convincing, possibly in both directions, occurs. Happiness of partial convincing occurs, etc.
Rd) Neither side budges, fundamental disagreement in perception or values found. Least optimal result. Frustration on both sides for no progress being made.
In all of above cases: Unbounded emotional drain from debate, but A and B understand the basis and fundamental observations and values upon which they form their beliefs, and can accurately judge them based upon what they consider okay values and okay means of conclusions from observation.

There are a few additional points I’d like to arrive on:

  1. One should value people who are open with their opinions and open to discussion about them more than people who have that opinion but don’t want to admit it, regardless of what the opinion is. Even if it’s one someone deems horrible, it’s a demonstration of honesty and is also better for the future than if they allow it to grow inside.
  2. Society’s tendency to mock those that lose debates is toxic. Among many things, it encourages people to build resentment quietly rather than seek differences, and discourages the peaceful talking about differences through speech and encourages the silent buildup of tension and resentment that may erupt more disastrously later.

Oh, and one last thing. Suppose person A and person B are both part of an ideological group P, and they both sometimes choose the “Let’s talk” approach and sometimes choose the “Fuck you” approach. But among the many sub-issues that may exist within this ideological group, person A could be “Let’s talk”-tending on issue Y but “Fuck you”-tending on issue Z, whereas person B could be “Fuck you”-tending on issue Y but “Let’s talk”-tending on issue Z. Due to the acknowledgement and perception of conflict, as well as the understanding of Y and Z as usually aligned issues, a member C of ideological group Q which opposes group P could, after a couple conversations, fairly easily reach the conclusion that A and B are probably “Fuck you”-tending on both Y and Z, and, depending on how conflict-averse they are, not try to verify the other. (What goes on in C’s mind is sort of like Griffith’s Mouse Experiment, but with reactions to disagreement on issues instead of strains of bactria.) Thus, it becomes likely to end up concluding that both A and B are more extreme than they actually are, and that they’re more fearable as a larger block. This is something that is important to keep track of both in terms of making a group seem approachable and in evaluating how likely others are to abort discussion and leave one unsatisfied in the hunt for better understanding.

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