A Reminder About Humility in Judgment

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about something that often happens online (and offline too) – when you have a conversation with someone, and they aren’t really speaking to you; they’re speaking to their misconception of you.

In the conversation, you feel like an image has coalesced next to you. It vaguely resembles you, and it’s made up of the other person’s mistaken assumptions about your motives, beliefs, hobbies, etc.

To varying degrees, I think we all have a tendency to do this to other people. We fly to quick judgments about them based on stereotypes or based on our own fears or interactions with superficially similar people. Some people do this maliciously; they deliberately create cruel and damaging misconceptions that they try to force as truth during a conversation.

I remembered something I wrote a couple of years ago around this time of year – the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was a piece on humility in judgment. Humility isn’t a fashionable characteristic, especially because it’s often confused with ‘humiliation’ or ‘abject lowliness.’ In truth, it’s an aid to clearer thinking and integrity.

From that piece:

Humility opens up space for self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and doubt. You make a judgment whenever necessary, while remaining conscious of the fact that you may have erred or acted on incomplete knowledge. You acknowledge the possibility that you’ll need to revise your judgment in the future.

Forming a judgment with humility isn’t the same thing as assuming a non-judgmental pose or deciding that you aren’t capable of judging at all. Rather than kill your ability to judge, humility refines it. You’re less apt to rely on snap judgments and more likely to assess a situation thoughtfully, with a better sense of your limitations.

This isn’t easy. Humility is an admission that you’re living with uncertainty. It reminds you of the limits of your knowledge and powers of thought.

Let’s keep aiming for genuine humility in judgment, in conversation, and in thought. You can still speak with conviction but without overestimating how much (or how well) you know or understand.

Recommended Reading: The Tyranny of Opinion

I recently read a book that would have been relevant before widespread Internet use and the advent of social media, but makes for even more urgent reading now.

TyrannyofOpinion

The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford discusses threats to freedom of speech beyond government censorship. Blackford focuses on coercion and conformity imposed by other powerful institutions and forces in society, including online mobs that foment outrage against offending individuals, often with abuse, slander, harassment, and serious threats, such as loss of employment.

I appreciate the book’s thoughtful discussion of free speech, including the question of what constitutes harmful expression, and how people have different ideas of what’s harmful. For example, most would agree that issuing death threats or inciting a mob to attack shouldn’t be counted as free speech. However, people may want to suppress speech that appears to undermine a set of beliefs they hold dear. Harm as a concept can get stretched from the threat of literal violence to feelings of upset, anger, or offense. How do we best determine the standards of harm for our society?

The book serves as a reminder of what free speech is meant to protect and why it’s important to uphold it as a general principle (and not limit it to a question of what the government permits). Are the following important to you?

  • The ability to engage in free inquiry, including questioning ideas and conducting investigations into different topics.
  • The ability to discuss various issues, including the pros and cons of public policies.
  • The ability to write, paint, and create other art. (Of course there have been controversies, including questions about whether a piece has artistic merit or is mere obscenity. But do you generally prefer to critique an artistic work, or do you lean more towards bans, threats, and harassment of authors and artists?)

There are challenges to upholding free speech, not least because people have a strong tendency to be tribal about it. (Even people who consider themselves free speech proponents are prone to tribalism; they’ll gladly defend one of their own, but not a political opponent.)

People are also prone to exercising coercion, imposing certain types of thought and speech on anyone who doesn’t conform. The book provides multiple examples of the way “offenders” are met not with well-reasoned critiques but with exaggeration, dishonesty, displays of moral outrage, and threats against livelihood, reputation, and physical safety. With social media, it’s easy to instantly whip up large numbers of people from all over to descend on an offending individual, and no facts or well-developed arguments are necessary.

Instead of reasoned arguments, people often rely on personal attacks and ascribe all kinds of evil intentions to someone who steps out of bounds. Discussing a 1994 article by Glenn Loury, Blackford writes:

Within a milieu of political conformity, anyone who speaks out on a particular topic in a particular manner will be judged personally. Meaning will be read into her manner of expression, and her arguments may never be examined on their merits. Questions about her data and her reasoning may well be set aside, and instead she will be assessed as someone who was willing to speak in that way, at that time, on that topic. This may reveal her as an apostate from her group, especially if its true believers are hiding whatever misgivings they have about the local orthodoxy. A likely consequence is that a group’s moderates and internal dissenters will be driven out of conversations, or at least be forced to keep silent about their moderate and dissenting opinions.

What happens when people are afraid to speak, express doubt, or question a group in any way? Along with festering resentment, stagnation sets in. Far fewer original thoughts, interesting proposals, or important questions get introduced. People’s capacity for critical thinking weakens, and they struggle more with how to construct a strong argument or evaluate evidence. (What need is there for critical thinking when you can engage in knee-jerk outrage?) There’s also more dishonesty, distortions, and misconceptions. For example, when non-conforming thoughts are severely curbed in a particular environment (such as a university), people might assume that the established, acceptable opinion on a certain topic is more widely held than it actually is, because no one is speaking out in disagreement or calling for greater nuance.

Towards the end of the book, Blackford offers suggestions for how to combat forced conformity and promote well-reasoned discussions and inquiry. Examples include recognizing propaganda techniques, resisting the knee-jerk impulse to join social media mobs, assessing other people’s words and intentions in as fair-minded a way as possible, pushing for changes in various organizations in terms of their speech codes or the reasons for which they fire someone, and facing down an outrage-fueled mob without caving in to irrational demands or abuse.

Another book I read recently, The Coddling of the American Mind, overlaps in some of its topics with The Tyranny of Opinion and also offers suggestions at the end for “wiser kids,” “wiser universities,” and “wiser societies,” including ways to protect physical safety and dignity while engaging in more robust discussions, self-reflection, and a principled stand against mobs.

I want to be optimistic, and I do see more people sharing concerns about conformity and the suppression of free speech and inquiry in ways that don’t involve government censorship. But what are the incentives for greater numbers of people to more consistently resist suppression, conformity, and an overly broad definition of harm?

Outrage and tribalism are powerful and attractive. The self-righteous thrill, the malicious glee, or the power trip of fomenting or joining a mob appeals to many. Engaging in more critical thinking and self-reflection is difficult, and the rewards aren’t usually immediate. Evaluating evidence, waiting for more evidence, withholding a knee-jerk opinion, making the effort to truly understand someone with a different political point-of-view, and conveying another person’s point-of-view honestly – all of that takes mental effort and a commitment of character.

You can say that one of the rewards is a strengthening of your integrity and self-respect. But to what extent do people care enough or even associate those qualities with the ability to sustain a civil, honest discussion? It’s also much less risky to keep your head down, especially if you aren’t wealthy, well-connected, or powerful. A major pushback against mob mentality and excessive restrictions on speech will need to come from thoughtful, influential individuals and from large numbers of people who support them – people who don’t agree with each other on all topics or share all of the same beliefs.

Here’s another excerpt from the book. It can serve as a call to action, pushing for a return to traditionally liberal values, which are necessary to maintain a certain kind of society. (If this kind of society is sufficiently important to us, we’ll try to keep those values alive.)

… principles such as secular government, free inquiry and discussion, and the rule of law; values such as individuality, spontaneity, and original thinking – have wider cultural resonance if only we take the trouble to explain and advocate them. When we override these principles and values with supercharged anxieties about identity and offence, we throw away what made liberalism attractive in the first place.”

The tiring “sparkle and crackle” (a post inspired by North and South)

I ruminate. I like the connection of that word to “chewing the cud,” because it’s a slow process, and it doesn’t look like much from the outside. (Sometimes it doesn’t yield much either.)

I have moments of sparkle and wit, especially when I’m feeling comfortable in a conversation. But I shy away from arguments that are mostly about showing off, where there’s a demand for rapid responses and the collapsing of complex issues into seemingly clever soundbytes.

I don’t like competition in discussion. I don’t like the vocabulary of ‘owning’ or ‘slaying’ or ‘destroying’ someone in an argument. I’m not a fan of conversational theatrics. I see discussions as a slow, cooperative process. Partnering up with someone for rumination, with space for silence and taking a breath.

What does any of this have to do with North and South, the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell?

I just posted about North and South on this blog, and how I appreciate the way the author portrays personal and societal upheavals.

There’s also a passage in the book that struck me with how well it captured conversation that’s mostly about showing off. Margaret Hale, the novel’s main character, is at a dinner party in London observing some of the guests:

Every talent, every feeling, every acquirement; nay, even every tendency towards virtue, was used up as materials for fireworks; the hidden, sacred fire, exhausted itself in sparkle and crackle. They talked about art in a merely sensuous way, dwelling on outside effects, instead of allowing themselves to learn what it has to teach. They lashed themselves up into an enthusiasm about high subjects in company, and never thought about them when they were alone; they squandered their capabilities of appreciation into a mere flow of appropriate words.

Gaskell wasn’t writing specifically about arguments here. But I recognize the style of conversation she was describing in this 19th-century novel. Too much energy dissipated in flashiness: retorts, quips, showing off. Then the fireworks show ends, and the night sky seems empty, and people turn their eyes away from it.

I used to like the sparkle more when I was younger. As I get older, what I like best is straightforwardness, uncomplicated pauses that are comfortable (and not a sign that you’re “being owned”), and the ability to hold up an issue and ask questions and examine it from different angles without needing to deal with snide remarks or being immediately labeled for not coming up with the correct words or opinions.

7 ways to build self-worth and confidence in kids

1) See them as their own people

Much as you might want them to live out your own unfulfilled dreams or become a smaller, more agreeable version of yourself, kids are going to have their own personalities, interests, and abilities. You could try to bend them to your will in every little way, but they’ll either distance themselves from you entirely or break inside.

If you’re in the habit of comparing them to other kids, please stop. There will always be some other kid who has better grades, goes to better schools, can hit a ball farther, plays the piano better, looks more conventionally attractive, and seems well-behaved at all times. That shouldn’t matter (and besides, those other seemingly perfect children are human and have their own faults and problems, which you aren’t privy to). Help your kids develop into their strongest, most decent selves, rather than wish for them to be someone else. Accept that they’re human and will never meet some ridiculous standard of perfection. Love them as they are. If you keep comparing them to others, they’ll pick up on that, on how they seem to always fall short in your eyes, never good enough in their own right.

And please, please, don’t use them as a surrogate for someone else. They aren’t your therapist. They aren’t the best friend you never had. They aren’t meant to step into the shoes of a spouse. They’re your kids.

2) Talk to them as if they’re people

We get into the habit of cooing at children when they’re very young and brushing off their observations, triumphs, tears and fits of anger as so much lovable nonsense or irritating noise. The thing is, even very young children have serious concerns about the world. It’s easy to dismiss them or talk over them – especially when we don’t have good answers to their questions – but if you keep doing this, you’re basically telling them that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to and that they’re better off keeping quiet about what’s most important to them.

Hear them out, with sincere interest. Try to understand how they’re communicating. A two-year-old, for instance, doesn’t have the same verbal and cognitive ability as an older kid, but in many cases may still be trying to tell you something important – something they discovered or are delighted in, or something that annoys or frightens them.

Even if what they say sounds silly, remember that they’re new to the world and can’t possibly know everything that you know. Not that you know everything. Make a habit of exploring things together and not being afraid of questions that can’t easily be answered. Don’t be afraid of silliness either. And just as you wouldn’t want to be regularly shouted down, interrupted, or belittled, please extend them the same decent treatment.

3) Help them develop competency

You’re there to give your kid support. What that means changes as they develop and grow older. Basically, if you do everything for them, they’ll doubt whether they can ever stand on their own two feet. If you need to be heavily involved in every decision, great or small, you don’t give them a chance to breathe and try things out. You’re basically telling them that you don’t think they can manage on their own. This could result in a lack of confidence across different areas of life, or maybe one particular area (e.g. schoolwork).

4) Be dependably loving

One day you’re warm and loving. The next day you’re cold and distant. On a given day, your kid’s laughter might make you smile. An hour later, you tell them their laughter is grating on your nerves. On some occasions, you give them thoughtful advice and comfort them if they’ve failed at something; on other occasions, you react with impatience and derision. You make earnest promises to them, which you break half the time. They don’t quite know what to make of you. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, they think. They start regularly second-guessing themselves.

5) Hold them accountable for the right things

Kids need to learn to be responsible for their actions – not to bully other kids, not to steal, not to destroy their siblings’ toys, not to smear the contents of their noses on library books.

However, they’re not to be held responsible for your bad day at work, your rocky marriage, the argument you had with your own parents, the delivery guy showing up an hour late with dinner, or your personal insecurities.

6) Give them room and time to play

Play is pleasure and growth. It’s a time for flights of imagination, for exploration and development. Kids ideally try out different things when they play, build their skills, and have fun. When they play with others, they learn to socialize and work out conflicts. They learn to take risks, in a relatively safe environment. Please don’t hover over them all the time as they play, dictating what they should or shouldn’t do and making a fuss if they don’t spend all their free time exactly the way you want them to. Give them the confidence to chart their own path. Make free play (and free time more generally) an important part of their childhood, instead of something wedged into the twenty minutes between piano lessons/chess club/swim team/computer class/household chores. Participating in scheduled activities can be fun and beneficial, and helping out with housework at an age-appropriate level can be fulfilling for them, but if their schedule is so overbooked that they don’t have time to just play or relax, ask yourself why they need to be so busy. Talk to them about it, too – about what they want and need.

7) Model self-worth and confidence for them

I’m not talking about false bravado here, or the attitude of “suck it up/don’t cry/never show weakness, imperfections or vulnerability because no one will like or respect you.” I’m talking about genuine self-worth and confidence. Basically, you like yourself; at the very least, you’re regularly kind to yourself. You’re pleased when you do well, and you don’t beat yourself up endlessly when you make a mistake and constantly tell yourself that you’ll never get things right. You practice self-compassion and forgiveness, and have a basic faith in yourself as a human being who is capable of leading a worthwhile life and accomplishing things. You enjoy feeling good but also understand that sometimes you’ll feel down in the dumps. You’re human and imperfect, and you’re ok with that. You can still work towards your dreams, cope with mistakes along the way, take risks, love other people, receive love in return, behave decently, and enjoy life.

Kids pick up on your attitudes. They see what your attitude is towards failure and imperfection, towards embarrassment and shame. If you regularly act as if messing up makes a person unlovable or unworthy, your kids absorb that idea too, and it could batter away at them. So work on yourself. Examine your beliefs. Do you compare yourself to other people all the time? Do you tear yourself down and tear other people down? Are you basically comfortable in your own skin? Do you consider yourself a perpetual failure in life, or – even if you want some things to improve or change – are you basically ok with you who are?

Work on becoming a healthier person, mentally and emotionally. Do it for your own sake, but also know that your kids will be much more likely to develop healthy self-worth and confidence too.