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Choose Kind... and Right

posted Sunday Aug 04, 2019 09:49 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD


About Bo Bennett, PhD

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When I was a teenager, I had an unquenchable thirst for motivational material. I listened to these motivational gurus on cassette tapes, many of which were hilariously warped from sitting in my hot car that when played, sounded like demon-posessed chipmunks. Although I have many, many criticisms of the self-help movement in general, I did manage to take away several nuggets that I feel shaped my life for the better. One such nugget was from Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, who wrote, "When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind." 

As someone who has spent their career writing and speaking about critical thinking and reason, being right is kind of important (said with sarcasm). People who spread misinformation can be extremely dangerous, such as anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. If someone argues that vaccines are just big pharma's way of creating billionaires by giving kids autism, it is next to impossible for me not to object with facts and evidence to the contrary rather than simply responding, "Thank you for that insightful opinion. Your view is appreciated." In other words, I feel morally obligated to choose being right over being kind. I would rather hurt an anti-vaxxer's feelings and potentially save a few lives than be kind to an anti-vaxxer and allow their misinformation to affect others. However, Dr. Dyer's quote implies that being right and kind is not an option. While this may be the case in some rare situations, in virtually all cases, one can choose to be both right and kind. So I would like to propose a somewhat ironic modification to the quote: "When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose both."

Why Hatred is Effective

A major category of logical fallacies is personal attacks. These are fallacies such as ad hominems, poisoning the well, argument by intimidation, and many more. These are fallacies because non-critical thinkers, or even just those who unfamiliar with the techniques, are easily persuaded by character assassinations having nothing to do with the truth of the claim being made. Psychologically, we are far more likely to accept something as true if it comes from someone we like (the Halo effect) and reject claims from those we don't like (the Pitchfork effect). If one can manage to turn the audience against the person making the claim, no matter how true the claim may be, they are less likely to accept the claim as true. As unfortunate as it is, hatred works, but only to a point.

Remember that half the population has a lower-than-average ability to spot logical fallacies and detect manipulation (and lower-than-average IQ). Although some fallacies are easier to detect than others, personal attacks are the low hanging fruit in the world of fallacies. Hatred is most effective when one's audience is in the lower-than-average intellect pool. To those who can spot the manipulation, hatred and personal attacks might very well have the opposite intended effect.

Gaming Conversation

One way to be right and be kind is by "gaming conversation," meaning that you should consider your exchange a game where the object of the game is to only respond in ways that are both right and kind. For most interlocutors, this is like playing a video game on level one or two. People, on average, are both civil and kind in dialogue. Factors such as the method of communication (e.g., in person, on the phone, private e-mail, public social media), anonymity, the passion for the topic, and others, are correlated to the level of civility. Despite this average civility, there are those who are extremely hateful, belligerent, and unkind. Conversing with them while maintaining your kindness is like fighting the boss on level 10. This isn't an easy game to play, but it is worth it.

Why Kindness is More Effective

The "punch a Nazi" crowd attempts to justify violence and hatred by using the "greater good" argument. The problem is, they are woefully mistaken about the effectiveness of their "in kind" behaviors. Despite the immediate feel-good, "cathartic" effect of personal attacks on someone you don't like, expressing this hostility not only breeds more hostility within you but very often results in an escalation of hostility that ends poorly for all involved. When it comes to conversation or debate, this hostility not only results in a diversion from the issue being discussed but causes those being hostile to sacrifice reason and logic in order to get the dopamine hit that comes with allowing your amygdala unfettered access to your mouth or keyboard.

Perhaps the best reason for kindness is that while a significant portion of the population is persuaded by hatred and personal attacks, virtually everyone is won over by kindness. If you attempt to fight hatred with hatred, the chances are you will lose because the person you are fighting is better at hatred than you are. Play your game, not theirs. Bring the focus back to the argument as often as you need to while not taking the bait put there to lure you into a battle of bravado.

Get the Advantage: Use Humor

Besides being demonstrably right, the best way to win over an audience and perhaps even an interlocutor is to use humor. Just avoid humor at the expense of the interlocutor. It could be argued that this a persuasion technique not very different from using hatred and personal attacks. Humor is a very likable quality, and as we have seen, likability affects one's ability to evaluate claims. A brilliant comedian can persuade an audience to accept some horrible ideas. Just remember that being right is still the top priority.

A Heuristic, Not a Law

I do my best to practice what I preach, but like everyone, I have my good days and bad days. A review of all my exchanges over the last decade will make that clear. In some cases, I let my emotions get the better of me. Consider the advice, "When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose both" a heuristic, not an immutable law of communication. I can think of a few conversations I had that should have never taken place, which would essentially be choosing to be neither kind nor right. I have conversed with those who were clearly trolling me, people who were not mentally stable, and those whose abuse outweighed any benefit from the conversation. Kindness may be more effective than hatred, hostility, and personal attacks, but it is not always more effective. The most effective strategy might simply be not having the conversation altogether, especially if you question your own ability to maintain civility. A good way to make a bad situation worse is by proving someone who is attacking your character right by responding to their attack in a way that confirms their attack.

Dr. Wayne W. Dyer wrote, "When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind." I say, "When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose both." In most cases of conversation, no such dichotomy of right vs. kind exists. We can counter wrong claims and bad ideology with both facts and kindness. Although in some cases, refusing to engage is the wisest choice, in virtually no case would hatred, hostility, and personal attacks be the best strategy. Respond with kindness, unless you can't. Then don't respond at all.


Podcast Episode: Choose Kind


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