Kindness, understanding, and conversing on social media

This last year I joined twitter. For those who know me, this was a bit surprising; in many ways I loathe the platform. I hate the way it breaks nuanced opinions up into bite-sized chunks, I detest how it amplifies extreme voices, and I despair at the fact that it so often creates and exaggerates controversy. Some of my research, in fact, focuses on how the structural elements of social media platforms like twitter interact with the nature of our cognition to make these things nearly inevitable.

And yet, I joined. In many ways, my academic community can best be found on twitter. When I moved to Australia over a decade ago, I lost one of the most vital elements of that community — the day-to-day engagement with so many of my peers. Australia has loads of thoughtful and brilliant people, but just by sheer weight of numbers, the centre of mass of my field is not and will probably never be here. Skype and once-a-year conference visits (if I’m lucky) do not make up for the kind of consistent engagement one gets as an academic in the US.

Twitter makes up for that at least somewhat, and I’ve found myself dipping my feet more and more into its pond, overcoming my misgivings about the platform in order to share an article here or an opinion there. But until recently I’ve mostly stayed away from many issues dear to my heart — topics like diversity, gender, open science, linguistics, climate change, class, family, and academia — because I’ve seen, over and over, how people who engage with them almost inevitably emerge hurt and feeling unheard and misunderstood. This happens to people on every side, and it’s not just because of assholes or jerks: it seems to occur even when everyone involved is eloquent, careful, brave, and doing their very best to avoid misunderstanding.

Quite frankly, I’m nervous about engaging with that; I'm not sure the effort is worth the reward. But my New Year’s Resolution was to be brave. So this is me, trying to be brave.

I have lots of thoughts about what structural elements of social media exaggerate these dynamics — like I said, it’s one of my research interests — which perhaps someday I’ll address in another blog post. But they are huge and systemic issues, and I can’t fix those right now or quickly (or possibly at all). Which means that the choice for me is to either continue not engaging, or to figure out some way to engage that works for me. And I want to engage: these issues are important to me! Yet at the same time, I have absolutely no desire to burn myself out or make enemies of people I respect or serve as a lightning rod or symbol of something I’m not. All I want to do is talk to people, and learn from them, and maybe have them learn from me a bit too.

So, as my first step, I thought I’d write up my thoughts about what I think is going wrong in some of these conversations and how to avoid at least some of the pitfalls. Mostly it’s a reminder to myself of how I want to be, but maybe other people will find it helpful too.

Here are my two principles and some thoughts about what they mean.

Principle 1: My primary goal is to increase understanding

There’s a lot of talk on twitter about how the solution to these terrible dynamics is just to be kind, so much so that I was tempted to put this as my first principle. But I don’t think it’s quite right. The problem is that people disagree about what kindness means: is it refraining from name-calling? Using the “right” tone? (If so, what is it?) Remaining quiet or apologising even when you disagree or don’t understand, especially if you’re talking to a minority1 who has to deal with far more shit than you do? Is it being silent in conversations with minorities so that their voices can be heard, or is it speaking up so you’re not leaving all of the effort of persuasion to them? If you’re a minority, is it kind to speak up if you see someone say something ignorant or hurtful, or does that just increase conflict? If you do speak up, do you do so loudly and forcefully (to stand up for other minorities who might not feel they can), or do you do so tactfully and softly (as this might be more productive at leading to change)? There’s no clear answer to these questions as far as I can tell, especially not anything that applies across contexts and people.

Fundamentally, “be kind” is (in my opinion) not a useful framing because kindness means different things to different people. Because of this, exhortations to be kind tend to devolve into arguments about tone or civility or who has the right to speak. I’m sick of these discussions, and I say this as somebody who is a minority in some ways and a privileged majority in others. In my experience these circular conversations usually only lead to more misunderstanding and hurt feelings on all sides.

So I have a different goal. My aim with having conversations about important stuff is to understand, really understand, where the other person is coming from (and, hopefully, to increase their understanding of me). I think achieving this goal requires a radical degree of perspective taking that is very, very hard.

What do I mean by “radical perspective-taking”? It’s kind of like the idea of steelmanning, where instead of creating the weakest possible version of an interlocutor’s argument, you create the strongest possible version — maybe an even stronger version than they themselves are offering. But I want to take it a step further, so it applies beyond intellectual arguments. We should extend it to trying to be as charitable as possible when figuring out people’s emotions and motivations as well.

If someone says something that I think is wrong or stupid or misguided, I want to try to presume that they are a sensible and kind person and ask myself: why might they believe this? Do they really mean what I think they’re saying, or have they perhaps communicated badly? If they do really mean it, what experiences might have led them to believe this? If they appear to be acting unethically to me, why might that be? What external constraints are they operating within? What competing motivations are they trying to balance between? What story are they telling themselves about their actions?

This is not just trying to be kind when we read the surface meaning of their words. It extends much more deeply than that. It means trying to figure out what about their experiences and situations and feelings might be that would explain their words in as positive of a light as possible.

This is often really hard to do. Like, really hard. Part of it is emotional: the more somebody says something upsetting, the harder it is to get past that pain and upset and ask these questions. Sometimes I can’t get past it; in those cases, I try very hard to stay out of the conversation entirely, because remaining in it will just hurt me more and probably make things worse. Very often the pain is a cue about something unresolved in my own life that I need to work on, and I’m trying to get better at noticing when this happens.

But even aside from the emotions, it’s just legitimately intellectually and cognitively difficult to really take the perspective of somebody different from you. This is another thing I study somewhat in my research. It’s a massively underconstrained inference problem: we see only the tip of the iceberg of a person’s behaviour and from this we must make rich inferences about their motivations, beliefs, and goals. Whenever an inference problem is unconstrained, you must limit it with some kind of prior or assumption; otherwise you can’t generalise at all. What that means is that if we want to understand people based on their behaviour, we have to fall back on our own priors and schemas. The more different a person is from us, the more likely those priors are wrong, which means our inferences about them will be very wrong too.

Intellectual humility requires that we recognise these limitations, but it’s all too easy not to even see them at all. And this is a problem for everyone. Minorities are in many ways better at radical perspective-taking, just because having to navigate in a majority world means having more information available and more practice in doing so. But even with that it’s a struggle, and nearly everybody is a minority in some contexts and a majority in others. The essence of the problem is that our background schemas and beliefs — the lenses through which we understand the world — are heavily shaped by emotions and experience, and these can vary markedly between people. So if someone says something that appears wrong or ignorant or misguided to me, it may be sensible or kind or even right given their experiences, background, and feelings.

Almost always, when discussions go awry, they go awry because of our failure to recognise this truth. Person A says something that Person B thinks is wrong. Person B pushes back. Person A gets defensive and angry. Person B feels upset and misunderstood. Both people end the interaction feeling angry and sad, and understanding the other even less.

What’s gone wrong here? All too often, it’s a failure of perspective-taking on both sides. Person A hasn’t succeeded in understanding where B might be coming from and why B might find their statement wrong. Person B has failed to understand why A might have said it in the first place or what their experiences are that lead them to think it’s true. Perhaps neither of them really tried to understand on this level – face it, we’re all basically toddlers wrapped in a thin layer of civilisation, so this happens a lot – or perhaps they both tried but failed. Either way, both got hurt, both felt misunderstood, and then it escalated more.

My vow to myself is to try to avoid being either Person A or Person B here. No matter who I’m talking to — whether it’s a person with all the privilege and power in the world or a person with none, whether it’s someone with everything in common with me or almost nothing — I will do my best to radically take their perspective. I’ll interpret their motivations as charitably as possible. I’ll try to find whatever grain of sense there is in what they’re saying, and converse with them accordingly.

Why is it so important to do this?

Because my goal in talking with people in the first place is to understand them and to (hopefully) help them understand me. It’s not to “win” a debate or score points for my “side.” It’s not even to signal allyship or stand up for my demographic — at least not primarily — because I think focusing on those things as a goal can often, ironically, make the overall situation even worse by further increasing mistrust. I believe that in the long term, the best way to stand up for ourselves is to increase understanding between everyone. And that means that in the short term I might appear to be sympathising with the unsympathetic, or giving a fair hearing to people who aren’t acting in good faith and don’t “deserve” one. That is a risk I have to take, because it’s long-term understanding I’m interested in.

Fundamentally, I think radical perspective-taking is the only way to achieve the goal of true long-term understanding. Every time we do our best to really see the point of view of the other person, we are demonstrating to them that we take them seriously, that we are operating in good faith, and that their words won’t be taken out of context or interpreted in an uncharitable light. This encourages them to be vulnerable and honest. It makes it easier for them to apologise (and for us to apologise ourselves). It allows us to accept apologies and recognise mistakes, because we’re conversing in light of this higher goal — understanding — rather than to score points or force them into silence or even to come to agreement.

Indeed, it’s important to recognise that we very well might not end up agreeing, especially if our experiences and feelings are very different from one another. That’s okay. I can work with people I disagree with, as long as they are operating in good faith and I understand them and they are doing their best to understand me. In fact, I want to work with people I disagree with, because diversity of opinion makes all of us stronger, more likely to converge on the truth, and more likely to make good decisions.

This brings me to the next principle…

Principle 2: Firmly limit who I’m willing to engage with

This principle might seem to completely contradict the first, but both are absolutely necessary. Presumptions of good faith and radical perspective-taking are great as long as I’m conversing with people who are approaching conversations in a similar way. People are imperfect and I can forgive a lot of mistakes, as I would hope people would be forgiving toward me as well. But I am only willing to forgive mistakes if I’m talking with someone who is also seeking understanding – not just for me to understand them and change my mind if warranted, but also to genuinely want to understand me and to be willing to change their mind too. So my focus is on identifying these people and giving none of my precious time or attention or space to others.

It is super important to do this step. If I engage too much with trolls, or jerks, or liars, then taking them at their word and trying to understand them just sets me up as a mark or a sap. Worse, it drives away good folks who don’t want to have to put up with them as a price of conversation with me. It’s the central insight of this thread: you have to be exclusive in some way because if you don’t put limits on the jerks, you’ll filter out people who don’t like jerks. Then you’ll end up just talking to a bunch of jerks. That’s really not my goal.

The real question is, how to achieve this? I’m all too aware that better people than I have tried, and failed, to walk this tightrope. I want to somehow ensure that people who I disagree with — but who are operating in good faith, and who are willing to learn — feel that they can speak up and will be heard within a lens of charity. But at the same time, I want to deliberately not extend that charity to people who — whether I agree with them or not — are not operating in good faith, not willing to hear other viewpoints, and not willing to learn.

Here’s my best shot at articulating a way through. I call it Forgetful Tit-for-Tat, after one of the stable solutions to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, with my own personal modification. What it means is this: except in cases of egregious prior misbehaviour,2 I will initially be willing to speak to everyone and will approach all conversations by trying my best at radical perspective taking. I will presume that others are approaching me similarly, with a goal of actual communication and actual two-way understanding.

From there, I give everyone a little leeway on behaviour that seems to show otherwise, weighted somewhat by mitigating factors like how confident I am in my assessment of their motivation and how damaging their behaviour is.3 Some leeway is necessary, I feel, given the fact that all of us are imperfect, including both potential interlocutors (in stating things) and me (in drawing inferences). After that, further behaviour will make me less charitable, and before very long I’ll cease engaging entirely. Life is simply too short, and I’d rather err on the side of missing someone interesting to talk to than on the side of driving away people who would otherwise converse with me because they feel unsafe based on who I’m surrounding myself with. Fundamentally, even if somebody isn’t a troll or a jerk, if they behave often enough in ways that make me think they might be, then conversation between us is unlikely to lead to increased understanding anyway.

There are a few key qualifications here, though.

First, I’m forgetful. This is a virtue here because it means that with enough time (or a mild enough behaviour) I’m liable to engage again with somebody with an attitude of radical perspective taking once again. So unless you behave in a really egregious way, which I won’t forget, I’ll be willing to give things another try. I think this is important, because it gives us room to grow and change and builds in resilience to error. Heaven knows we’re all full of error. I think the essence of charity is accepting that we make errors all of the time and building a way of interacting that is resilient to it.

Second, my list of behaviour that seem to show bad faith does not include disagreeing with me. I want to talk to people who disagree. It does include things that indicate that somebody is not trying to adopt the principles of radical perspective-taking themselves. Things like: presuming that myself or others are acting from a sinister or stupid motivation; refusing to engage and take people’s points on board (which does not mean agreeing, but does mean responding to them rather than just repeating oneself); presuming that lack of agreement means that the other person is automatically wrong rather than that you yourself might be, or that everyone might be right and wrong in different ways; criticising folks for being willing to listen to people from the “wrong” group; asking questions to make rhetorical points or change the topic rather than to actually learn the answer; and so on. Basically, anything that makes someone look like a troll or a sea-lion loses my charity very quickly.

I don’t know if this will work, to be honest. Like I said, much better people than I am have tried. But as I look at the world we’ve created, full of polarisation and mistrust and problems that are only getting worse, I have to try. I can’t stand by the sidelines any more feeling cynical and despairing and not do what I can to try to increase understanding in at least my small corner of the world.

I promised myself to be brave this year. This is part of that, I think.

  1. By “minority” I mean anybody who is in the non-marked, non-default category relevant to whatever discussion is going on. This means that it is fundamentally context-dependent: a person can be a majority in one conversation and a minority in another, or even in different parts of the same conversation. ↩︎

  2. By this I mean things like reliable evidence of violence, harassment, doxxing, trolling, that sort of thing. ↩︎

  3. I’m super tempted to come up with an actual model of this but there would be too many free parameters and it would be too ad hoc to be useful. But as a rough guide: I’m willing to give people who are more different from me more of a pass, because that increases the likelihood that I’m making incorrect inferences about their experiences, motivations, and beliefs. I’m willing to give people who give subtle indications of bad faith more of a pass than those who give glaring indications. etc. ↩︎

Andrew Perfors
Associate Professor

I seek to understand how people reason and think, both on their own and in groups.