It’s Not Enough to Be Right. You Also Have to Be Kind.
The ridiculous thing is that political correctness is a real problem. I’ve written about it before. No society can succeed if it runs from or denies uncomfortable truths. And just because a fact is inconvenient does not mean it is offensive. This game of “behalfism” where we are offended—often in advance—on behalf of other marginalized groups has become utterly absurd. A white woman can’t paint a picture of Emmett Till. Little girls can’t dress up as their favorite princess. A TV show has to get rid of a character that had been in the show for nearly 30 years. Young adult novelists get cast aside for not being woke enough.
Anti-intellectualism is also a real problem. We should be worried about the death of expertise. What we feel about an issue does not change the fundamental facts or dispute data. One in three citizens can’t name who the vice president is, one in three can’t identify the Pacific Ocean on a map, and more than one in three can’t name a single right protected by the First Amendment. Not reading is not a badge of honor. People think bringing a snowball to the Senate floor is an argument against climate change. There are politicians who think rape victims can’t get pregnant. Yet, no amount of yelling or condescension or trolling is going to fix any of this. It never has and never will.
I thought if I was just overwhelmingly right enough, I could get people to listen.
When I look back at some of my own writing, I see versions of that same mistake Jeff Bezos made as a kid. I thought if I was just overwhelmingly right enough, people would listen. If I humiliated my opponent, they would have to admit I was right and they were wrong. I’ve even said in interviews that the goal of my first book was to rip back the curtain on how media really works so people could not turn away. But guess what? A lot of people still did. Of course they did. I was right, but I was also being an asshole.
Indeed, most of the writing that I look back on and regret is characterized by a similar tone that has way too much superiority and certainty and not nearly enough intellectual humility or empathy. It’s something I am guilty of in writing since and will be guilty of again—because it’s so much easier to be certain and clever than it is to be nuanced and nice.
You can see some version of this in a lot of the media opposition to populist politics (both left and right). There is this unshakeable assumption that if they can just present the right fact—if they can prove indisputably that Donald Trump is a liar or that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Marxist—that people will change their minds. If they can just show you the right study that proves there is no link between vaccines and autism or that the planet is getting warmer, they’ll have to tap out and admit, “Okay, that was stupid. We’re wrong. We’ll agree with you now.” And when that doesn’t happen, that’s when the shaming and the humiliation and the personal attacks begin: “I showed you the study. It’s from Harvard. What more do you want, you inbred idiot?” “Face facts, you Hillary-loving socialist!”
After spending years and millions of words and hours of video on this, we’ve had almost zero success. Why? Because you can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into. No one responds well to having their identity attacked. No argument made in bad faith—that the person on the other side is a moron or a dupe or a racist or a snowflake—is ever going to be received in good faith.
Reason is easy. Being clever is easy. Humiliating someone in the wrong is easy too. But putting yourself in their shoes, kindly nudging them to where they need to be, understanding that they have emotional and irrational beliefs just like you have emotional and irrational beliefs—that’s all much harder. So is not writing off other people. So is spending time working on the plank in your own eye than the splinter in theirs. We know we wouldn’t respond to someone talking to us that way, but we seem to think it’s okay to do it to other people.
There is a great clip of Joe Rogan talking during the immigration crisis last year. He doesn’t make some fact-based argument about whether immigration is or isn’t a problem. He doesn’t attack anyone on either side of the issue. He just talks about what it feels like—to him—to hear a mother screaming for the child she’s been separated from. The clip has been seen millions of times now and undoubtedly has changed more minds than a government shutdown, than the squabbles and fights on CNN, than the endless op-eds and think-tank reports.
Rogan doesn’t even tell anyone what to think. (Though, ironically, the clip was abused by plenty of editors who tried to make it partisan). He just says that if you can’t relate to that mom and her pain, you’re not on the right team. That’s the right way to think about it.
If you can’t be kind, if you won’t empathize, then you’re not on the team. That team is Team Humanity, where we are all in this thing together. Where we are all flawed and imperfect. Where we treat other people’s point of view as charitably as we treat our own. Where we are civilized and respectful and, above all, kind to each other—particularly the less fortunate, the mistaken, and the afraid.