March 26th, 2020

"But I'm like that"

One of the most awkward things that can happen in a conversation is the "But I'm like that" response: The situation in which one person criticizes some group of people or some particular behavior, only for one of the other people in the conversation to speak up and declare that they actually belong to the group that was just criticized. For some reason, this tends to happen to me a lot, perhaps because I tend to be highly critical of traits which are very common in the general populace, including people who like to eat, people who drink coffee, people who watch television, people who listen to music, people who own computers that run in protected mode, people who enjoy happiness, and people who are alive. I also used to be more vocal about things I disliked, because I used to care about convincing people to lead better lives by avoiding things that I consider bad, so I had a lot of conversations where I would speak negatively about something which nearly everyone does (because nearly everyone is bad), only for the person I was speaking to to predictably respond that what I was speaking negatively about applied to them as well. When that happens, it's difficult to know how to respond, because people are terrible and get offended easily when you insult them.

To be fair, I understand that this is a natural reaction. I'm known for playing computer games, and if someone were to tell me "I think that people who play computer games are stupid and immature", my first impulse would probably also be to say something like "But I play computer games". I realize that this is how the human mind naturally reacts, as if the fact that you personally fall into the category being described absolves that category of criticism. Perhaps this thinking is based on a sort of instinctive idea that if something is associated with people close to you, then that makes it okay. This is similar to thinking which used to be promoted about getting people to accept things like homosexual relationships: The thinking was that if someone found out that a close friend or family member is gay, then they would think "Huh, if someone I care about is gay, then maybe being gay is okay after all". This is not how human beings actually work, however; in practice, historical precedent has shown that if a person is steadfastly against accepting homosexuality, then if they discover that one of their friends or family members is gay, they end up distancing themselves from that person. To be fair, if you put yourself in that person's shoes, one can understand the thinking: If you discovered that one of your best friends was secretly engaging in behavior which you considered to be morally objectionable, your reaction is not likely to be "Well, if my friend is doing it, then that must mean it's okay"; to the contrary, you'd probably consider ending that friendship. For example, if you're left wing, imagine finding out that one of your friends is in the Ku Klux Klan. Are you interested in finding out more about their lifestyle so that you can broaden your horizons and become more accepting of their different viewpoint? For most people, the answer would be no. A principle is more important than a single human bond; if it isn't, then it isn't really a principle.

So when you think about it, human behavior is sometimes understandable, but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to deal with. Again, when I find myself in a situation where someone says "But I'm like that", it's usually difficult for me to find an appropriate answer. Contrary to what some people may think from reading my writings, I usually want to avoid being nasty to people when I interact with them personally. In my writing, I criticize human behaviors in broad terms because I believe that it's important to identify things which are detrimental to people's health, safety, or wisdom, but I don't usually see any point in insulting people to their faces, because any criticism which I might direct at them personally is not likely to be taken constructively, even if it's meant that way; people are more likely to simply become offended and upset in such a way that the conversation becomes unproductive and unpleasant. On the one hand, I don't want to say "Oh no, I didn't mean it that way! I'm sorry, there must be a misunderstanding", because obviously I do mean my words the way I say them, and to try to pretend that I didn't mean what I said would be a lie. On the other hand, I also don't want to say "Then you are a worthless waste of life", because I don't think that telling people something like this is going to inspire them to become better people. Insulting people may be entertaining if you like to see how offended they become, but in practice, it doesn't seem to inspire people to better themselves.

So what can you do when you find yourself in a situation like that? If you're the person who is expressing your dislike of things, be cautious with your words, especially if you're expressing an idea which could be controversial or sensitive. (Interestingly, if the thing you're criticizing is very common, people are often less likely to be offended about it; I rarely found that people were upset at my advocacy of the death penalty for eating meat, probably because more than 80% of people eat meat and thus don't feel like a threatened minority.) If you know for a fact that your conversation partner agrees with your point of view, you can speak a little more freely, but if you're not sure, it's better to be diplomatic: Avoid expressing your viewpoints too vehemently ("I think that people who smoke should be turned into fertilizer to cleanse their filth from the world"), even if that's how you really feel. It helps to learn how to express yourself cautiously, saying things like "It bothers me when people smoke around me". If the person you're speaking to is not someone whom you're likely to have to spend a lot of your life with--if they are not a co-worker or relative, either by birth or marriage--then you can afford to be more open, because even if you mortally offend them, the worst thing that can happen is usually that you'll make them not want to talk to you anymore, which, if you dislike the person that much, is likely to be an outcome that works for you anyway. Try to avoid remarks that would provoke people to seek violent retribution against you; in particular, avoid making insulting remarks about people's family or religion, unless you really want a fight, in which case, you're looking for advice in the wrong place here.

Conversely, if you're the person being insulted--if someone has just made a general criticism of a group that you happen to belong to--understand, first of all, that saying "But I'm one of those people" is not going to help the conversation in any shape or form. It only places the other person in a very awkward position where there is no correct response. Understand that the remark was probably not meant personally. If you can, the best thing to do is often to just brush off the point altogether, changing the subject or moving on without addressing what was just said. If the subject happens to be important enough to you that you're not willing to drop it, try to at least be constructive with how you respond; usually, asking the other person things like "Why do you feel that way about it?" is a good way to get them to open up and elaborate on their thoughts and feelings regarding the issue at hand. Again, if the person is not a co-worker or some other person whom you'll have to get along with on a regular basis, and if you really want to stand your ground because the subject matter is so important to you that it's worth starting a fight over, then you can assert yourself by informing the person that you see things differently and that what they've criticized is actually something important to you, but if you do this, do it in a way that helps them understand why the matter is important to you, why you'd actually choose to defend it, rather than just saying "Fuck you, I like the thing you criticized, and I hope you die!"

Or, if you really want to fight, you can. If it's really so important to you that you refuse to let the matter drop, then have at it. Be as aggressive as you want. It won't help anyone or achieve anything, but you really don't care anyway. Just know that when it's over and you're in jail, it's not likely to have been worth it.