Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Assume Positive Intent

No one likes to do this anymore, and I think that's a big part of what's wrong with daily life in America.

"Assume positive intent" means that you assume that others aren't deliberately trying to hurt, impair, or otherwise screw up you or your efforts when they do so. Their motivations are not evil, vengeful, whatnot. They're just people, doing things by accident. Assume that people do what they do because they don't know any better, or because of other circumstances, not because they hate you or they don't care about your welfare.

By this mentality, the average Joe on the street doesn't care one way or the other about you. He doesn't have any ill will towards you, certainly. If he happens to bump into you and knock over your books, he did it because he tripped, or he got distracted, or he couldn't stop in time, or whatever. If you don't assume positive intent, you might think he did it because he thought it would be funny, or because he doesn't give a crap that he knocked your books into a puddle, or because he was thoughtless and couldn't be bothered to move out of your way.

This is even more obvious when you watch drivers in Boston. They automatically assume that other drivers are malicious. They honk a lot, which is the driver's version of yelling at you, as if you intended to cut them off and their being a dick back at you is going to even the score. They don't bother to think that maybe the driver has a sick kid who needs to go to the doctor and is being driven there quickly (and thus the driver is vaguely distracted), or that the other driver may have been urged forward by other people honking behind him, or anything but "that guy is an asshole." Pedestrians do it when drivers cut them off at intersections; they'll flip off people and otherwise get in their way. I knew a guy who stood in front of a car just to piss the driver off, because he tried to move through a walkway when there was a gap in the pedestrian traffic.

This is a dick move on no one's part but yours. Assume that the driver, or the pedestrian, or whatever, does not intend to ruin your existence. Very few people go around thinking, "Huh, today I think I'll scare the hell out of some cyclists by opening my car door into the bike lane." At worst, people are oblivious. They really aren't malicious. So assume positive intent, and forgive the guy.

Positive intent is all about forgiveness. If you assume that others have a reason for their screwups, you're way more likely to forgive them and get over it. You hold a grudge when you think it's their personal nature to do bad crap to you, because then you have the excuse that they're a bad person and it's okay to be angry at them.

I see this on a larger scale in politics. Liberals think that the Religious Right are a bunch of woman-hating bastards for not supporting abortion. If they assumed positive intent, they'd see their guesses change from "they don't care about women" and "they're okay with killing innocent people" to "they have a very strong, fear-driven set of morals" and "they are genuinely worried about others' eternal fates" and all that. You can still not agree with them, but I'm fairly certain you'll treat them differently in conversation if you think about how their motivation isn't to just screw people over for the hell of it.

Have you ever seen someone get pissed because someone else is being ignorant? And then the angry person walks away and does nothing about it? This is a huge issue. It's like they consider ignorance to be an innate, unchangeable trait, or that they assume that the person is being ignorant just because they want to piss you off.

Let's take, oh, random ed. Evangelicals have an absolute crap record for sex ed. They vote for abstinence-only education, and they have a notoriously hard time talking about the birds and the bees. What do people think about this?

- They want to control people's lives.
- They want to confine women to traditional gender roles.
- They want to use pregnancy and disease as punishments for sex.

These are assuming that the Religious Right is a bunch of people-hating bastards. All of these are strictly supervillain-esque evil schemes. "I know! I want people to get horribly sick for their entire lives! That'll show them! Nah-nah-nah nah nah nah!"

These people exist. 99.9% of human beings are not these people.

What's the real problem here? Well, they see someone promoting values that they believe are unethical. So their real motivations are this:
- They want to teach people their values, because they believe those values are what is moral and good.
- They want to convince people to not do things that contradict these values.
- They want people to understand the consequences of their actions.

Suddenly, they don't seem like goatee-twisting villains anymore, because everyone wants to do these things. Any human likes it when they see others abiding by what they perceive to be good morals. They will generally try to steer others away from what they see as bad decisions or actions, and usually that involves the levying of consequences in whatever form they arise, or letting (physics, biology, etc.) levy its own.

The problem is how they're doing these things. The villain schemes are symptoms, not problems. They not malevolence; they're ignorance. The Right needs a better way to get their message across.

For example, say you want to teach your kid not to have sex before marriage. You know, this is a very valid decision to make. I'm sure no one would have any problem if 20-year-old Jimmy said that he chose, by himself, to not have sex before marriage. That's his life and his decision, and he made it himself. No one would mind.

Clearly, someone out there wants Jimmy to make this decision. How do they induce this? Well, right now, they're doing it by means that create lots of pain, fear, and tension. They deprive him of information, say that he'll go to Hell if he does it, and otherwise mess with his head. Right now, this is the only way they know how to enforce their morals, because they go against some pretty serious human instincts.

These are people who only know how to use the stick end of the carrot-and-stick strategy. When stick doesn't work, they use more stick. They don't actually know any positive strategies to get people to live the "right" life.

Instead of telling them their morals suck, we need to start educating them. How do you convince kids to make the right decisions on their own, rather than scaring them into it or forcing them to endure pain and suffering after the fact? It's really easy to punch someone. It's a lot harder to use words to stop them from doing the thing you want to punch them for. Peer pressure, punishment, social ostracizing, mind games, information withholding -- those are easy. They're the natural instincts of desperate people. They're like a kick in the balls -- it's a dirty trick in a fair fight, but it will win you the match, even though no one approves of it and you come out looking like the real bad guy of the two.

We need to teach them how to play fair, but no one wants to do it, because they're too busy being self-righteous and assuming that the other side is evil by nature.

Next time you get in a sparring match with some of these people, assume positive intent. Your values do not trump theirs. Work with them, instead of against them, and you'll get a lot farther.

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