Nice people being naughty
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By librarian-of-hell   |   
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We have all heard some variation or another of the Weinberg quote: "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion." Some people parrot it without stopping to think about what it means, or the fact that it's an incomplete assessment of the situation. For example, apologists might point out that Stalin's regime was irreligious, yet it had committed innumerable atrocities, ignoring the quasi-religious nature of Communist ideology and leader worship. But there is a deeper layer here. Human behavior is heavily influenced by beliefs - any beliefs, religious or none. If you believe that a plant is toxic, for example, you won't eat it - whether that belief is an accurate description of the observable physical world or not. Most beliefs like this can be tested, although maybe not in the immediate situation when you have to make a quick decision. Quick decisions, BTW, are the bulk of real world experience: if you're in the savannah, and the grass moves, you have no time to test whether it's the wind or a lion - nor can you afford to commit a false negative (believing it's just the wind when it's actually a lion), because you'll be eaten. Consequently our brain is more prone to false positives (seeing lions where there aren't any). In social situations, the same "default (potentially false) positive" can manifest itself in the assumption that your fellow human has generally similar preferences to your own. This is also a belief, and since beliefs inform actions, it has a profound effect on behavior.

So let's rephrase the quote then. "By default, benevolent people do helpful things, and malevolent people do harmful things; but if a benevolent person has false beliefs, they may commit harmful actions." This is how I understand the concept now, anyways. Religious beliefs are a strange animal because they are typically untestable, and held with strong conviction in spite of the lack of evidence, or even in the face of contradictory evidence. But in a broader sense, "default" assumptions that have nothing to do with anything supernatural work the same way: a person may be fully convinced that they are being nice, even if the recipient of their actions feels anything but. And the exact same helpful intent may lead two people to behave in exact opposite ways. Beliefs and values (priorities) determine what course of action we'll deem appropriate in any given situation.

This is something I'm learning the hard way right now, actually. I have recently discovered many expressions of a helpful intent that, at first contact, absolutely infuriated me. I wanted to know why am I reacting this way, so instead of sheltering myself from such input, I looked closer. To my surprise, I found that anti-suicide activists genuinely believe they are doing good! They don't have the same priorities as I do, the same "red flags" - a phrase that stinks of authoritarianism to my sensitive nose, so to speak, may mean something very different to them. We speak the same language - and yet we don't. This is why I've met such strong criticism, rejection, and condemnation so many times: in their thinking, my practice of trying not to sway someone's decisions in either direction, trying not to pressure them into something they may not want, and providing technical information when asked, equates to bullying and being mean. (This is a familiar pattern btw in politics as well; see Dave Silverman's lecture on how legitimate criticism of Islam gets muddled up with, or mistaken for, Islamophobic bigotry here.) To some of them, I'm "the cruel bastard" who "drives people to suicide" - because I'm trying to be impartial and refuse to push what they believe is right (i.e. that suicide is somehow inherently wrong and has to be avoided at all costs). In reality, we have the same intentions; we both want to help people. But we see the situation differently. I want to help people achieve what they want, on the asssumption that, as adults, they know best what is good for them, whether it means living to be 80 or self-termination at 20; in my view, it is simply none of my business to decide which path another person should take (though I might have an opinion on it, and I'll share that opinion if asked, but I do not expect my opinion to be taken as an order or command, and thus never word it as "do ____" or "don't ____"). Whereas my opponents are convinced that everyone wants the same thing (a long life with a "natural" ending, in this case), and if they meet someone who doesn't fit their narrative, they assume that desperation, physical or emotional pain, or something like that is forcing that person to think differently, and thus they take it upon themselves to help alleviate the pain or distress that caused the situation. This is, of course, the dominant narrative, and dominant narratives are especially resistant to challenge - loss of privilege feels like persecution; one example here (I hate linking to HuffPo because they can be way too far left for my taste, but to hell with it, this particular article is good). Or another example here, if you're not that inclined to read. If you question dominant narratives, it can feel to some people that you are questioning reality.

And if your reality is different from theirs, that can be really aggravating. You speak the same language - yet you don't. You have to watch your kneejerk reactions and analyze them a lot more than you'd have to if you were the dominant (usually majority, but not always) group. You're forced to be rational, simply by virtue of being easily misunderstandable. Where the anti-suicide contingent (the majority) is stuck with the simplistic interpretation that pigeonholes suicide as a reaction to pain (typically emotional pain), I'm able to see it as a distinctly human behavior that, while it can result from pain or fear, can also be the product of rational consideration (kind of the way Darwin listed and weighed the pros and cons of marrying Emma Wedgwood), or even satisfaction (a sense of having accomplished life successfully, so to speak), or any number of things. That can be seen as "encouraging it", especially given that I find a kind of beauty in treating one's manner of death as self-expression, an expression of individuality (although that also includes choosing a "natural" death, if that choice stems from conscious consideration, instead of just "never thinking about it").

Now, the really cool thing would be if I could take this new insight and share it with my opponents as well. We are not that different, after all. It may even be true that their sense of helpfulness has actually beneficial effects on the world, it's only when it's applied indiscriminately and without questions or alternatives that it causes harm. Because my main concern (and the cause of my initial anger) is that, while they are perfectly well-meaning, their actions, and the dominant status of their narrative, can harm people in various insidious ways. (Heteronormativity does as well. Maybe any kind of normativity, now that I think about it. Damn, we as a species are pretty wired to be unintentionally assholes!)
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