Rule 2: Avoid Negative Labels
Posted by bonesiii , Mar 24 2011 · 62 views
How to Disagree Well: Rule 2: Avoid negative labels
Continuing the elaboration on my simple four-rule theory on effective disagreement, today I'll look at Rule 2.
This is one that I think a lot of people could really use a better understanding of and to seriously experiment with putting it into practice. It's probably the most radically unusual concept in these four rules, and since I've tried using it almost universally about a year ago the results have been profoundly positive so I really hope people read this, if nothing else.
To restate, the four rules are:
How to Disagree Well
1 Listen fairly
2 Avoid negative labels
3 Be concise
4 Speak your mind
Important points are bolded for optional skimming.
Okay, so what do I mean by "negative labels"?
Obviously, direct flaming would count under that. Flaming is essentially extremely negative labelling of someone or their actions without merit. A synonym is insulting. The problem is, different people, even experts on the concept of insulting, have different ideas about exactly where the line is drawn -- so everybody arbitrarily draws the line in different places.
This causes all kinds of trouble beyond the problems with the insults themselves; this disagreement about where the line is.
One thing most people agree on (which this rule actually challenges to some extent) is the idea that you can negatively label someone or an action without it being a clear insult.
However, in my experience, true as that might be, when I strive to always try to find more positive ways to word things (i.e. a mistake instead of an evil action, or dislike / disagree with instead of hate), the results are almost always better.
More on why I think this is in a moment, but first a caution.
Notice that I said "avoid".
Avoid does not mean "never label anything as a negative." There is a serious danger to just going around pretending everything's okay when it isn't. The stock example is, if you see a kid about to eat poison, it isn't harmful to label that action as bad (and try to stop the kid from eating it). If the kid really eats the poison, something bad really will happen even if people were to oddly try to label it positively. The loving person would of course want to stop that.
There thus has to be some line where something really is a negative.
But... that said, what if we usually misjudge where that line is? Most examples are murkier than the kid with poison case.
One negative we should all be able to agree on is that all humans are capable of making mistakes and misjudgements. And we all have, at least if we've lived long enough to be reading this.
So my advice is for all of us to increasingly challenge our own thinking, asking ourselves, "is this negative label I'm using here really judging the line in the best way?" Don't let pride force you into a rut where you have to continue on as you did before, or always defend whatever you've said before just because you've said it or you fear you might look bad if you admit you did something right (I've said a lot more about this in the past; it's what I call "The Confidence Trap").
Another important concept to remember is the difference between the realms of objective facts and morals -- and the subjective realms of personal taste.
Something subjective can honestly feel "very bad" to someone. But we often make an understandable slip-up by wrongly assuming that means (per se ) that it's also morally or objectively wrong. (I.e. "LEGO should change this because I personally dislike it" which ignores that other people have their own tastes too. Honestly right now I think BZP mostly has this lesson learned well, though -- but from time to time newer members and the like can use a reminder. )
This rule would argue strongly against using such harsh negative labels, even for things we personally dislike. This can have benefits to the self -- it causes you to dwell less on negativity and have a more open mind. You might even find that the thing you thought about "hating" but now merely "dislike" is actually growing on you!
But more to the point, you might actually 'hate' it, but people reading your posts (hearing you speak, etc.) might misunderstand and think you are hating anyone who has that personal taste. So it's best to use more sensitive words like "dislike."
I know. I know. That feels so wrong to many people for various reasons. So many times I've run into people who basically look at this as downright silly, saying (for example) "I just dislike that toy" when you feel like you hate it. And it can be hard to change from being very negative to being very positive overnight. People I consider close friends just detest having to be polite. And I respect that attitude. I get it. I've been there.
So I cannot in good conscience tell everybody you absolutely must do this "right now" or even ever per se. I don't know everything; maybe there's a time or a place (or a speaker ) for it.
I just know that for me, when I don't follow this rule well I have concluded that I myself suffer, and I spread suffering to others... who are then much more likely to feel negatively and not friendly towards me, thus I end up suffering twice over. I am ashamed how often I have pushed people away on here who I admire, just by using so many negative labels in disagreeing with them. I sometimes almost wish I had gone around trying to agree with everyone just so I wouldn't lose them as friends (tried that too though and it usually just lets the bad ideas and emotions fester and worsen; more on that for Rule #4 with scientific backup ). It still torments me, because I see scars of my past failures still around despite my trying hard to reform my actions.
So think about it, yeah?
In any event, this rule is vague for a reason -- "avoid", but avoid however much you feel comfortable with, for now.
About drawing the line somewhere, I've concluded from experience that the line (of what is negative that should be avoided, not what to call flaming per se, to be clear) is basically twofold: 1) Things your taste cause you to dislike, using gentle words in describing your dislike, and 2) Things you think are harmful to someone else as a moral mistake, using wordings that make that important distinction clear; that it's a mistake, unwise, etc. rather than evil or whatnot.
Yes, there are things that are evil. That line's easy to draw in fiction, for example; there's no harm in saying "Makuta was evil; Greg confirmed it". But in real life... basically we're not telepathic and in most cases I now believe it's better to avoid calling it evil. The reason is, using a negative label like that on someone who's too far gone to come back makes sense... but it's so hard to know who can come back from evil and who cannot, yeah? You might be unwittingly making evil more likely to get worse or at least continue by appearing to imply someone can't reform from it.
(Obviously, if you're in a life or death situation, that is generally different... although caution is often important there too. But a soldier deciding whether an enemy will shoot first if the soldier doesn't is different from the vast majority of other human experiences, where there's really no reason you MUST leap to the negative judgements.)
Also, there is a very real, but little known psychological phenomenon in which by labelling something negative (usually with the intent of saying "hey, you're doing something wrong, fix it"), you can actaully MAKE it true, even if it wasn't, or at least solidify its truth.
In other words, the person you're talking to often reacts -- even if subconsciously -- "So I'm [insert negative label here], am I? Okay. I'm fine with what I am, so I'm [insert label again]. And I'll stubbornly stick to it without even considering that I MIGHT be wrong."
I like to call this "painting."
It's called that often in common parlance, but people usually miss what it implies. Just like if you took a paintbrush and slapped paint on someone -- the paint would stick -- by applying that label, you can very easily do the opposite of trying to remove the label. You don't remove paint by adding more of the same paint.
Just two more major points left.
I have noticed soooo many times that someone who goes around using negative labels to try to at least make others see why they have their perspective -- if not convince others to agree with them -- fail miserably at convincing anyone. I've often wondered why this is -- and I've suffered it myself of course -- and I think I finally get it.
It basically has two causes. One emotional, one logical.
Point number one -- when people see you behaving so negatively (sometimes even while trying to argue for positive things!), subconsciously they think "this guy is miserable. I don't want to be like that. So I will disagree."
Now that's not logical. That's not necessarily good "truthseeking." BUT it's a real psychological phenomenon, and fighting it is like fighting nature, yanno?
But in this case, it actually has a logical grounding.
Point two: The logical fallacy of Ad Hominem. Logic actually teaches that negatively labeling something does not logically argue for the labeler's conclusion. Now, caution: this doesn't necessarily mean the conclusion is wrong, merely that the reasoning used to reach it is wrong. There could be other reasoning all the people involved are missing that would prove the same conclusion.
But when people see a logically invalid argument -- even when they aren't well educated in logic; these principles are built into the human psyche -- they're a lot less likely to agree with your conclusion even if their concern is logic rather than emotion.
So here's where I end up with this. I do NOT tell you that this is necessarily the best way or say "do this."
Instead I'd like yall to think of it like a challenge or an experiment. Try it! See if it works for you! And try it ever increasingly so, over a long time. Don't give up on it if it doesn't seem to be working right away -- it could be you're just not being quite positive enough. I betcha it can work for anybody.
Comment thoughts (FTR, no mentioning of specific people involved in examples of such mistakes, okay?), questions, concerns, etc. Next entry on being concise probably will be up next week. Already have it written.