Written By: Ryan Holiday – March 2019
Curator: Lilian Herculano
Takedowns and clever quips are easy, but empathy and persuasion are better
There is a story about Jeff Bezos from when he was a young boy. He was with his grandparents, both of whom were smokers. Bezos had recently heard an anti-smoking PSA on the radio that explained how many minutes each cigarette takes off a person’s lifespan. And so, sitting there in the backseat, like a typical precocious kid, he put his math skills and this new knowledge to work and proudly explained to his grandmother, as she puffed away, “You’ve lost nine years of your life, Grandma!”
The typical response to this kind of innocent cheekiness is to pat the child on the head and tell them how smart they are. Bezos’ grandmother didn’t do that. Instead, she quite understandably burst into tears. It was after this exchange that Bezos’ grandfather took his grandson aside and taught him a lesson that he says has stuck with him for the rest of his life. “Jeff,” his grandfather said, “one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Some people might say that young Bezos did nothing wrong. They’re just facts, and the truth hurts. How else do you expect someone to recognize the seriousness of what they’re doing to themselves? There’s something to that, but it captures the central conceit of a dangerous assumption we seem to have made as a culture these days: that being right is a license to be a total, unrepentant asshole. After all, why would you need to repent if you haven’t committed the ultimate sin of being wrong? Some say there’s no reason to care about other people’s feelings if the facts are on your side.
140 characters doesn’t leave much room for kindness. And the desire for viral sharing heightens the need for aggressive, simplistic arguments.
The causes of this spreading through our culture are many. As we’ve become more polarized and more algorithmically sorted, we care a lot less about the people who think differently than us and put little effort into persuading them. That’s because persuasion is no longer the goal—it’s signaling. And with signaling, it’s vehemence that matters, not quality. The constraints of social media also reduce the space for any nuance or qualification you might be inclined to offer; 140 characters or even 240 does not leave much room for humility or kindness. And the desire for viral sharing heightens the need for aggressive, simplistic arguments.
This callous, call-out culture has completely infected both sides of the political aisle, corrupting normal people and pundits with equal viciousness.
The Donald Trumps and Stephen Millers of the world seem to think that that there is no level of personal attack or invective off-limits in the course of exposing liberal hypocrisy; and if it pisses off liberals in the process, all the better. Political correctness has become such a problem, they say, that the only solution is blunt, merciless honesty. Meanwhile, the John Olivers and Daily Show-type hosts of the world play to the left-wing blogosphere, which loves clips of them destroying and roasting and nailing the people on the right. (Jon Stewart famously “took down” Tucker Carlson on Crossfire in 2004.) It’s become a war to see who can be crueler or meaner in a headline: “Is Jordan Peterson the stupid man’s smart person?” and “Democrats Are coddling Ilhan Omar like she’s an idiot child, much like Republicans do with Trump.” Talking heads know that a really good insult or a sick burn will get them online pickups the next day, the same way that athletes know that an awesome dunk will get them on SportsCenter—or sports Twitter.
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 upas 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.
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