Morality and Group Identity

Over the past 7 months, my core values have churned inside me. They have faced challenges which they could not win against, and thus I have come to doubt their applicability in my own life. I think my issue, and thus also the germ of my solution, is that I thought the same values could apply to all levels of life: political, professional, and the friend levels. This was wrong. I think instead that each level requires a different set of values.

The reason for this is because each level has a different function and purpose. The virtues that make someone a good friend are not the same virtues which make someone a good mentor. Confusing the two relationships by treating a friend like a mentor, or a mentor like a friend, leads to confusion and disappointment, but above all, discord.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt makes a convincing case for morality’s function as something which binds people together. I think now that this is true. The things which two friends should do for each other are not the same thing as the things which two spouses should do in order to foster and maintain a relationship. You can bind yourself to another person, and the purpose of your relationship determines what is right and wrong to do. Different bindings mean different morals.

The values which I used to hold were civility, tolerance, and radical empathy. They were values forged from 4 years of concentration on the social and political culture arguments going around – things regarding free speech, gender differences, lobsters, IQ research, religion and atheism, Donald Trump, intolerance, and social science, etc.

Coming out of these debates, what I found was that both in society and in my personal life, people seem to not care enough for what the other person was saying if the disagreement between them was too touchy. What I saw was a world in which emotions and feelings drew the lines between tolerable and intolerable speech. If you believed that there were gender differences, or if you believed that real marxism had not been tested yet, then you were immediately…yelled at or fled from. But it goes farther than that. People may have felt like they had legitimate concerns which went unheeded or which were dismissed as racist and bigoted.

The solution that I saw then was tolerance, civility, and radical empathy. These were accompanied by a few rules: you had to listen to what the other person said, only responding after you restated their points to their satisfaction (this is taken from Carl Rogers); you would not get angry or enraged or emotional when they said something offensive or insulting (instead trying to figure out why they were so emotional, plus seeing a thick skin as a sign of honour, not of weakness); and lastly, you try and understand the world from their perspective. What do they see that you do not?

Anyways, these values worked very well for me, for most cases, for most discussions. My friends knew me as someone who was neutral and well-balanced. But this all changed when I became stuck with a friend who did not hold the same values. In fact, he may have held the exact opposite values! Intolerance for views which were wrong, incivility when it was pragmatically useful, like for coercion, and instead of empathy, more like boomerang-empathy. This one’s interesting. You don’t try and see the world from another person’s shoes; you shove the other person into your shoes and make your concerns central. It is a selfish, brutal, Machiavellian-in-the-negative-sense philosophy, and it broke me.

The reason it broke me was because tolerance, civility, and radical empathy only work on people who are willing to reciprocate. It does not work on people who are toxic, who are willing to warp and shove common boundaries of decency, and who are hyper defensive and therefore dangerous. It broke me because I was naive and idealistic. I don’t think I am so anymore. Because now I know that while tolerance, civility, and radical empathy are great for many situations, they are not the right response for when malevolent people are going to take advantage of you.

See, this is where the group thing comes back. Civility, tolerance, and radical empathy are great virtues for a group of people who are pursuing the truth and wish to become better individuals by seeing all criticism as constructive. But if you are dealing with someone who does not have that same goal, then holding these values will end up hurting you. This second group of people I think is better described as a group which has no qualms about lashing out and acting viciously. 99.9% of people shift from one group to the other all the time – it’s a choice that you make, not something you are born or raised to be.

With this second group of people, I think that the way you should treat them is with basic civility and respect. However, you also need to be able to push back and to let them know that they cannot roll over you, that they cannot treat you poorly, that they cannot abuse you. And I think that this means that you have to be able to be violent, insulting, and uncivil. Because if a member of this second group is violent, insulting, or uncivil, your only defence, after trying to verbally lay down boundaries, is to show them that they will suffer for making you suffer.

And here is where you see my contradiction. How can I be civil and uncivil at the same time? Tolerant but intolerant at the same time? When I draw the line between the two, how am I to make a line that is not arbitrary?

And I think that the answer to this question is that it depends. For the political level, I think that we should be as tolerant as possible with speech, for the only thing that can successfully defeat hateful and harmful speech is truthful and honest speech. Censorship just forces speech underground. But for the personal level, I think that different people have different preferences! And this means that no two people will always be able to be friends, and this is acceptable and even preferable way to live.

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