By Tim Hjersted
Mar 5, 2018
A few years ago, Maria Popova wrote an article on how to criticize with kindness, based on the work of philosopher Daniel Dennett.
The philosophical aim is beautiful in itself:
"In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”
Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding. -Maria Popova
More than a simple prescription to "be kind," Daniel Dennett offers specific instructions:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Popova, who created the amazing Brainpickings website, says this is more than a moral argument but also a practical one:
Rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.
So, dear readers:
What if we all tried this?
For 1 week: No insults. No personal attacks. No tit-for-tat. Just pure, radical kindness in every situation.
If it feels good after one week, we can commit to it indefinitely, always striving to do better when we inevitably fall short.
Will you try it?
I've been experimenting with this lately in my discussions online and I'm loving it. It felt constraining at first, especially with people who have no issue with personal insults; it felt like I had my hands tied behind my back. But after sticking with it, I've found it's incredibly liberating, actually! This self-imposed rule has given me more freedom because I've stopped reacting. People can hurl any insult they wish, and I can say, with sincerity and curiosity, "tell me more."
I can also say that the discussions that come from this approach, where I ask questions and strive to listen to the message beneath the insults, has generated far more interesting responses than I might have gotten otherwise. People are expecting a counter-attack and when it doesn't come I think it must be kind of shocking. No one expects people to listen, so when you do, it creates a kind of glitch in the matrix - an interruption in our habitual ways of thinking and responding. The auto-pilot turns off, and people often respond in much more thoughtful ways in the following comments.
Now I've found that when people can't compose coherent arguments and they choose to hurl a bunch of offensive insults and attacks that boil down to "this is stupid" or "you're stupid," it's become much easier to see that they're upset and that behind that there is pain, and I want to understand what the pain is.
Perhaps one of the deep needs that is not being met is a need to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood.
I can see how some of Films For Action's posts would make people upset. Some of these posts contradict the experiences and understandings of people so fully, I can see how just posting it would feel like an insult itself - not to anyone personally, although people do take it personally - but an insult to truth, honesty and fairness. This post about toxic masculinity is a good example.
Beneath their attacks, they want to live in a world where their perspective is understood. Personally, I would like to live in that world too - not where we all agree to believe the same thing, but a world where we can "bridge the gap" - a world where we can have empathy and understanding for multiple points of view - where we actually listened to each other and strived to have compassion for the person behind the comments.
Just imagine if society were to embrace this kind of compassion in a truly serious way - how would that change everything? All of the world's most influential religious prophets spoke in favor of compassion (Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, Inayat Khan - the list goes on), and today's secular and spiritual peoples all advocate for compassion. But we've gotten it all very twisted, haven't we? Whether secular or religious, most of us have difficulty putting this value into practice. We still haven't untangled the contradictions between our values and how we actually speak and act. The fundamental error seems to be the notion of conditional compassion and selective care. That is where we have gone wrong.
We believe compassion is only relevant for those who deserve it - for the good and the oppressed. But we deny it to the bad and the wicked. In this we err, and greatly err, for what good is compassion if we offer it only to the good?
True compassion doesn't discriminate - it offers shelter to both "saint" and "sinner." True compassion remembers that all bad adults were once good children. True compassion pierces illusion and remembers that bad and wicked people have also been oppressed. They have been oppressed so completely that they became oppressors themselves. Whether we're talking about insults and toxic speech on the internet or the worst atrocities humans have committed, the principle is the same: hurt people hurt people. No child was born with hatred or violence in their heart.
So this lens completely flips the script - the more toxic a person is, the more we can see how they have been wounded by our culture. The people who become violent in society - whether in speech or in action - we have to see how violence has been done to them. Our society has done violence to their humanity, and their suffering is spilling over.
The more I internalize this, the easier it's become to not react to offensive speech. Physical violence is a whole other topic and requires its own discussion, but very briefly I will say that the martial arts philosophy known as aikido has already solved this philosophical problem.
In everyday practice, verbal violence is what we have to more commonly work with - whether it's another's speech or our own.
Becoming a Lifelong Student in the Art of Communication
It's worth mentioning that I didn't just jump into this way of thinking or decide to commit to this path overnight. My own shift in this direction has developed over the last 17 years - first from becoming a student of Taoism, then later from reading Thich Nhat Hanh, who's become like a second father to me in spirit. Then a few years ago a friend turned me on to Non-Violent Communication, a rather mind-blowing framework developed by Marshall Rosenberg. Most recently, my inner world was deeply transformed after reading Meet Me In Hard-To-Love Places by Eric Bowers, which gave me even deeper tools to understand and have compassion for myself and every person I come in contact with in life.
All of these influences have led me to understand a deep truth: compassion liberates the mind. Compassion isn't a burden, meant only for saints and monks; neither is compassion a privilege - accessible to those who are well-off, but too costly for those with serious problems. In truth, the opposite is true. Compassion represents freedom - the freedom to see things as they actually are and to dispell the illusions which poison ones own heart. It moves us from a place of reactivity, where we become easily disturbed by what others say and do, to a place of lucid calmness and clarity. This is where the great masters derive their strength.
It is the opposite of compassion which is truly costly. The opposite of compassion represents the failure to see with clear eyes. It is its own sort of mental prison. Without compassion, we are the ones who suffer.
Compassion is the key to opening our cell and walking through the door. It offers a sort of magical power to those who embrace it. Watch an aikido master neutralize an opponent while minimizing harm to himself and the other. It is a sight to behold.
It is possible to achieve a sort of zen-like mastery of one's self through this path. While I have only witnessed this in others, I have touched a piece of this magic deeply enough to know it is true, to feel its potential. I also realize that I am only scratching the surface.
Each day brings new insights. The more I commit to this path, the more I discover.
One last insight I'll share before I wrap this up relates to the idea of choice and free will.
While in one sense, people choose insults because it's the best they can do at that moment, in another sense, I don't think people *want* to go that route. In a world where we weren't all so wounded, I don't think anyone would want to speak that way. It's not in anyone's original nature. We speak this way because we are all very, very wounded by the way we have been treated growing up in this culture, from a very early age, and the pain-patterns get passed on.
Knowing this gives me a lot of patience, and that's important because a lack of patience seems to be one of the greatest obstacles to meeting toxic speech with kindness.
Developing my capacity for patience has also felt liberating. While impatience offers an outlet for frustration, there is something serenely powerful about patience - that cultivating this quality in ourselves is a source of strength, and that strength allows us to deepen our compassion, which deepens our patience.
So yes, while I'm still very much a student on this path and I still don't fully understand its magic - I've found that radical kindness is liberating, and I'm committed to going deeper and deeper with it over time.