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Looking Into a Mirror
A Mixed Mental Art
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic attempts to crack the code of how so many conversations can get sidewise despite our intent. We’ll look at how some people respond in ways that just seem out of sync with the topic. Then we’ll flip the focus back on ourselves to see when we might be guilty of the same thing. It’s a dive into psychology and how we interpret things.
“Clearly someone like you wouldn’t understand!”
“If you were really an expert, you’d know better.”
“You must be a ___ist if you think that!”
I’ve come across all of these in my forays into social media. Yet it forces me to stop and wonder who on earth they are reacting to. These claims start with the baseline that they somehow know who I am and that’s who they’re responding to.
But as many of you can relate, it’s not who we are. It’s a worst case caricature created whole cloth to dismiss an argument or opinion on a topic. Yet, as easy as it is to discount the person as falling victim to a logical fallacy, there’s another thing to consider:
They’re looking into a mirror.
This is because we expect from others, what we expect from ourselves. It’s a concept we introduced in The Con[of]Text and underpins how so many things can be misread:
What we see, so often, is that these people are responding to themselves. Or at least how they’d behave if put in the same position that we are.
It’s like the pastor, railing every Sunday against homosexuality, but having sex with his male masseuse
Or the white woman railing online for Black Lives Matter, but crossing the street when they see a black man.
Or the people on either side of the political spectrum denouncing corruption but always voting for the corrupt.
Or my contractor, when building my house, who interpreted every question as a challenge to his intelligence.
Or the person arguing for federally funded paid maternity leave while not donating to the organizations that provide it.
Or the woman who wrote a book praising looting while copywriting her work against unauthorized use:
Yet in each of these cases, we just have to peer over their shoulder and see the mirror.
The Gay pastor is responding to his own angst and refusal to obey what he says he believes.
The white woman dislikes her own racism and can’t fathom others aren’t the same.
We fear the other team will govern as corruptly as we do. (Obama’s Executive Orders were good; Trump’s were totalitarian / Trump’s were fixing problems; Biden’s are unconstitutional)
My contractor knew the problems looked bad and he’d have lost his own mind.
The person refusing to donate believes everyone else will refuse to give unless mandated by law.
The woman copyrighting her book would infringe on others but knows the value of effort and goods.
Who they are responding to is themselves!
Knowing this can help us contextualize many online arguments. It can give us an insight into how these people might behave if they were in our position because they are expecting from us what they expect from themselves.
The thing is, there’s almost nothing you can do about that except to recognize and understand what’s happening.
Reverse the Mirror
The thing you can do, now that we’ve identified it, is to look for that same inclination in ourselves. Just like we learned how we have tons of cognitive biases, specifically cognitive dissonance, we can also learn to find this tendency inside our own actions.
What do you have inside that you hate to see in others?
What would you abhor if you saw it in your own mirror?
I remember during one contentious argument with a co-worker that just infuriated me. I had to pause and consider what I was complaining about was also the same feedback I’d gotten from others about my behavior.
It was humbling and it forced me to think hard about how I change myself. It also gave me empathy for the other person and because I could now project my intent on them, and could understand their tactics, I could change mine to achieve the outcome I wanted.
I’ll be the first to admit I struggle with this insight as much as anyone else. I don’t like to look in the mirror whether it’s when my wife calls me out for something, or I realize I’ve offended someone.
What I have begun doing is to stop projecting what I would do on others. It doesn’t always result in a win or even a better outcome, but it does help me understand the situation better.
So when you see someone reacting against something that you aren’t, look to see if it’s a mirror they are fighting against. If it is, then you have to ask whether continuing the discussion has any value.
Then turn the mirror on yourself. Bring in friends who can give you candid feedback. Accept the criticism, not as an attack, but as a way to define some of the behaviors you actually manifest. Then compare what’s being seen against your intent and change that.
The key to any of these Mental Arts is that the change you want to see has to manifest in yourself first. Only then can you start to appropriately influence others.
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