Politics As Hyper-Sensitivity

It's natural, reasonable, and to some extent a showing of good faith, to assume that other people are similar to oneself. And I think that people generally tend to do so. When thinking about what constitutes a reasonable perspective, or a reasonable expectation, or when evaluating the various "shoulds" we encounter in life, I think many of us try to think about other people as being more alike than different to ourselves. I certainly do.

The good thing about this is that it minimizes the more insignificant differences between us, i.e. sources of bigotry. If race isn't related to the matter at hand, then assuming people are more like us than different allows us to easily avoid conscious or unconscious bias.

Unfortunately, sometimes our differences really are relevant. For example, if a white man like me assumes that everyone's experience with the police is more or less like mine, he'll be more likely to overlook the very real problems of police brutality, and especially racially motivated police brutality and ethnic profiling.

This is all obvious enough. What's less obvious is that sometimes the political statements and arguments we see and hear are addressing people who bear little resemblance to ourselves, even though they may agree with our preferred policies.

One example of this might be the issue of corn subsidies. Both economic libertarians and environmental activists oppose corn subsidies, but for very different reasons. Libertarians oppose distorting market incentives with economic rents, while environmentalists oppose rewarding farmers for devastating the environment. On the issue of wind power subsidies, by contrast, economic libertarians still oppose the subsidies, but environmentalists often believe subsidizing wind power is an important step toward reducing society's carbon footprint.

What if you're browsing online opinions or memes, and you see something like this:
People oppose subsidizing wind power because they don't care about reducing our carbon footpring! I hate people who can't understand the science of climate change!
One thing you might think, if you're an economic libertarian like me, is, "My opposition to wind power subsidies has nothing to do with opposing climate science or reluctance to reduce atmospheric carbon. My opposition is entirely due to the economic damage caused by government subsidies." If I were to respond with those thoughts, however, I'd be pitting economic policy against climate policy in theory, something that I don't think would serve my position well.

The problem here is that people who argue against "climate-deniers" are not arguing against those of us who oppose subsidies on economic grounds. By participating in an argument against "climate-deniers," we're unwittingly carrying their water. What we should do instead is not assume that we're being spoken to. There are "climate-deniers" out there who oppose wind power subsidies on those grounds. If someone wants to argue against such people, that's none of my business, because I'm not one of them. If someone wants to argue against what economics says about subsidies, well then, that's my fight. But the climate-denial thing is not my fight.

At least for me, it takes an extra step to remember that someone might be arguing against a real argument that some less-informed person made, but that that less-informed person might actually be real and really made those arguments.

(Note: I do not claim here that people who disbelieve in anthropogenic global warming are uninformed. I'm only using this as an example of people who make arguments that I don't make, whether or not they are true.)

This holds true for any issue. I often hear political arguments against conservatism, against libertarianism, or in favor of socialized medicine or any number of things I oppose. It's tempting to assume that anyone who shares my beliefs does so for the same reasons or with similarly well-reasoned arguments. But the reality is that most people are engaged in arguments that I would never personally choose to have. But, hyper-sensitive as I may have been in the past, I have grown accustomed to thinking that people are making bad-faith arguments about my beliefs. After all, I'm against wind-power subsidies, and I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real.

So from now on, I'm going to try to remember to only fight fights that are relevant to me. I can make arguments against subsidies. I can make arguments in favor of reasonable economic policies. I can make ethical arguments informed by psychology. I can argue against the illusions we hold and the defense mechanisms we employ. I can make these arguments because they are personal to me, and because I know something about them, and because they are involve my actually held beliefs.

But if someone wants to argue against something I never said, from now on, I'll just assume that they're talking about someone else, a real person who really does hold those beliefs, and try not to mix my beliefs up with some people who probably don't share my own thoughts. I'll be less hyper-sensitive and stick mainly to my own positions.

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