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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*Featured post photo by Caleb Gregory on Unsplash