Opinions are bad criteria for friendship

And they distract us from all the very good reasons to like or dislike someone!

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Freddie deBoer has an interesting post up about the high school dynamics that underlie a lot of the internet drama that cloaks itself in political fighting:

People don’t dislike each other because of abstract politics or morals. That’s not how humans function. People dislike each other because of pure lizard brain shit, the kind of brute emotional entanglements that determined who you were friends with in elementary school.I’m something of an asshole so I’m never particularly aggrieved when people don’t like me. I can be a real dick. I make people feel insecure. I 100% get not liking me. What bothers me is when people dress this shit up with high-minded moral or political principle, pretending that they’re so elevated that they’re only motivated by abstract notions of the right and the good. Bullshit. You don’t like my style. You don’t like my attitude. You think I’m pretentious and corny and mean. Fair game, fair game, fair game. But don’t tell me our disagreements are political when they’re personal. [emphasis mine]

I was at a wedding once with a friend of mine, and we didn’t know many people there but the bride and groom, and at some point, I said to my friend, “you know, everyone hates us right now.”

 He went ashen. “Why? What have I done?” 

“I was being flip. Everyone doesn’t hate you, but a bunch of people here are staring at us and don’t like us. Don’t worry.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“It’s not important. You laughed too loudly or whatever or they don’t like your haircut or whatever.” 

“What’s wrong with my haircut?” 

“Nothing! Calm down. I’m not saying they think you’re evil. They just don’t want to be your friend.” And we went back and forth for a while, and I felt genuinely bad for telling this naive friend the very obvious truth that whenever you meet a large group of people, some of those people will make judgments about you based on random things and decide they don’t like you.

I’m a strange person. When I was young and coming into my sense of humor, I was constantly running into rakes. My father said, “Ben, you’ll never be someone who everyone likes. If you expect to be, you’ll be disappointed all the time. It’s just not in the cards for you. On a good day, 60% of people will like you. On a bad day, 40% of people will like you.” You might read that and think he was being mean, but I never took it that way. It was incredibly helpful. It’s never caused me too much anguish that a lot of people don’t like me. I have a weird sense of humor and a weird way about myself. 

When I’m on my game, 60% of people will like me; when I’m not—which is often—60% will dislike me. This understanding prepared me very well for social media, where millions of strangers are a click away from deciding your eternal worth based on one little passing glimpse. 

It’s ironic that the younger generation in school now is so ill-equipped for this when it is they who will spend their entire lives in this dynamic. The kids that can’t be forced to give school presentations because it might stress them out are going to become adults and spend every day on social media being shouted at by strangers. If you really wanted to prepare teens for real life, you would have a class where once a week they all go into the school gymnasium and hundreds of strangers throw feces at them from the bleachers. 

This is just life. People don’t love everyone else. Social media means that we’re all constantly confronting this every day—and it’s awful—but the human element is eternal.

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But opinions are really bad criteria for deciding who you should be friends with. Opinions are weird! You get them for weird reasons! I hate mayo. If I didn’t date people who like mayo, I wouldn’t date much at all. People intuitively get how silly this is when it’s about mayo. I didn’t decide to hate it. You didn’t decide to love it. Our preferences are the result of a trillion little moments that we don’t even remember. You like mayo because once the wind blew and your father patted you on the head and said he loved you while slathering mayonnaise all over a sandwich. 

Despite everything we tell ourselves, this is not dissimilar from how we end up with more important opinions. I’m a liberal, but a pretty moderate one. It would be nice to think that I decided to be that after careful study. In some ways, that’s true. There are certain issues I have changed my mind on. But for the most part, it’s probably not true. I was born to liberals, went to school with them, lived with them. But also I was born into an economic class that makes me somewhat uncomfortable with radicalism. If I had been born into the working class, I imagine I might not interpret powerful institutions so generously when they do ill. If I had been born to conservatives in Texas, I’d probably be a conservative. 

If there is a heaven, when we get there, I think we’d all be flabbergasted to realize that it was filled also with the people we disagreed with most. Which is to say that people’s opinions are not necessarily a great way to judge someone’s soul. 

Sometimes they are! I’m not saying you should ignore the fact that someone is in the KKK! Everyone has a different version of “in the KKK,” the point on the continuum where it really truly is just intolerable to ignore someone’s politics. For some people, it’s, well, in the Klan. But for others it’s buying beans from the wrong company. Different strokes for different folks but a symptom of the culture war is conflating Klan membership with the bean thing. (Update: My friend Parker Malloy has some smart pushback to this post.)

Most of the fights that consume us are not about those real and important things, where reality lives. They’re about small-ball bullshit.

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The internet’s default sorting is by political polarization, which also obscures and overwhelms the actually important personality differences that are good criteria for friendships. 

A lot of people who vote the same way I do are very earnest and find my gallows humor grating. That’s fine! In real life, we would recognize that we had different temperaments, be polite to each other, go on our way, and never see each other again. But the internet is a global chat room that throws people into confrontation. Sometimes people do it willingly, but sometimes not! Sometimes you just show up in someone’s feed because of an algorithm or because of a retweet. 

One of life’s great joys is meeting someone and clicking with them; when your personalities truly meld. You’re fucked up in the same way. You laugh at the same things. What a sad way to live if you foreclose the possibility of those friendships because they disagree with you about fracking.

Opinions are fun to hold and fun to argue about! But they’re mostly entertainment. Virtually all of my opinions mean nothing. Yours too. I have come to think that fracking is an important tool that we should continue to invest in while we wait for other green technologies to mature. If getting coal out of the air is the most urgent way of dealing with global warming, then fracking is good because fracking kills coal. A lot of liberals disagree with this. But my opinion about fracking means nothing. I will never vote on fracking. But that’s me. Fracking is not an actionable belief for me. But maybe it is for you. Maybe you will vote on it. In which case your opinion about fracking does matter. But I promise you that you have an opinion that isn’t actionable.

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I took a train ride once across the country and hated it. It was 4 days! It was awful. I tweeted about this and thousands of Train People lost their shit. They dedicated days not only to trying to convince me that trains were good—which, who cares what I think about trains? I am not in charge of the trains. I am not Mussolini—but also being outraged about it. They are Train People who have invested their emotion and energy into that identity. So anyone who disagrees with the Train People about it—like meaningless me—are not just random strangers the Train People can ignore, they’re enemies saying there must be something wrong with the Train People. They’re challenging the Train People’s identity.

You should not like me or dislike me because of my feelings about transportation policy. And indeed, to Freddie’s point, you don’t. If you spent time with me, you’d like me or dislike me for a thousand other reasons—better reasons—reasons based on superficial things like my conversational style. This is good! This is how it should be!

One part of Freddie’s post that I will disagree with, though, is the idea that people are doing this in bad faith. That they’re “pretending” that fights are about politics when they’re actually about personality. 

I don’t believe that. They are stuck in this same ecosystem of perverse incentives. They think it is about politics! People are just generally more generous in how they interpret the writing of people they like. It’s human nature. And people are really bad at reflecting on their own motivations. I am. You are. Freddie is. The Train People are not consciously saying, “I am going to ruin this dude’s day because he didn’t like a train ride.” They are reacting unthinkingly from random shit in their broken brain. Same!

People are crazy. We are especially crazy in groups. Attributing almost anything that happens online to intentionality is a mistake. And it’s a mistake that matters.

There was a brouhaha a few months back about whether “intentions matter.” Of course they matter. They might not be the most important thing, but they matter. If I hit you with my car by accident, then I am a bad driver, and I should face certain penalties for that. But if I intentionally hit you with my car, then I’m a villain. And it would be reasonable for you to think of the world as crawling with villains.

But the truth is that most people aren’t villains. Very few people set out today thinking, “today I shall be a villain.” Even when they do stupid, destructive, hurtful things, they usually regret it and wish they weren’t so dumb. Isn’t that what you do? And afterwards, you don’t think of yourself as a monster, because you know the context of your life that led you to that mistake. You are privy to that information when no one else is, and it follows that we are not privy to all the information that would give context to other people’s mistakes. 

It is simple to assume that people are being deliberate and thoughtful all the time, but it’s also painful and constantly disappointing. It’s much more difficult to assume that people are not deliberate and thoughtful, but rather a complex jumble of confused impulses, habits and dreams, hoping to be seen by others as sexy and cool and competent, and often failing. This means we need to use a lot more patience and creativity when we interpret the actions of other people. And it also means accepting that plenty of people will just never like us, and we may never know why.

So, look, this is a rambling blog post. I love rambling blog posts. You’re going to get lots of them from me. Sometimes they’ll be bad (like this one?) and 60% of you will hate them, but sometimes, if I wake up very early and try very hard and the stars align, they’ll be good, and then only 40% of you will hate them.

And all of that is ok!

Update: Some of the pushback that I have gotten to this on Twitter is about all the opinions that do matter. I should have spent more time talking about those. For instance, I have no intention of buddying it up with people who are not outraged by the endless torrent of police in America shooting unarmed Black people, or people who deny the humanity of transpeople. This post is mostly about smaller things. But it’s a fair point that it was silly to write this post and not include more about the bigger ones. I’ll do a follow-up more about this on Monday.