Friend of mine, who happens to be a successful writer and online personality, recently told me: “I don’t write for stupid people, and neither should you.” As I’ve been spending the winter holiday season reflecting back on the year, and contemplating life, love and happiness, I’ve also spent time reflecting on this bit of advice. And I’ve decided I disagree. So in the spirit of the holidays, I’m going to share with you 12 random bite-sized little thoughts — little meditations, if you will — on why I disagree: one for each of the twelve days of Christmas.
It’s a slippery slope once you start assuming you know who is “stupid” and who is not. Most people I’ve met who choose to dismiss parts of their audience as stupid somehow always find the stupid ones to be those who disagree with them.
I’d be impressed by someone who applied some kind of objective standard for who was discarded as “stupid”, rather than simply dismissing anyone who disagrees with him as “too stupid to get it”.
So far, however, I have not met such a person.
Is it possible that he didn’t understand your argument because your argument has flaws?
No, he’s stupid.
Is it possible that your joke wasn’t clear?
No, he’s stupid.
Is it possible that the thing you claimed was “obvious” really, legitimately isn’t obvious to everyone?
No, he’s stupid.
Is it possible that he’s questioning your assertions because you didn’t provide any references to back up your claims?
No, he’s stupid… and I don’t write for stupid people.
I’m an Enlightenment Era philosopher born 400 years too late. I really am! I’m an atheist who is filled with awe and wonder at the world around me. I see humanity as full of potential and beauty. I firmly believe that all people are fundamentally good, educable, and have the capacity to be rational–if only they can be given the knowledge and skills to do so.
That’s why I’m radically against censorship, and radically pro-education. If we expose everyone to the cleverest and best arguments from all sides of every issue, eventually the truth will win out.
I’m not naive. I know not everyone wants to be educated. Maybe my friend intended to say: “You shouldn’t write for people who are willfully ignorant, it is a waste of your time.”
My question is: how do you know? Surely, out of all of the people out there who say things like “If evolution is true, why don’t people have wings?” there are at least some who simply haven’t been taught properly about evolutionary theory, and are open to learning.
Of course, some are not. How do you know who is who?
It’s easy to assume that the vast majority of people who ask a question like that are not really interested in learning the answer. They are likely trolls who are willfully ignorant and refuse to learn about how the theory of evolution really works because they don’t want to believe it.
But surely at least some small percentage of people on the internet who ask these questions are doing so sincerely.
So why not talk to those people? Why not answer such questions as if the person asking is sincere? What is the worst that can happen?
The worst that can happen is that you respond thoughtfully and kindly to someone who is not interested in listening.
I’ve always told my younger friends that they should go on dates with people even if they don’t think it has long-term potential. Why? If nothing else, it gives them practice for how to go on dates. It means they can learn about making small-talk, being charming, and generally knowing how to behave. That way, when they do meet “the one” and want to go on an important date, they can be more practiced and sure of themselves.
“It’s stupid to think that the Superbowl should be the first game you play in the season,” I tell them.
You know what else is a skill that gets easier the more you practice it?
Being a kind and thoughtful person.
What is the worst thing that can happen, if you go into every conversation assuming the person really is thoughtful, intelligent, kind and interested in learning about your point of view? What is the worst thing that can happen, if you go into every conversation assuming the other person is not just trolling you?
You get a little more practice being a kind person. That’s the worst thing that can happen.
I know my kind of optimism is not in vogue at the moment. If anything, our culture’s mass consciousness seems to have embraced the opposite of the Enlightenment view–a kind of “Endarkenment” ideology–in which conflicting ideas are bad, the best thing to do is block and ignore those with views we don’t like. The prevalent attitude online seems to be that it is pointless to try to talk to people who disagree with you because anyone who disagrees with you must be stupid and dangerous. Block ’em. Ban ’em. Or shout over them until they are intimidated and go away on their own.
Yet here I am, with my stubborn optimism.
It is useful to identify four different types or “personas” who engage in discussions on social media and in comments:
- The Broadcaster is online to express himself. He sincerely wants you to listen, understand and accept his opinions. But he’s not looking for any push-back or questioning. He’s really not even looking for an exchange of ideas: he just wants you to know what he thinks.
- Captain Cheerleader is online to get affirmation from people who already agree with him. He’s often colorful and snarky and outrageous, because his goal is attention and applause. He’s interested in “takedowns” and clever quips, not engaging alternative views.
- The Troll is probably the most well-known of the personas. He can be as colorful and outrageous as Captain Cheerleader, and like The Broadcaster is not interested in thinking about alternative viewpoints. But what sets The Troll apart is that he often doesn’t even believe what he is saying. He literally is out there just to bother people.
- The Sincere Interlocutor is the one who actually wants a real debate. He will engage the ideas that you present and will respond to them thoughtfully and in depth. He may be passionate and at times might be condescending, but usually avoids random insults or non sequiturs. He honestly wants to have a rational and thoughtful debate.
None of these personas is inherently bad. They simply are what they are. But you will frustrate yourself without end if you think you are talking to one type and are in fact talking to another.
My friend–the one who says not to write for stupid people–is a Captain Cheerleader, although many mistake him for a Troll. His main goal is to score points by saying things that his supporters will love, and “take down” people on the “other side”.
He often tells me he wants to “highlight absurdity” that he finds in his ideological opponents (i.e. liberals). What he actually does is find absurd individuals and then pander to his own base by holding them up and saying, “See, this is what all liberals are like! Aren’t they st00pid?”
It’s a great way to be a cheerleader.
But it doesn’t convey any truthful information. It’s not going to change anyone’s mind.
I’m not “above it all,” by any means. Even though I have my own personal rules I try to follow for online debates, I can be sarcastic and insulting just like anybody else. And although most of the time I try to be a Sincere Interlocutor, there are times when I’m Captain Cheerleader and there are times when I’m a Broadcaster. And yes, there are even times when I play The Troll.
I actually had a lot of fun recently making some parody Christmas Carol videos that are sure to be offensive to at least some Christians. You should check them out.
But in the end, when it comes down to it, I see my primary mission as being an educator.
Why? Because I am an Enlightenment philosopher, born 400 years too late. I think everyone is educable, and I think people are fundamentally good.
You might think I’m a fool to be so optimistic. Maybe I am. And maybe there is nothing wrong with being a fool, from time to time.
I’m certainly an optimist… which is why I disagree with my friend’s assessment that I “shouldn’t write for stupid people.”
I should write for everybody.
Because I’m willing to admit that not everybody who doesn’t understand me is stupid, and not everyone who disagrees with me is ignorant.
And you should write for everybody, too, because when you write for everybody, you never know who you might end up being able to reach.