You presented an outstanding argument in response to the question I tweeted earlier, and I wanted to take time to address it completely. My response is a little complicated: I think you’re completely correct, and also completely and utterly off-base. That’s not something that one can explain very well in 140 characters, though. So here we are.
First, let me set the context for anyone joining mid-stream. (And if you think my summary is inaccurate or unfair, Will, please let me know).
Dave Rubin tweeted this bit of snark in response to a Planned Parenthood message on gender-related etiquette in social interaction:
You can see my reply below it. My question was sincere: I honestly didn’t see what the big deal was.
Although Dave never answered my question, his followers certainly did. Most of the replies were very strange non-sequiturs from people with some kind of axe to grind.
“THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS!!!!” some people screamed (even though the tweet speaks nothing of number of genders). “Misgendering isn’t a crime!!” another opined (the tweet doesn’t claim that it is). “We address people based on BIOLOGICAL SEX!!” a third elaborated (you can change the word “gender” to “sex” in the tweet, and the advice remains the same).
Mostly these replies seemed to be from people who were triggered by the word “gender” to go off on tangents completely unrelated to the original tweet. So it goes.
But your response, Will, stood out from the rest! You actually presented a complete and coherent argument for what you thought was wrong with the original tweet:
You’re a rational guy, Will. I sense that you know that you are, as well. And I agree with the points that you made, 100%.
It’s true that making assumptions is normal. It’s true that when you make assumptions about a person’s gender you will be right most of the time. I certainly don’t get offended when people assume that I’m straight, because (just as you say): most people are straight, so statistically it’s a safe bet.
You also agree with the original Planned Parenthood tweet on the matter of mistakes and apologizing. You and Planned Parenthood both think that you should apologize when you make a mistake, and then simply move on without making a big deal out of it.
In fact, the only part that you disagree with is the part you call attention to at the beginning and at the end (in good essayist style): the phrase “don’t make assumptions.”
You think that the phrase “don’t make assumptions” is silly.
Gosh, Will… I have to ask: is this the first time in your life you’ve heard the phrase “don’t make assumptions”?
I mean, it’s a pretty common piece of colloquial wisdom. From about the age of 10 on people are familiarized with the saying “Don’t ASSUME, it makes an ASS out of U and ME” (ha, ha, ha). It’s one of those cliche bits of wisdom, right up there with “look before you leap” and “everything in moderation.”
Now, when you hear the phrase “everything in moderation”, Will, do you respond by saying….
Whoah there! That’s really stupid advice! Not everything should be done in moderation! There are some things you shouldn’t do at all, for example! Anyone who tries to do everything in moderation is stupid! What dumb dumb stupid advice!!!
I certainly hope you don’t. It makes me tired for you, just thinking about it. What an immense waste of energy.
In 1975, language research and psychologist Paul Grice formulated what he called the Cooperative Principle of conversation. The gist of the idea is that people usually try to enable a conversation by sticking to certain principles: they try to make sure what they say is relevant, for example, and they try to make sure it’s informative.
Moreover, as a basic unconscious psychological part of communication, we generally assume that the person we are talking to is also obeying these rules. Grice found, in study after study, that most people will interpret vague things said by others in a way that is most compatible with the cooperative principle. They will hear something vague or confusing, and they will think: “This person must be trying to say something useful… let me find the most informative, most sensible interpretation I can. That is probably what the person means.”
This is part of what it means to converse in good faith: you assume the other person isn’t just fucking with you.
So let’s go back to reading a tweet–which, by the way, everyone knows is limited in length–which says: “don’t make assumptions.”
Is there any particular reason, Will, that you chose not to interpret this sentence in the most generous (and obvious) way possible, which is to mean: “Try not to make assumptions, especially when the situation is ambiguous, and don’t be alarmed when your assumption turns out to be incorrect”?
Because most normal people, in normal day to day conversation about literally any other topic, would interpret it that way.
So now I’ve got a question for you, Will, and it is as follows:
I concur with you that making assumptions is absolutely a natural human tendency, and nothing to be demonized. I concur that it is impossible to prevent yourself completely from making assumptions, and even if you could it wouldn’t be useful to live your life doing so.
But why was it so important for you to interpret that tweet in the narrowest, most absolute, least generous way possible?
Why wouldn’t you choose to respond like a normal human being–like I assume even you would respond, if it were on any other topic–and say simply: “Yeah, I guess it’s true that assumptions can go wrong sometimes.”
Everything you said was correct, Will… but it still lead you to the wrong answer.