Benefit of the doubt

This is my morning journal entry for March 9, 2020. This won’t be a polished essay, like the blog posts I’ve been writing in the past. This is just a raw mind-to-paper exercise. Some stuff here might be poorly expressed, some statements might be wrong. Sorry about that.

I put a lot of work into not jumping to conclusions, and still sometimes I fail.

That is to say: sometimes I fail to not jump to conclusions.

When a close friend says something incredibly hurtful, I know what I ought to do. “Can you tell me what you mean by that?” is a good place to start. Following up with “Just so you know, this is how it came across to me…” may lead to a great discussion. When I have followed these good practices with people I know, nearly every time I learn that my hurt feelings were not needed. I interpreted their meaning wrongly, or they were distracted or emotionally drained by other things going on in their life, or they had misunderstood something I said and were replying to that so we were talking past each other without realizing it.

But it’s tough when someone’s words hit like a hammer. It’s takes practice to respond with “Can you explain more what you mean?” instead of “How could you possibly say such a thing?” It takes work.

I have to allow myself to doubt my first impulse to be upset by what my friend has said, so that my friend can benefit from that doubt.

The same stuff applies to online interaction, too. Everyone on Twitter is distracted. Everyone is in their own little world, immersed in their own passions and problems. They see every tweet out of context, and it’s a roll of the dice as to whether they are interested in figuring out what you meant by a thing; and if interested, it’s another roll of the dice as to whether they interpret it rightly.

The literary notion of “death of the author” has never been truer than on Twitter: the meaning of the text comes from the impact of the text on those who consume it, not the intent of the person who wrote it.

There is a pattern that I see all the time on Twitter that make me laugh and despair at the same time.

Pattern: OP tweets a broad political or philosophical message. RE replies with a description of something in their own lives that they think illustrates or expands on OP’s tweet. OP thinks RE is correcting them, and so gets defensive and tries to pick apart RE’s example. This goes on for hours before it comes to light that RE was trying to agree with OP from the beginning.

So when a stranger online says something that seems far out in left field and combative for no reason, I try to practice the habit of “Can you tell me what you mean by that?”

Of course, sometimes strangers online are combative for no reason. But I think it’s possible to give someone the benefit of the doubt initially: ask for clarification, and leave the door open a crack for them to explain themselves. Give them the benefit of the doubt in at least the first “round” of the conversation. The bad actors will show their true intent quickly enough.

Now, that reminds me that there is another skill I practice that is just as important as practicing “benefit of the doubt”, and that is: recognizing bad-faith actors and cutting them loose. This is the complement to “benefit of the doubt” and I have found that it is required for me to not drain my own energy by giving “benefit of the doubt” for too long to people who are malicious and not acting in good faith.

I think I’m better at giving benefit of the doubt than I am at recognizing bad actors. I always want to have hope. But if someone constantly “misunderstands” or manipulates conversations in a way that shows they are trying to be hurtful, or they are insisting on misunderstanding everything I say in order to achieve some kind of other agenda, then eventually enough is enough. The switch goes off, and I’m done.

That’s all the time I have this morning. This is my morning journal entry for March 9, 2020.

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