I got involved with a Facebook conversation-turned-argument recently. I know. I should know better. But once in a while I still take the bait.
My friend shared a story about man who followed up a first date by texting the woman a long message saying that she was great but too physically large for him. No one in our debate disagreed that the man was insensitive. But was it on purpose, or was he just clueless about these things?
We’ll never know. But after a few commenters called the man names, I spoke up, saying he probably didn’t mean to come across as he did.
Days later, I was reading a story on life lessons one should learn when young. One such lesson was: take care of yourself, because no one will do so for you. In the comments, people spoke of the selfishness of others, how they’ll take advantage of you if you let them. Then someone added:
“Very few people are actively terrible but a shocking amount of them are unaware of how their attitude and actions affect others.”
This idea echoes what is known as Hanlon’s razor: “Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.” (In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate–“shave off”–unlikely explanations for a phenomenon.)
Then, my friend Shane, who recently was hired for a new job, shared on Facebook the quote at the top of this email that he had received in training.
“Don’t assume motives. Assume positive intention.”
All this is time-worn advice. It is so, because it needs to be relearned–perhaps nowadays because of the proliferation and polarization of news and opinions online. We have so many opportunities to express contempt, and we have peer groups encouraging us to do so.
Regardless who was right or wrong in that Facebook discussion, I was struck by the anger aimed at the young man for his text-made-public. It’s more satisfying, in some sense, to assume the guy “an a**hole” than simply clueless. But it’s likely not true. Plus, by assuming him to be bad and justifying your anger because so, you’re feeding the negativity in your heart and in the world.
The wisdom of the idea that people are generally good is needed to fend off all the temptations for our indignation–wisdom that clashes with the countless pages, posts, and people emitting negativity toward others making the news today.