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how to reveal yourself without really trying

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 4 months, 1 week ago

A page on human behaviour

 

"HAL was told to lie by people who find it easy to lie. HAL doesn't know how to lie. So he couldn't function." - from 2010:_The_Year_We_Make_Contact 

 

One of the most revealing things you can ever do is to describe someone else's thoughts. Because while you sometimes describe theirs accurately, and sometimes get it wrong, you always give away far more information about your own in the process.

 

In fact you don't even need to explicitly describe another's thoughts. Just the way you assume others think reveals how you yourself think, and often does so deeply and accurately.

 

Nowhere is this principle more often and better demonstrated than at WIkipedia, where I am an administrator and tragic. Whenever someone links to a basic policy and implies or states outright that I need to read it, it's more than likely that they have not read it too carefully themselves. (Surprised? Try it.) When someone says I'm threatening them with sanctions (such as a block, which as an admin I can impose, but on strict conditions only, and if I were to make idle threats contrary to these conditions I would most likely lose my admin status as a result), a quick look at their edit history will more likely than not see threats made against others.   

 

A horrible and specific example, not from Wikipedia. In her book Mayada, Daughter of Iraq, (ISBN 0385 607261) Jean Sasson describes an incident in which Saddam Hussein's wife Sajida gave Rosa, one of her servants, a valuable ring that she had received as booty, and then demanded it back when she later realised how valuable it was. I am not going to assume either way whether this story is true, just that it is credible and revealing of human nature.

 

Rosa had taken the ring to her parents, who had immediately sold it and used the money for settling debts and house repairs. But Sajida did not believe this. She accused Rosa of keeping the ring for herself, and tortured her, disfiguring her hands with an electric iron, while taunting her that she might as well bring the ring back. Her hands were so badly disfigured that she surely would be ashamed to wear a beautiful cocktail ring (p134). I said it was a horrible example.

 

Why would Sajida act like this? It's very simple.

 

Firstly, Rosa would not be so stupid as to accept torture rather than surrender the ring, if it were possible for her to do so. Can't Sajida see this? Of course not. In Rosa's place, Sajida would be tempted to keep the ring. She was raised in poverty, and it has marked her deeply. As a result, she would be stupid enough to do exactly what she's accusing Rosa of doing. In assuming that Rosa's thoughts follow this pattern, what she is telling us is that this is how her own mind works.

 

Secondly, the reason for this blindness on the part of Sajida is that she does not believe that Rosa gave the ring to her parents. Why not? Again, it's very simple. In Rosa's position, Sajida would have kept the ring for herself. This is what she is telling us, very clearly.

 

That's not to say that Sajida is so stupid as not to know that others sometimes act differently to the way she would in the same circumstances. Of course she knows this. But what she doesn't know is that they also think differently. She has intimate knowledge of no mind other than her own, so when she reveals the way she thinks Rosa's mind works, she is revealing instead the way she knows her own mind works.

 

She really has no option but to do this. None of us do. Whenever we attempt to describe other minds, what we are really describing is the one mind that we do know, and we do it automatically and unconsciously, and therefore fairly reliably.

 

And I'm doing it now, to some extent. I'm not immune! But hopefully I'm showing a bit more insight than Sajida did on this occasion.

 

Thirdly, in Rosa's place, and assuming that she had kept the ring for herself, why would Sajida be so stupid as to refuse to give up the ring, and accept torture as a result? It's a little more complicated, but bear with me. Rosa would give up the ring, because she knows that this is her only hope of mercy. But Sajida would not, because she knows that there is no hope of mercy. In Sajida's place, Rosa might give mercy, particularly if the ring were returned, as would most of us I think. Why continue the torture when the objective has been achieved, after all? But Sajida knows that there will be no mercy whether the ring is returned or not. It simply does not occur to her that someone else might be merciful, and that therefore Rosa might hope for mercy, while we know that Rosa would hope, and even reasonably expect, that if she returned the ring the torture would end.

 

What Sajida is telling us is that she has no intention of discontinuing the torture just because the ring is returned. She may or she may not, but the return of the ring is not a major factor in making that decision. The torture will continue, regardless, until Sajida tires of it. This is the deepest, most revealing and damning insight of all.

 

Isn't it elegant?

 

So judge not, lest ye be judged. And if you must judge, best keep your thoughts to yourself, particularly if they are evil thoughts. They are your thoughts, after all. Your own and, perhaps and hopefully, nobody else's.

 

(And just in case you're feeling angry at Sajida, don't. 

 

She is much to be pitied. And not just because when her two sons were both killed on the same day, the world mostly rejoiced. How would you feel? Nobody deserves that. When last heard of she was an 83 year old recluse living in Qatar.

 

Or read the essay on judgement. It may give you a different perspective. And that essay is written from a basis in naturalistic ethics. It ends up with some theological conclusions, but assumes no faith in any sort of God to support these conclusions.)

 

 

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