Truth is not spoken in anger

Truth is not spoken in anger

Truth is not spoken in anger. Truth is spoken, if it ever comes to be spoken, in love. J. M. Coetzee

A bird sits on the side of the road.

Empathy is the ability to take on another’s perspective - to understand, feel and respond to their experience. Empathy is in the act of recognizing a feeling, and having it elicited within you.

As you build up a relationship with a partner, a friend, a family member, etc.. you regularly engage in the act of seeing and identifying with who they are. This fosters a sense of connection, a heightened ability to relate and understand, and the necessary context to make sense of the way someone lives their life.

But our generally accepted idea of love also comes with the willingness to sacrifice for another, to be implicated and motivated in each other’s fulfillment. We are not merely passive observers - we act in each other’s interest. When we consider someone we love, if we understand their life and we can empathize, then we have a unique perspective to see how their actions map to what they care about. We begin to ask: what would make this person happy and fulfilled? How are they enacting their values? We question and push each other towards this growth, precisely because of how invested we are in one another.

This suggests there is more to love than the the feel good happiness in the warmth of being supported. Constant emotional support can detract from saying what someone actually needs to hear, and love is not just about acceptance - it is also this act of projection and deep empathy - to take someone seriously and be invested in accompanying them where they want to be in life. Truth is spoken in love because to understand someone you need to commit to live life in their shoes and feel their perspective. To criticize someone effectively you need to actually understand their values, to criticize relative to their beliefs and the things they care about, not just imposing your idea of what is good.

This truth is not easy - it can hurt, hitting at deep insecurities and uncertainties, especially if communicated poorly. To criticize and receive criticism properly requires considerable effort and closeness. Mutual trust, genuine care and selflessness are key. But you are one of the select few who can judge from a place of care. This is hard because your relationships are a key part of your identity, and one of the places where you can be most vulnerable.

This type of critical love is normative, meaning that it prescribes a norm, it applies value judgements. Normative love should be based on a shared agreement on what a loved one thinks is good or bad, and an expression of that understanding as judgement. On the other hand, the emotional support love is anti-normative, rooted in unconditional acceptance. They are both important. Normative love gives you external perspective, sometimes in situations where self-criticism and introspection will bias you.

Similar considerations apply outside the realms of love, to the ways we coordinate and identify with ideological groups. Affiliation to a movement or political group can then be seen as a form of love - for shared values, a way of life, and potentially a common goal. But behind those values there is an emotional, intense process of individuals going from eg “the person who agrees with some democrat policy” to “a Democrat”. We become branded, labeled by our beliefs.

Those affiliations become essential to one’s identity. Humans have an intrinsic bias towards forming groups with strong boundaries of membership, eg belonging to a country, a political party, a fanclub, etc… This reflex allows people to feel closer to each other at the expense of those who are not members.

And then the label begins to replace the values. The outsider becomes more and more alien. Group membership becomes a key part of someone’s identity, and critizing a shared principle or idea can be perceived as a rejection of the identity and existence of the group members. And so the affiliations gain in importance - they calcify political fault lines and make it harder to have actual normative discourse on these values, where people can identify what they care about and make progress. In an environment where fear taints the potential for judgement, all we have is the prioritization of pure emotional support and the appearance of being in group, rather than the original goal of the group itself.

But policies and decisions should be guided by values in cases where collective action will ripple into change and legislation across the world. It should not be based on tribalism, or the details of how certain communities are structured and support each other.

Our increasingly polarized society only adds to this phenomenon - in 1994, the average Republican was more conservative than 70% of Democrats, compared to more conservative than 94% of Democrats in 2014. The rise of social media has probably worsened this, creating echo chambers and allowing people to interact more and more without feedback from the real world.

[add example]

The French culture I came from is much more normative, maybe because of its much more homogenous culture and history. The relative homogeneity in France makes it easier for society to operate and entertain a smaller set of different values systems while being normative. People are more direct about judging each other, and we don’t have slang like “you’re so valid bestie”. On a personal level, it’s been harder for me to make friendships with Americans as I feel like people are less ok with judging me and telling me how they feel as opposed to being polite. Political discourse back home is less about what ideas make which people feel bad and more about what values they entail - although this does mean it’s less intuitively empathetic.

Comparatively, America is the product of immigrants from across the world, creating their own new cultural values and a dream of radical individualism. But that individualism entails having a society that needs to entertain many different value systems and groups at once because of this heterogenous makeup. And within that, the challenge of having spaces where many viewpoints are represented and can come into conflict with sane judgement is complex, but paramount.

Elite american academic institutions are particularly victim to this problem. The left leaning student body and political polarization make the discourse one-sided, where on campus the very idea of judgement or questioning predominant leftist ideas is dangerous. Trying to get a clearer, critical sense of one’s beliefs can mean being branded as an outsider.

As argued, this tension leads to people prioritizing how things make people feel rather than considering the actual ideas and values being explored. But this approach doesn’t make sense if we apply it to an entire institution, and expect there to be consequences based on what every action made someone feel. Critical judgement and questioning can then become a problem for the institution, because one’s questioning can be felt as an attack on another’s beliefs and therefore their identity, at which point the administration becomes increasingly involved and can take corrective action. This harms the ideal of the university as a bastion for academic freedom and exploration.

Nevertheless, it is true that institutions need to be careful about what behaviors and beliefs they platform, but there is a tight balance. I am not saying safe spaces for people from marginalized groups should not exist - they should. It’s important to have spaces where people can get the instant emotional support and feel seen, without any judgement.

But we also need to allow for discourse where we judge each other based on our values to make any progress. When we want to shape a society we need to forget our relativism and actually decide what we want the world to look like. We can’t let everyone sit in their bubbles and make a little micro-society of their values, because everyone in the world interacts and forms a whole. So the normativity is now also about projecting our values onto others, and reaching consensus.

Prioritizing a flawed notion of student safety in discourse is not a viable strategy, because students exerting critical judgement and committing to their opinions (which is desirable!) necessarily means someone getting offended, as we can see from the campus reaction to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In this case, there are two distinctly opposed groups of students on campus, both with strong unity. On one hand, the leftist movements, whose ideas I broadly agree with, but that have fueled the rise in anti-normativity on American campuses, are now doing protests and countermeasures against Israel’s behavor in Gaza. These get reactions of rage and pain from a mostly Jewish and Israeli community. At MIT, the president keeps emailing about how these actions make the campus unsafe for these students who feel unrepresented and cast aside. But Palestinian students also feel unsafe and emotionally torn apart by a massacre they believe their institution refuses to disavow. So either side requires causing hurt, and we can’t justify our decisions based on whether they make students feel safe.

You cannot act in situations like this without also causing someone to feel negatively, and then it becomes a question of whose pain will matter to the dominant group. Whose pain will you deem to be justified? Because no, in a world where you choose to believe in every moment that everyone is valid, you can not truly commit to your belief and act, because you will always make someone else feel invalid.

And that question of whose pain matters is a normative one. It is one you can only answer by digging into what your values actually are and then acting to change the world in their favour. We can’t make everyone happy all the time, and should come to terms with the fact that the world needs judgement to run, and that that judgement is what allows us to believe in things.

That reality is compatible with having spaces and communities fully dedicated to emotional support, but those spaces can’t take over the way we run our discourse. Otherwise, what we are really doing is hiding our normative claims under an opaque blanket that everyone in the group is silently agreeing upon but not voicing, like “the pain felt by Israeli students is less legitimate than that of Palestinian ones” (or vice versa). Own up to your claims and their consequences. Having them hidden and unscrutinized makes the group worse at actually advancing its ideas, because they are not in contact with the world, and the world is harsh and will not care about how much you all care about each other if you want to bring your ideas into it. They need to be brought under critical light.

Looking to the past, it seems that American college culture has been influential in many of the moral advancements that I admire in recent times, through student activism on topics like LGBTQ rights, sexism, racism, animal rights, etc… And in many ways the moral progress and important conversations around inclusivity and equity in America are now bouncing throughout the world and bringing about changes that I fully endorse.

But those changes did not come through a process of trying to make everyone’s voice feel heard all the time. It came by prioritizing certain values and concerns, and then pushing forward to move the discourse and politics in their direction, at the expense of other perspectives. Because people believed that it was the right thing to do. Because people believed that they would push the world forward by emitting judgement and saying someone’s way of life, and in particular how it limited the rest of society, was not valid.

So stand up for your beliefs openly, and beware of letting anti-normative attacks and defenses dominate how we communicate. Take people in good faith, judge and let yourself be judged, without instantly discarding new ideas or beliefs even if they seem alien. Because the next moral advancements of our age might come from some far off voice suggesting that something is actually not right. Even if that judgement doesn’t fit with what the ingroup thinks, we need to consider it and be willing to learn if we want to make any progress.

And yes, we need to be respectful to each other and express an instinctive form of empathy. But if we want to look to the future and prepare ourselves for the fact that, in the same way we look back at the world 100 years ago and are disgusted by many moral failures, we might be looked back on in similar ways 100 years from now. Let’s get there faster than later.

What I need to do now

Kai says: