Dunning-Kruger Is My Middle Name: Empathy, Knowing How Much I Don’t Know, and Struggling in a World of “Experts”

Where even to start? There is the mask requirement debate or the “Karen” response or the even broader state of discourse. There is the snowflake versus the deplorable. There is the stan versus the canceller.

The world contains a lot of hostility right now, and many of those hostile actors feel righteous in their anger.

I’m not immune to feelings of anger, but even when anger might be the most dominant emotion I find myself cognizant of others: shame, sorrow, amusement, fear…

“Well, obviously, she’s feeling very sad, because of Cedric dying. Then I expect she’s feeling confused because she liked Cedric and now she likes Harry, and she can’t work out who she likes best. Then she’ll be feeling guilty, thinking it’s an insult to Cedric’s memory to be kissing Harry at all, and she’ll be worrying about what everyone else might say about her if she starts going out with Harry. And she probably can’t work out what her feelings toward Harry are anyway, because he was the one who was with Cedric when Cedric died, so that’s all very mixed up and painful. Oh, and she’s afraid she’s going to be thrown off the Ravenclaw Quidditch team because she’s been flying so badly.”

A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.”

“Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have,” said Hermione nastily, picking up her quill again.

This gets complicated straight out of the gate. People have varying degrees of emotional intelligence just as they do logical and so forth. I do not pretend to have mastered any form of intelligence and I tend to keep this opinion to myself for the sake of humility, but I am above average when it comes to many types of intelligence.

Like our friend Hermione here, I have at least the emotional intelligence to recognise the complex, overlapping, and often contradictory nature of emotions both in myself and others. I’m not a logical robot; quite the opposite, in fact – I feel emotion intensely and have the same reflexive reaction to certain stimuli that anyone does.

Those who claim to have “mastered” emotion to the point of not feeling or expressing it are among those addressed by this piece. You know the type. They tend to self-identify as masters of logic.

Which brings us to the matter of logic and reason. I have a strong, albeit amateur, grasp of reasoning. It was even a focus of my collegiate studies. When people take the time to compliment my writing for its ability to articulate an idea I am not altogether unsurprised – that was not a natural ability but the end result of hours practising at both writing and reasoning.

But I am not a master of logic, and the ability to reason about a particular topic only extends about as far as the reasoner understands that topic as well as the nature of logic. Some people have one but not the other, and thought leaders in a particular field possess both to a superior degree.

All of this relates to the Dunning-Kruger effect. I possess, in many situations, enough intelligence to know what I know but, more importantly, to recognise the great deal that I do not. I proceed with elements that I know to be assumptions or educated guesses, but I recognise them as assumptions and educated guesses. Conflating opinion with fact is an easy yet troublesome tendency.

We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in: machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little: More than machinery we need humanity; More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.  ~ Sir Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator

The year is 2020. I have been on this planet for more than three decades now and much of what I am describing has always been an issue for me. Perhaps the concerns I am about to express escalated into anxiety and a personality disorder, or perhaps these concerns are merely a consequence of those things. Perhaps neither – perhaps they are just concerns.

Let’s take the ongoing mask debate as a starting point. We have people arguing that masks are the least people can do to respond to the coronavirus pandemic; we have others arguing that masks do nothing, might cause more harm than they help, or simply that they are individuals and no one can tell them to wear a mask.

The academic in me finds the last item the most interesting because there is a debate there. To what extent can a free and democratic society allow a government, at any level, to mandate behaviour? Obviously the answer is to some extent (the alternative would be anarchy), but where is the line?

Demanding that everyone wear a black mask – clearly excessive. Demanding that everyone wear a mask that meets minimum medical standards to combat a pandemic? Now it’s a matter of public health and safety, which is definitely a prerogative of a government, but is such a specific requirement allowed? Is the government required only to ensure an individual, with the freedom to wear or not wear a mask, has access to medical care? Would the government be required to prosecute individuals for spreading a potentially lethal virus to others by choosing not to where a mask?

I’m not sitting on the fence. I am staunchly in the “wear a mask” camp because I do believe the government has the authority to institute such a requirement.

And the debates are often more complex than people will allow. For example, one might liken the mask debate to the issue of seatbelts. The same reasoning that the individual has the freedom to choose not to wear a seatbelt and incur the consequences applies. Perhaps the government does not have the right to legislate seatbelt use.

Except if a person chooses not to wear a seatbelt and a collision occurs, the consequences do not necessarily stop with non-seatbelt wearer. The incident could well incur medical, legal, and financial consequences that fall to the rest of society to cover – consequences that could be avoided by legislating seatbelt use. Perhaps not. Maybe those consequences happen in either case.

The concern behind this piece is not the mask story – it’s the inability to function as fellow human beings.

First, people vehemently, even violently disagree with one another. It’s not enough to disagree.

Second, there is a hyperbolically performative nature with too much of it. We see it often in videos posted to the Internet of encounters. Two sides disagree about something and an argument ensues, but rather than discuss or even shout their points back and forth it turns into something from Animal Planet with large, theatrical shows.

One of the most annoying, in my opinion, is what one might call the “Okay”. This is the situations where one party acts like they are amused or unbothered by the other party even though they are clearly defensive and annoyed. The tactic seems to have one or two intents: first to prove that the situation is not getting to the person (even though it has), and/or to troll the other person like a sibling might, baiting them with a smugness and attaining some sense of security/satisfaction that the other side has lost control even more than that person has.

It’s still communication, but it’s a primitive sort of communication indicative of low emotional intelligence – like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

And, yes, both sides do this. Whatever the debate topic. I don’t care if this is Democrat versus Republican, designated hitter rule versus pitcher bats, or Edward versus Jacob.

Because the next element to this is, as Chaplin discussed, a tendency to hurt the opposition rather than arrive at some deeper understanding. People drop talking points like punctuation in discussion. The mic drop. Landing a “sick burn” against an ideological opponent is the win.

Of course, even if the other person feels the burn they are going to retort, and then the party offering the burn cannot believe the audacity of it. This tends to result in the “Okay” response. “I burned you and now you’re desperately trying to get back into this. It’s over. Bye, Felicia.”

Meanwhile, nothing occurred. The person who believed one thing believes it more intensely. Not only did nothing change their mind (because nothing would), they now also have a hatred for Them. These are the sorts of people who believe the other thing and they suck. I cannot recant my previous belief and join them.

This is all while fighting across the aisle. A more insidious form of this occurs on the same side of the aisle. Every debate not only has at least one opposing side with which to contend, it also possesses gatekeepers.

Both sides.

I don’t care if this is the incels who treat the women who side with them like garbage (always to their surprise) or the feminists who argue with them.

Feminism has gatekeepers that will attack allies and women alike if the wording or methodology is not in line with how the gatekeepers envision things.

This situation is more insidious because people always see the faults with people on the other side of the aisle. With people on the same side of the aisle, they see the other person as guilty of their offence. Someone says something that does not match the exact line and they will pounce. The person defends themselves against the gatekeeping and the gatekeeper will claim the person is attempting to gatekeep.

It’s not even, I don’t think, a tactic. I think they truly believe that is what is happening. After all, it’s an ideology and many of these ideologies exist as a counterpoint to someone else’s gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is familiar to them and they are looking for signs of it everywhere.

Again, academically it makes sense to me when I see a woman feminist verbally assail an ally for not saying “the right thing” and then doubling down when they attempt to defend themselves. Feminism exists and continues to exist because of gender inequality. Men served as social gatekeepers for behaviour against which feminism fights. The idea of a male ally contradicting any point has all of the hallmarks of further gatekeeping.

Where the issue gets really complicated is that sometimes (most of the time?) it is gatekeeping. Things are not that clear. It’s equally wrong to say that feminists are wrong for silencing dissent from the “official position” as it is to say that feminists unjustly attack fellow feminists.

People, all people, still possess biases against which we must battle. When someone raises a point that conflicts with the “official point” of the ideology, it could be their internalised bias surfacing against the progress and people are right to say, “No, you aren’t getting this.”

However, sometimes the gatekeeper is the one with the internalised bias or flawed reasoning that requires adjustment. That person and their followers ganging up on the dissenter is not appropriate – it’s ideological nonsense.

The concern of this piece, again, is not with these specifics but with the general sense that society is unable to make the distinction.

Then we have cancel culture. Look, I get some of it, especially in a democratic/capitalist society. We don’t like a public official – don’t vote for them. We don’t like a company – don’t use their services or purchase their goods. They adapt or get replaced by someone who will do the responsible thing.

Of course, that view of the world is theoretical. We continue to elect some of the worst people to public posts and keep them there. Our business goes to some of the most socially irresponsible companies. They wield incredible power that obscures reality, makes opposing them difficult, or provide enough advantage that people become willing to tolerate the amorality of it.

Then we have cancel culture. People will screw up – everyone does. This is again where the polarity and hyperbole of the situation tends to dominate the discussion. Some will point to the fact that what a person did is inexcusable and call for their cancellation. Others will point to the fact that everyone makes mistakes and call for their pardon.

Both of these positions are incorrect. And I don’t have the answer, mostly because it is a case-by-case sort of thing. We need to hold people accountable, but “cancelling” them is an extreme tack to take. Alternately, the idea that other people make mistakes, even the same mistake, does not mean that we hold no one accountable.

“He wore black face.”

“Yeah, but a lot of people used to wear black face.”

We don’t need to cancel that person over the incident. Not to mention how this will encourage others to conceal further their past nonsense rather than own up to it. We do need to hold them accountable though. I don’t know what that looks like, but it’s somewhere between public execution and “everyone who wore black face before 2019 gets a pass.”

And again, these things overlap. Some people get cancelled because their opponents find out about something and bring it to light. A lot of other people get cancelled because a slighted ally finds out about it. Both sides do it but, I must say, my fellow liberals seem to have a unique talent in this respect.

I just wrote a piece about J.K. Rowling, who incidentally made news right after for signing onto a piece condemning cancel culture.

Much of the same group who went after her for the other incidents are on her case about signing her name to that piece. It’s further evidence of her transphobia. It’s her knee-jerk reaction to calls for her cancellation.

And, to be clear, I am opposed to Rowling’s problematic tweets. I do think she is transphobic, but I do not think her claims to the contrary are evidence of that. I think her claims to the contrary, when taken in good faith, are indicative of the fact that she does not think she’s transphobic. Intent does not matter in these circumstances though.

What complicates the issue is, as alluded to earlier, Rowling is making many valid points, especially as pertains to gatekeeping. Many, but not all, of Rowling’s concerns are real things against which feminism fights. The gap is in the understanding of what it means to be trans and what trans rights entail.

What I can promise everyone is that so long as people continue to respond to Rowling as they have she will retain her position. Not only do her opposers make no impact on how she views the matter of trans rights, they also reinforce her valid concerns about feminism. She is a woman speaking up about women’s rights and those who disagree with her want to shut down her part of the conversation.

She is a woman speaking up about women’s rights and those who disagree with her want to shut down her part of the conversation.

With just a touch of empathy, it isn’t hard to see why Rowling responds the way she does. Do I agree with it? No. But I’m also not going to demand her cancellation because I disagree with her. In fact, the very act of disagreeing with her has enriched my understanding of feminism and LGBTQ issues by exposing me to more perspectives.

I understand with some of these issues, especially regarding civil rights, there is a lot of fatigue. For people who are not part of the oppressed group, there is a lot of fatigue as an ally trying to catch up, understand the issues, and unravel the biases. For those who are part of the oppressed group, there is a lot of fatigue dealing with the allies’ fatigue and continued opposition.

So I understand when the LGBTQ community and intersectional feminists argue against any tolerance for someone like Rowling. Why is it their responsibility to do the work for this woman or anyone who isn’t getting it? I understand that. I do.

I also understand that someone like Rowling is feeling the same thing and, more importantly, that her thinking will never change if her only exposure to an alternate perspective is one of hostility.

I further understand that the situation gets worse if those with zero tolerance for someone like Rowling are also going to attack others on their side of the aisle who attempt to have those discussions with her. “Zero tolerance!” Anyone who shows any kind of patience for Rowling becomes an immediate enemy, a poor ally.

Oh, another phenomenon that merits mentioning even though it doesn’t fit nearly into the flow anywhere: this thing where some obscure document relates to the matter at hand and suddenly everyone, even those who cannot locate the United States on a blank map, are experts.

An issue comes up, a handful of keys accounts mention how the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 relates to it, and then the Internet and discussions are abuzz with how it supports or does not apply to the discussion among so many people who didn’t know it was a thing fifteen minutes earlier. (Yes, that’s a real thing if you’re wondering)

Basically, everything is partisan and most people lack the skills required to manage that.

Is there moral and/or logical equivalency between positions? Of course not. In some cases, one side may be 100% in the wrong. The idea that the position of this piece, that people lack the emotional, linguistic, logical, etcetera intelligence required to interact well, might invite such a criticism is part of the problem.

I feared writing this piece because of the blowback having any sort of position seems to invite today, let alone one suggesting that maybe people need to do a better job listening and disagreeing. After all, it’s not Us – it’s Them. Them sucks and we’re just doing what we have to do. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Us might be awful about this, too.

There’s something to be said even about that. People who disagree with me might respond well to this piece seeing sensibility, tolerance, and patience. Closer friends might view it in good faith with sensibility, tolerance, and patience on their part, calmly pulling me aside to address things with which they disagree.

Allies who are not as close may view this as a betrayal. And that’s when they come for me.

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