Saturday, June 23, 2007

Other People

Dan Edge has posted about the Benevolent Universe Premise and dealing with people with what he calls the Benevolent People Premise. The post has stimulated discussion here. Inspector has more.

Dan sees a problem among young Objectivists.
For years, I have watched (mostly young) Objectivists struggle with a specific form of the Malevolent Universe Premise. I call it the "Malevolent People Premise." One with a Malevolent People Premise expects the worst out of each new person he meets. He realizes that everyone has the capacity to be rational, but he expects those he meets to be irrational. While he may develop relationships with new people who seem virtuous, he always expects to find faults, and he carefully scrutinizes new friends or lovers for any evidence of irrationality. When he discovers a flaw in the person, he feels betrayed and angry -- but justified.
Since I don’t know any young Objectivists, I don’t know if Dan is right that this is a common problem. I suspect he overstates his case. Here are my somewhat random thoughts on dealing with people.

Relations with people, like everything else, depend on one’s purpose. If your purpose is to buy groceries, the relationship with the person at the check-out stand is simple and formulaic. The conversation is the same every time, and unfortunately includes the question, “Paper or plastic?” because environmentalists think plastic is bad for some reason, so apparently it’s better to use tree products. (I once read that someone wrote a spoof academic article called, “Paper or Plastic: An Inquiry.”)

For the most part, relations with people are a matter of manners and etiquette. Manners are not quite what they were before the New Leftist cultural revolution, but they’re still pretty good. I have read that people are nicer to one another in capitalist countries than in socialist ones. This is because socialism makes everyone an enemy competing for a slice of the pie doled out by the government. It is fascinating that the “dog eat dog” smear that socialists lay on capitalism is actually true about their system.

There is no reason why on this superficial level one should not be positive and cheerful, expecting the best from people. Anyone who is typically unpleasant and grouchy at this level of contact, like Moliere’s Misanthrope or Menander’s Dyskolos (The Bad-Tempered Man) has a psychological problem. Comic writers have a lot of fun with grouches, but it’s no way to go through life.

You get beyond superficial relationships when you talk to people more and find out their ideas. This is when disappointment enters. People quickly reveal themselves as mystics, cynics, buffoonish nihilists, gray ciphers, flattering sycophants (social metaphysicians) or some other type. I find two simple questions, asked with an unthreatening smile, most revealing: 1) What does that prove? And 2) Do you have any evidence? The answers to these questions are usually enough to tell you who you’re dealing with. By asking questions without lecturing or arguing, you find out people before they get angry and the defenses go up. First get the facts, then pass judgment.

Most people neither understand nor care about philosophic ideas. It’s good to remember their context of knowledge. You’ve read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, but they probably have not. When you meet someone who is honest and cares about ideas, then you’ve found a nugget of gold amid the dross.

H.L. Mencken was something of an elitist who called the common man “booboisie.” He can be a little intimidating as he wrote before the coming of the New Left, when cultural standards were higher. I remember reading him once sneer at people who blow in their soup; I thought, “Gee, I’ve done that…”

(Another example of being intimidated by people who were around when America and the west were better places: When I heard on tape Ayn Rand dismiss Wagner as organ grinder music, I thought, “Whoa! I’m a guy who is happy with the Beatles and Black Sabbath and she’s looking down on Wagner?”)

Is being a curmudgeon like Mencken a bad thing? I suspect Mencken was much more polite to people in person than he was in print. I doubt that he went around being unpleasant and rude. Writing has a different purpose than personal relations, and being a curmudgeon in print served his purpose of entertaining readers and making money from writing. To me, Mencken’s curmudgeonliness was just recognizing the reality that if one sets one’s personal standards high, most people will fail to meet them. If you want the best out of life, you will be in the minority, as most people settle for much less than the best.

In our culture, most people do have wrong premises of one sort or another. In that respect it’s not irrational to “look for the worst” as the chances are the worst is there waiting to be found. But even so, honest people, however flawed, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity until they prove otherwise. And what they choose to think is their responsibility, no one else's. One has no duty to run around like a religious fanatic saving other people's souls.

The most frustrating thing about "the common man"? He occupies his mind with trash and nonsense. In my day job I listen to FM morning talk shows across America, so many of which are obsessed with Hollywood gossip. People love gossip! I don’t want to contemplate someone like Michael Jackson, who has all the personality of a sea cucumber, but others might talk all day about him. (Women are a bit more likely to love celebrity trash than men.)

At the age of 50 I find it tempting sometimes to think like Dominique in The Fountainhead or Kay Gonda in Ideal. I long for the ideal, but instead I get “American Idol.” I end up feeling, more than anything, boredom. As a result of being bored and uninterested in most people, I stay home too much and I have to force myself to get out and socialize. The advent of the internet has made staying home even more attractive. Were it not for acting in plays, I might be a total shut-in.

UPDATE: Slight revision.


Galileo Blogs said...

I agree. In essence, you are saying that context matters when dealing with people. Not everyone has read Ayn Rand. Furthermore, most social interactions, such as the "paper or plastic" example, have nothing to do with explicit philosophy.

As for the connection between rudeness and socialism, one can observe it here in New York. I find that the rudest people are the non-working poor, i.e., the welfare recipients and residents of public housing. You can spot them in grocery stories paying for food with their plastic debit welfare cards. You can also see them hanging out at "bodegas" (convenience stores) in neighborhoods where there are an abundance of public housing projects. These people rarely smile, they almost never say thank you. When they want something from a store clerk, they say, "Gimme that."

I know I am generalizing. Undoubtedly, there are some polite welfare recipients, but I doubt there are many.

I contrast the non-working poor with the working poor. Recently, I bought something from Craigslist. I traveled to a poor Hispanic neighborhood in New York where there was not a public housing project in sight to pick it up. Most of the residences were attached homes or small apartment buildings. Everything was neat and maintained with pride. When I went to the door to pick up the item I was buying, I was invited in and offered something to drink while I waited for a car to pick me up. The house, although inexpensive, was cheerfully painted and clean as a hospital ward.

Of course, I am generalizing based on this one example, but I have other experience to support my point. In my career, I have had numerous interactions with senior executives of corporations. My experience has been that the more successful people are -- in terms of money and career achievement -- the more pleasant they are to deal with. Of course, there are strong exceptions. Sometimes, a successful person can be nasty. I suspect that in those cases, such people operate under their own mistaken malevolent universe premise. They have adopted the view that capitalism is lawless, so they might as well be nasty "takers." However, this is the exception, based on my experience. Generally, the nicest people I have found are the most successful people.

In sum, my experience with people confirms a Benevolent People Premise. People who are more successful tend to be more benevolent in their outlook toward their fellow man and the world. The opposite is true for those who have chosen a life of non-achievement.

Jim May said...

Heh, I remember when "Paper or plastic?" meant cash or credit...

Regarding Galileo's point about nasty successful people who are so because they believe that capitalism is "lawless", I've seen a lot of that kind of thing; it often explains the kind of person often held up as "the essential capitalist" by the Left. I find that it happens more often among certain groups that are widely held in contempt and/or are mistreated by the law; landlords, for example. I just moved last month, and both my own landlord and my girlfriend's are trying to screw us out of our security deposits. :P

Anonymous said...

That was an enjoyable and, I think, a very fine and benevolent bit of advice for dealing with people generally.

I do have one bone to pick, however. You wrote:

(Another example of being intimidated by people who were around when America and the west were better places: When I heard on tape Ayn Rand dismiss Wagner as organ grinder music, I thought, “Whoa! I’m a guy who is happy with the Beatles and Black Sabbath and she’s looking down on Wagner?”)

I wonder if you have a reference for Miss Rand's remark. Specifically, I wonder whether she was referring to Wagner or to Verdi (the latter's music frequently referred to as "organ-grinder music" by some). Whatever the case . . . and I write this with all due respect to Miss Rand . . . she was wrong. Wrong in every possible respect, whether she was referring to Wagner or to Verdi. Such a remark is a sign of profound musical ignorance.

Myrhaf said...

I heard that remark from Ayn Rand on a taped interview, I believe at Columbia University's radio station, in the early 1960's. I hope I have remembered it accurately. I suspect her opinion was more widely held early in the century.

I can see the organ grinder music comparison in a few of Wagner's more repetitive pieces, but certainly not in everything. The overture of "Tristan und Isolde" is nothing like an organ grinder.

Galileo Blogs said...

No relationship is more contentious than that between landlord and tenant in New York City. New York is the city of rent control, the system that expropriates the property of landlords. They cannot evict their tenants who have lifetime tenancy rights, which they can pass down to their heirs in perpetuity. Legal rent increases lag inflation or the increase in the value of real property. As a result, thousands of buildings have been abandoned by landlords, and have fallen into rubble mounds because the landlords cannot make money.

Do you think that makes landlords a little bit grumpy?

In fact, they end up becoming enemies of tenants, finding any excuse to boot them out of their apartments so they can legally raise their rents.

Capitalism creates good will because both parties to a trade voluntarily engage in it to mutual benefit. Undercut that relationship through any form of regulation such as price controls, and that good will becomes mutual hatred.

Myrhaf said...

When I lived in New York I knew an actor who was paid $40,000 to move out of a building that was supposed to be demolished or something. He said he invested the money in his career, which I take to mean he lounged around for a few years without a job.

I knew another case in which a woman let a starving artist live in a room in apartment. After awhile she told the guy to leave. She was contacted by his lawyer, who said she would have to pay him $50,000 to leave. She learned not to be nice to starving artists, at least not in New York City.

Inspector said...

Great post, Myrhaf! I'm working on a follow up.