You don't know a thing about me

I've noticed that it seems very common for people to make statements similar to "You don't know me."  In fact, there's a running joke with one of my friends where whenever a slightly judgmental comment is made, one of us will say "You don't know my life."

I think there are many reasons people say this.  Sometimes it is true and the person being accused of the ignorance is truly ignorant and simply doesn't understand where the other person is coming from.  That's a discussion for a different day.  Today I'd like to talk about (from my own observations and reflections) when and why this phrase is used erroneously.

I blogged in the past about some of my ideas on why I think that people are less civil on the Internet than they are in person.  I think that understanding that concept will help with this one.  As social animals, we have a biological drive to form social bonds with other humans.  We try to "win people over", so to speak.  We have complex emotions in regards to interacting with other people in our communities.  And we learn social protocol.  We learn which things are polite and which are impolite.

But we have an "in-group" and an "everyone-else" group.  It can be seen in many different ways.  Typically the words we use for the out group is derogatory.  Gentile, alien, heathen, etc.  We feel a social bond with the in-group and we feel hostility toward those who do not conform to the in-group.  This is why it's more common for two Republicans to have a civil conversation about politics than it is for a Republican and a Democrat to have a civil conversation.  It is why an atheist and a Christian will argue more fiercely than will two members of the same church about theology.

I have noticed this phenomenon in myself many times.  I feel a spark of anger, and I don't want the anger to dissipate.  I don't want to be calmed.  I want to let the rage continue.  I want to continue to feel the anger I feel toward the object of my rage.  Someone "made me mad" and I don't want em to make me un-mad.  One way I can do this is to perceive em as an enemy.  Ey cannot be a member of my in-group because then I would have to accept em.  I must view em as a member of the out-group.  Ey cannot know what I'm feeling because if ey did, I would have to admit that ey is on my side and not against me.

If someone agrees with me, I will feel more kindly toward em.  I will view em more like kin and less like an adversary.  If someone feels empathy for me, or understands how I feel or what I'm going through, ey is more likely to gain my trust.  I cannot give that trust.  I must remain afraid and keep myself guarded against em.  So I invent reasons to excuse or explain my distrust.  Ey doesn't understand me.  If ey understood me, ey would agree with me.  (Because, how could anyone know what I know and not share my opinion with me?)  This is how I feel.  So I cannot accept that ey knows what I know because ey clearly does not believe what I believe.

If I am seen as a victim (of misunderstanding), then perhaps I can gain sympathy points (most likely from other members of my in-group, but possibly some from the other camp as well).  I can garner support from like-minded people by further demonizing the opponent and stressing the need to band together to defeat the opponent.

This mindset seems to me to be very good at polarization.  It seems to be fairly effective at making two groups of people draw further away from each other.  It seems to be very ineffective at bringing people together.  What if instead of saying "You don't know a thing about me", I said "I don't know a thing about you.  Tell me how you feel.  I'll listen."?

It's disarming to show diplomacy.  Generally speaking (not always), if one person puts down their weapons and exhibits a sincere attempt to reconcile differences, the other is more likely to follow suit than to simply mow down eir now disarmed opponent.  I have experienced this myself several times.  Yes, there is the desire to keep thinking of em as an enemy, as I stated before, but the desire is interrupted and often overpowered by the newly arising desire to cooperate with the person.

I've found that if I show a genuine interest in someone, and a desire to understand eir viewpoint, ey is much more likely to return that gesture than if I am hostile and expect em to first make the effort to understand me.

It's more fun to be mean.  It feels good.  It feels empowering.  But it's short-lived.  It's not a permanent solution.  It's not a long-term solution.  It's a temporary solution.  It takes patience and time to build bridges.  It takes very little patience and virtually no time to burn them.  The road that seems easy is the one that is often more destructive.  It sometimes feels like the right choice and it may seem like the logical choice.  We live in an increasingly sassy world where witty one-line comebacks are applauded.  We praise bitchiness.  Revenge feels so good.  But what does it accomplish?

If I want people who already agree with me to grow closer to me, while I push away those who disagree, that's the route I should take.  If I keep telling people they don't know a thing about me, it will basically be a self-fulfilled prophecy.  They'll lose interest in knowing anything about me because it will be ever easier for them to view me as a radical enemy, not a potential ally.

If I want to grow closer to people who disagree, if I want to decrease the amount of hostility in my community, I must not take that route.  I must be compassionate.  I must show that I do care.  I must say "Help me understand you better."  I must show that my efforts to comprehend are sincere.  And I must be patient.