People Are Different

People are different, and their relationships to things outside them are different. Something to someone is something else to someone else. Someone’s comfortable warmth is someone else’s sweltering heat. Someone’s bright illumination is someone else’s blinding light. Someone’s tasty snack is someone else’s source of nausea, someone’s crushing boredom someone else’s sweet relaxation.

Someone’s novelty is someone else’s cliché. Someone’s revelation is someone else’s shrug. Someone’s expression of emotion is someone else’s lack of self-control. Someone’s perfect clarity is someone else’s obfuscated nonsense and someone’s ordered elegance someone else’s bloodless rigidity. Someone’s nugget of wisdom is someone else’s trite platitude, and someone’s tasteful subtlety is someone else’s nothing there.

Someone’s minor inconvenience is someone else’s insurmountable obstacle. Someone’s obvious example is someone else’s edge case. Someone’s explanation is someone else’s evasion, someone’s justification someone else’s poor excuse. Someone’s natural conclusion is someone else’s wild leap of logic and someone’s default assumption someone else’s extraordinary claim.

Someone’s modus ponens is someone else’s modus tollens. Someone’s signal is someone else’s noise, someone’s rule someone else’s exception and someone’s isolated incident someone else’s part of a pattern.

Someone’s oppressive suffocation is someone else’s being a responsible adult. Someone’s trivial impoliteness is someone else’s mortal sin, and someone’s intolerable injustice someone else’s price worth paying.

Someone’s confidence is someone else’s arrogance. Someone’s idealism is someone else’s foolishness, someone’s basic compassion someone else’s bleeding heart. Someone’s good taste is someone else’s snobbery and someone’s guru someone else’s naked emperor.

What lights a fire in one flickers out in the other. What’s intuitive to us is an absurd reach to them. What’s essential to one is counterproductive to the other, and what you need to hear most of all might be the last thing you should tell someone else.

What’s thrilling to you is terrifying to me. What you want to savor I want to get over with. What to you was settled long ago is to me an open question, and what stands out to you is just background to me. What’s hair-splitting to you is a vital distinction to me, what’s personal to me is just how the game is played to you and what comes out of the blue for you the end of a long story for me. A large and detailed map in your mind is a small placeholder token in mine.

Other people’s minds are a foreign country. They put things together that you take apart, focus on things that pass you by; they react with revulsion to things you don’t notice, and what’s unheard of to you happens to them every day. Our lives are all differently biased samples of all possible experiences.

People are different. We obviously act differently, but differences don’t start with the decision to act. We act differently because we perceive, parse, think, feel, want, need, react and judge differently[1]. There is a substantial core of humanity in us all, but the older I get the more convinced I get that we seriously underestimate how different the inside of other people’s heads are to our own.

This implies a few things. It implies, as I keepharpingonabout, that we don’t always understand other people as well as we think we do — why they do what they do, say what they say and what they mean by their doings and sayings; what they find worth mentioning and in contrast to what unstated background they mention it. And other people similarly don’tunderstandus as well as we think they do.

When communication is real-time and face to face we have continuous corrective feedback that (somewhat) keep things from going off the rails. When it’s not, we don’t, and errors accumulate with every step, like google-translating a sentence back and forth between languages. The result is the sad state of public discourse: a quasi-schizophrenic collective brain that can barely integrate its perceptions and thoughts into anything coherent[2].

I’m not bringing anything new to the table here. We all know this to a certain extent — when we make the effort to keep it in mind. Like we know the value of the simple maxims “don’t divide people into us and them“, “do to others as you would have them do to you”, or something as basic as the ancient wisdom of “don’t be a dick”, we know that people are different but forget it the moment we stop thinking about it.

That isn’t good enough. This understanding is not something to keep in a drawer and take out for birthdays, weddings and Christmas dinner, it’s a lens through which we need to view everything, in society and in our own lives. We need to understand, accept and respect differences, that one size does not fit all, but to (and from) each their own.

“Words of wisdom” go into one ear and out the other, and I suppose this is a reason why a novel, a painting or a song can be more effective than a philosophical tract. Successful idea-driven art doesn’t simply supply us with ideas to use whenever we want to (which isn’t necessarily when we ought to), it burns them into our minds through repetition, elaboration and strong emotion. That way they won’t fade away like fragments of the last dream before you wake up and we won’t have the option to not use them.

Read the first section again. And again, read it until your eyes bleed and your cortex falls over in exhaustion. Recite it in your sleep. Think up examples and practice gestalt-shifting. Try to make every single dichotomy on that list part of your instinctual response to every disagreement, conflict or controversy.

• • •

I suspect the notion that we’re all the same, deep down, is a holdover from a time when a strict division between body and soul was our best guess. This needs to go. Now. If we think of the mind as implemented in a physical medium and with internal structure and mechanism it’s much easier to understand on a gut level that different minds work differently. Contentless blobs of soul all look the same.

[Long enough to be a sub-post] Our societal information system is brain-like in more ways than having pathologies almost but not entirely unlike schizophrenia. We imagine our brain to have some center of consciousness where ”it all comes together” (what Dan Dennett calls a Cartesian Theater), but that doesn’t appear to be true.

We similarly imagine our societal information system — spearheaded by scientists and researchers — to have some place where it all comes together: a central, unified, continuously updated repository of integrated scientific results that science journalists, policy makers, bureaucrats, educators, activists and practitioners get their knowledge from. That isn’t true either, and it’s untrue a similar way: what appears to be an ordered, rational system is instead a cauldron of semi-organized patterns where one part doesn’t know what another is doing and there is no bird’s eye view.

The reason for the first mistake seems obvious: the nature of our conscious experience fools us to think that what we experience is what’s really going on (which is similar to the CEO of a multinational corporation thinking that their job is the whole company, or consumers of mass media thinking what’s discussed there is everything that happens).

Why the second happens is less obvious, but I think it’s partly a result of our upbringing and the relationship to authority we get as kids. We first get used to our parents knowing everything and then we’re taught a cleaned-up textbook version of scientific knowledge that gives us a false impression that a unified entity called ”science” knows everything and we have direct, unmediated access to this entity. Neither is true.

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9 thoughts on “People Are Different

  1. Originally, it seemed like I should make a comment like this: “This is great! I support this completely. But it’s really easy to go too far and start ignoring that sometimes people talking about values aren’t talking purely about the subjective, either because “value” is being used in a stricter-than-normal sense such as economics, or because there are some instrumental values that are almost universally useful for reaching whatever terminal values you happen to have. For instance, the value of petrol is in some sense objectively higher than a cloud of hot carbon dioxide and water, because even if you value the gases more, the conversion is much, much easier going forward than backward.”

    But then I read through some of the comments on Scott Alexander’s recent book review, including your own, and wow. Turns out even when you explicitly say to bear in mind that everyone is different and lay out the reasons why that might be the case, you still get a double handful of people explaining how their method would surely work for everyone, often on the basis of anecdotes. Which is entirely understandable, and I can see why people would feel like their sense of agency is under attack from such explanations – they want to hang on to their sense of accomplishment – that’s okay! But it still misses the point even after the point has been spelled out carefully, which is annoying.

    So on second thought: this is great! I support this completely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, I love that.

      I agree you should be wary of supporting anything completely. I write things I think have value, but that doesn’t mean they’re the whole truth and should always be applied. But I think the “people are different” narrative needs to be pushed harder, generally if not in all contexts and situations. It doesn’t have to carry the day every time, but it should always have a seat at the table. It’s a cognitive schema everyone ought to install, basically.


  2. I suspect the notion that we’re all the same, deep down, is a holdover….

    Hmmm. Judging by the political and other social divisions in Europe and Africa and the Americas, and India, a few centuries ago, it seems people in these regions were quite aware of their mutual differences. In modern times, human beings within small groups (like families and school classes) also tend to be aware of their mutual differences. The problem might be that the modern world, the uniforming world criticised by e.g. James C. Scott, treats this awareness like weed: it ignores it, or works openly to destroy it. … Even when the consequences of that are suffering, backlashes and death …

    Carson MCullers’ The Reflections in the Golden Eye (the only thing I’ve read from her) is written with an acute awareness of this.


    1. I’ll look up The Reflections in the Golden Eye, thanks.

      There’s a difference I think you’re eliding between being aware that people behave differently (which we do understand) and that people because of different temperaments and/or personal histories perceive and experience things differently. That’s not as understood and appreciated. We tend to view the mind as a black box where similar inputs go in and dissimilar output comes out. I’m suggesting we ought to consider that much of the difference happens before the “inputs” reach what we think of as the conscious mind and the will.


  3. Hi John. Nice one. I’m 57, got myself at last comfortable and sorted. Recently able now to turn me sights to ‘people’. Feel I’m on same page with you. The only thing is that I KNOW they are simply below me. I don’t just say this, I can argue it. Proof is that they end up following when they get it. They are just slow and not very good. How do I know? Because I used to be like them. doug


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