The benefit of the doubt

"Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity."

You've probably heard that one.  Here's a corollary:

"Never attribute to stupidity that which can adequately be explained by ignorance." 

When you find yourself in a serious disagreement with someone, first give them the facts as you see them.  Stick to what you've observed firsthand, not your interpretations or hearsay.  You'd be amazed at the people you can find common ground with just by sharing your experiences.  Second, if they agree that you saw what you said you saw but they still don't agree with you, silently decide for yourself whether or not they're just dumb.  If you think they are a smart person, you may reluctantly conclude that they are malicious.

Now here's the tricky part:  do them the favor of turning this procedure around on yourself.  Listen to the facts as they see them - carefully restrict them to their own firsthand observations.  Give their observations the same weight as your own in your interpretation of events.  If after careful consideration of ALL the facts you still disagree with them, then silently decide for yourself whether or not you are just not as smart as they are.  If you think you're not dumb, but you can't come to some kind of agreement with them, you might be malicious.

I like to trot this one out during election season, but it never works.


  1. I was reading a recent column in some on-line newsmagazine which reported findings of a large study. The results were that people who have an opinion are not usually swayed by logic or facts. In fact, these people will illogically cling more steadily to their opinion and doubt the legitimacy of the facts presented or the presenter of the facts. This is why it's a lose-lose situation to argue with someone regarding religion, politics, etc. unless they are an open-minded person to begin with. In this day and age of punditry and religious-right-extremist hyperbole, arguing anything can be an effort in futility and frustration.

  2. It does take a special mindset to change your views based on new observations--especially other people's observations--and you're right that most people don't have it. Quite often we hold what appear to be rational views simply to give some defensibility to a desire or a judgement that's felt more deeply. We may not even be aware of it.

    And honestly, I have no problem with people speaking and acting in accorance with deeply felt desires or judgements. I'd just prefer that they be up front about their motivations rather than pretending it's rational. And nobody's perfect; sometimes I don't know my own motivations.

    I will say, though, that the closed-mindedness isn't limited to any one side of the political spectrum.