Arguing that which has no(t as much) defense

Hi everyone! Sorry I’m late again with this week’s post. A lot of travel has been messing up my schedule. 

Anyways, I’m writing this post from my flight (now delayed and needing to switch my connection, smh 🤦🏻‍♂️). Because of how late this post is, I had the chance to skim some of the other posts before writing this one and I particularly liked Jonathan’s recount of class struggles and how they conflict with the notion of empathy.

While this exercise seems simple enough, but I can’t help but feel that this just barely scratches the surface. I imagine scenarios where people have conflicting interests that come from legitimate places where empathy can’t be divorced from compromise. 

Regardless, I think empathy is probably a powerful ingredient in consensus building, especially in topics outside of work (though we all bring our emotional irrationality to work, no doubt). 

I recall, throughout my life and recently as well, scolding people for their demonstrated lack of empathy. This has been especially common with the men in my life in the context of someone approaching them to talk about their problems. We men seem to have this almost knee-jerk reflex to try and solve someone else’s problems when oftentimes they just want to be heard and feel taken care of. But what happens when there is an ideological disagreement beyond a particular situation? 

Now, in the context of this prompt, I’m going to analyze a particular scenario I ran into a few months back with the Trump-voting, climate change-denying, “came from nothing” (I hear this one too much in the U.S, as if they weren’t born with their privilege 🤷🏻‍♂️) father of this guy I’ve been going out with. 

My first instinct is to say “you’re everything that’s wrong in the world”. Then I breathe (goosfrabba, for those who get the reference) and think “bless your heart, you’re just dumb as rocks”. Finally, when I get past that point, I usually try to fact check and educate to only realize their arguments are not actually grounded in facts but are entirely emotional. They find “logical” arguments to match their emotions even if the facts don’t add up or without bothering to do research to back up their positions. When I figure this is the case with someone, I’ll respectfully de-escalate because I consider them a lost cause. 

In this exercise, I’m going to try to empathize on a new level. I’ll take a look at 3 separate cringe-worthy (for me) qualities of this person, dig down to the whys underneath the whys and attempt to conciliate. These are: Voting for trump, denying climate change, and saying they come from nothing. 

Voting for Trump: In his case, I don’t find it hard to understand why he did this. He is a 55 year old man in IT who lost his job and is now having to work several temp jobs to make ends meet. Trump’s entire platform was appealing to the “overlooked, forgotten” masses in industrial and rural areas of the country, away from the technocratic, highly educated, better off progressives living in larger cities. He promised jobs and prosperity after a crippling crisis of which we were still kind of recovering from. He also addressed the issue of trade, corruption in Washington and its effects on jobs and even stoked the fear of mass immigration to the country. It was all based on fear. Fear that this man knows all too well because he lives it. In the end, I think voting for trump was a cry for help. Not because a wall or travel ban may be the best solution to immigration or a trade war the best way to bring jobs, but because they felt scared and then heard for the first time in a while. 

I’m sure many of them had higher hopes for this administration, but alas, the recent elections show that people are acting in their disappointment towards this guy. I get it. In his shoes, I might have done the same. Even if it were just to give a big middle finger to the system (and seeing what’s happening in Chile, we may expect more than just a rude gesture in the coming future). 

Climate-change denying: ugh, this one is tough for me to justify. I say this as I drink soda out of a single use plastic cup in an airplane, so the hypocrisy is not lost on me and maybe I’ll use this angle to argument on his behalf. 

The truth is that our entire way of life has been engineered around convenience and not having to pay for “the true cost” of things. By this I mean that, in a perfectly designed economy, we would all be internalizing all of the externalities our actions create into the cost we pay for the goods and services we purchase. For example, if using a plastic cup costs me 5 cents but recycling this cup further down the line costs 10 cents, I should be paying the 15 cents at the moment of purchase. If transporting this cup to the plant costs another 5 cents, I should pay for that too and so on (and not through recycling subsidies which are invisible to my decision making process). But because we aren’t used to it, and we’re so predisposed to want immediate gratification, we’ve been accustomed to living a life style that is not sustainable for our planet. And it’s hard because, by definition, this means we won’t be able to live like this forever and we’re going to have to give it up at one point.

While many of us try to do the best we can, that’s often not enough and we still find ourselves using our cars, taking planes and using single use plastics much more than we should. Now if I put myself in the position of a man who is struggling to make ends meet, who is not finding professional fulfillment like he used to and probably deriving a larger share of the pleasures of life from activities and things that some people are claiming to be “threatening our existence as a planet” when it’s just a coffee from a Keurig pod, maybe I’d be pissed and a little incredulous as well. Then hearing these same people espouse a theory about changing climate over decades would seem even more far fetched. 

If I also consider, in the back of my mind, that the effects are very long term, so much so that I may not even be alive to see them, then yeah…screw that. I’d be inclined to blissfully and with willingfull ignorance continue to eat my double beef patty burger, and not even bother to care about how cattle farming is one of the top drivers of deforestation. Oh well, maybe we humans are too short-term thinking to be able to make it out of this one. Many parasitic organisms and diseases operate the same way, eventually killing their hosts and themselves with them. I guess this is just the way of nature. 

“Coming from nothing”: While not precisely white, he is a white presenting Puerto Rican from New York who is used to the hustle mentality, and he admits to have grown up in a low income family. I don’t deny that he worked hard to be able to forge his path in the world a raise his family. I won’t also deny that he had a good head start because he was a white presenting man. 

But looking at this item, I can’t help but recall a particular argument I had with an ex in Chile where he basically said , supposedly not including me in this, that the achievements by anyone in upper middle class in Chile were moot because of their privilege. While I remember tearing him a new one for 1: excluding himself because he worked in the religious non-profit world (martyr mentality much?) but conveniently forgetting the fact that his entire professional life was a hand-me-down from his religious network from the small town he grew up in after bombing his college admissions, that he has fancy-last name privilege (our version of white privilege in Chile) on top of the fact that he went to the top school in his town and 2: for pretending that there is no dispersion within any given group of people. Specifically, while I was born with privilege, I have far outperformed and outworked 90% of my peer network from Chile from a professional and social-contribution standpoint ever since I was in high-school while he was basically the epitome of small town religious nepotism. 

Recalling this argument, I know that whatever privilege this man has had in his life probably doesn’t discount all of his struggles. It also doesn’t diminish his sense of achievement at all. Many people with more of a head-start did not do as well and I don’t feel inclined to take for granted that raising and providing for a family is trivial for anyone, even the most privileged. But as he’s gone through losing his job in his 50s, having to reskill to do other things, and continue to look out for his kids and grandkids, I can’t help but feel a lot of warmth and compassion towards him. We may all end up in a similar spot further down the road, where ageism becomes a real barrier to finding work. I hope he fares well moving forward. 

Anyways, that’s my post for this week. Oh well. I feel a little more compassion and understanding at least, but I struggle with justifying some actions, especially the ones that most impact climate just because of the massive danger it is proving to be. 

Anyways, I hope this wasn’t too tiring of a read. Until next time! 

RS: so as I think through the comments this week, my conclusion is that, other than M and J being right about the corporations’ ploy for lower and middle income scapegoats for the climate problem, is that I needn’t be so visceral on my judgement about people and that a little distance and time would favor me when coming up with responses to conflicting postures. I could imagine this being a useful skill when meeting religious leaders. We will probably have differences in ideology to spare. But I don’t need to get hooked on or react immediately to them. I can afford myself time to kill over and empathize, away from the sense of fake urgency that seems to plague our daily lives. I want to believe that we have more in common than different and that’s what gives me hope that we can find a solution to this and many other critical problems of our time. I hope we realize this soon.

5 thoughts on “Arguing that which has no(t as much) defense”

  1. I so enjoy the movements of your mind, Juan. Particularly as it relates to priviledge and being unwilling to undermine the core reality while also refusing to deny nuance within it. But also as it relates to parasitic organisms, lol. The closest my partner came to breaking up with me was when I said something similar to your above statement.

    Given that the primary drivers of climate change are corporate rather than individual choices (see: convincing us all the legislating against selling straws is a higher priority than regulation of the oil and gas industries) do you ever think our indignation related to climate issues is largely wasted/scape goated on middle and low income individual consumers? I struggle with the alternative. I have an ask for regularly donating to a group that does it’s best to be the counter-lobby to oil companies in Congress in my inbox that comes to mind, and I’m certainly not denying that consumer choices are important, especially on aggregate, I just wonder at the emotional labor of it all.

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  2. JF- thanks for diving in here. It’s great to hear you wrestle deeply.
    (1) Is there any new insight for you about what it takes to go to this mental space of empathizing with somebody who believes something so different?
    (2) Is there a potential funder in Miami that you might be able to empathize (doing a similar exercise) with before your next meeting with them?
    Where else might this practice be helpful?
    I was excited to hear the clarity in the RS to your last prompt. I hope it goes well in New Haven.

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  3. Juan Francisco – I love the arc of reactions you walk through when you describe your response to this individual’s more emotional comments! Having gone through this exercise, do you foresee reacting differently to him in the future? What does it mean to you to surrender to the other person’s viewpoint as being “unchangeable,” despite the instinct to “fix” as you described earlier?

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  4. Juan Francisco,
    Not too tiring of a read in the least. In my view trying to feel empathy for a Trump supporting, climate denier is going to the deep end straight away. But that doesn’t surprise me at all.
    If the exercise resulted in giving you a “little more compassion” — it will be interesting to see if it feels different next time you are around him. Was there a shift inside of you that might lead to something new?
    I appreciate your pointing out the single-use plastic you were using while on a plane — the reality seems to be that the vast majority of us are climate change deniers. If we look at conduct, there’s usually very little difference in actions between a climate change denier and someone whose incredulous that there are climate change deniers. We sure are an interesting species.

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  5. Hi Juan Fransisco! Thank you for letting us in on your mental journeys as you put yourself inside the head of three different “opponents”. Like your last post, this post felt intimate. I felt like you went deep inside of yourself and deep into your opponents. Kudos!

    A few thoughts:

    1. I really appreciated Magelette’s comments about climate change. I think we often fall into the trap of laying the blame for certain outcomes or behavior patterns squarely on the shoulders of the individual/on the consumer rather than the large corporate forces that we dare not acknowledge or confront. Industry has tremendous power to direct the behavior of individuals and consumers. For example, in Michigan there’s been lots of talk about high levels of PFAs in the water in certain parts of the state as a result of industry practices. As Wikipedia so helpfully explains: “Perfluorooctanoic acid —also known as C8—is a perfluorinated carboxylic acid produced and used worldwide as an industrial surfactant in chemical processes and as a material feedstock, and is a health concern and subject to regulatory action and voluntary industrial phase-outs.”. Lately at Meijer I noticed a single frying pan among those on sale that had packaging touting “no PFAs (and a few other acronyms). Naturally, it cost a few dollars more than the others. Now, who would you say is responsible for the status quo in which PFAs are currently higher than EPA recommended levels in my state: manufacturers of goods that contain PFAs such as the frying pans, stores, or consumers? What are their respective perspectives and capacity to reduce the amount of PFAs going into Michigan’s water in the future? What do you think it would take to help them, based on their respective perspectives, to recognize and embrace this capacity?
    2. “Oh well, maybe we humans are too short-term thinking to be able to make it out of this one. Many parasitic organisms and diseases operate the same way, eventually killing their hosts and themselves with them. I guess this is just the way of nature.” If you were to accept this as reality, what could give you hope in the midst of this reality? If you were to reject this notion, what would be driving you to that?
    3. Have you started reading Emergent Strategy? I think even just reading the intro (which is all I’ve done) will provide some much needed lightness after such a heavy exercise ❤

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