Having just finished a few works of Jonathan Haidt and Stephen Pinker, I am left with recurring question: “what parts of our culture and society might operate as self-fulfilling prophesies?” Even more directly, might otherwise “bad” people operate differently if we assumed what Haidt and Louikianoff call the “principle of charitability?”
Under the principle of charitability, we layer our interpretations of others’ the actions over a base layer of grace. Maybe someone who cut you off at that intersection just finished a 12-hour shift at the hospital, or had a fight with their spouse. In short, we assume the best, or at least not the worst. Lukianoff and Haidt’s work titled The Coddling of the American Mind details how the opposite of this principle – assuming the worst of others through an “us vs. them” lens – is wreaking havoc on our college campuses and other spaces of intellectual conversation. But through careful analysis and some compelling anecdotes, I was convinced that there seemed to be more to this as a unifying philosophy of thought. It led me to question what its implications would be, were it to be applied systematically.
On its surface, thinking of someone charitably is simple. You interpret their actions through an initial lens of patience and calm, thoughtfully updating your judgments as they continue to reveal more layers of their intent. But simple things are rarely easy. We find that simple acts of gratitude, accepting when we are wrong, or admitting defeat can be draining and difficult. The principle of charitability, then, may be quite difficult to scale upward from the individual.
However, if we grant the possibility of thinking better of someone actually makes them better, then our principle should be plausible. We can and should test this theory. Now, more than ever, folks need to feel that they belong in a community. We need to see their thoughts as valid from their perspective. If we expect better from each other, need to first think better of each other.