People are People

by Dan Jordan

People are people. This should be a self-evident truth. It is such an obvious statement that you might wonder why I would bother writing it, let alone writing an entire post about it. It is a tautological statement in the same way that “A = A” is. It should therefore inform our every interaction with other people and with the way we ourselves act in the world.

And yet usually this is not the case. We do not treat people like people.We do not view people like people. We create models and stories of other people based on our own experiences and then we apply these models and stories without even realizing it. In these models we might expect a person to be super- or sub-human. We might expect him to be needlessly cruel or to be a saint.

We imagine perfection is a thing that both exists and can be applied to other humans.

But people are people.

And what a person is is a mammal. A primate, of the family Hominidae and the genus Homo. Humans are bipedal. They have well-developed brains that make them more intelligent and emotionally aware than other animals.

The things that people are not, however, would comprise a very long list. People are not “rational”. People are not “good” or “evil”. How could they be these things? People can behave in a rational manner, and they engage in good and bad behaviors. To say anything beyond that is to ascribe one’s own story of the world to other people.

Applying your story of the world to other people is particularly silly because you yourself are a person, a bipedal primate with a well-developed brain, subject to the same forces as the other primates.

This is not to say that our capacity for making models of the world is a strictly bad thing. If we were unable to develop models of the world we would never be able to learn or to grow mentally and socially. A baby is a human being with a brain that can not yet develop models of the world. As we grow older, everyone will invariably develop and utilize mental models when interacting with the world. This is a fundamental part of being a primate with a well-developed brain.

The difficulty when interacting with other people is that our internal model of them will by definition be incomplete. Only by spending years in a close and honest relationship with another human being can your model even come close to being an accurate representation of them, and we rarely have that luxury.

For example, your boss is not just your boss, just as you don’t see yourself as strictly an employee. Your neighbor is not just your neighbor – after all your neighbor views you as the one who is the neighbor!

Try as you might, there really is no other way to interact with other people though. We are all programmed to make assumptions and to simplify complexity; it is in our very nature. This is why liberals and conservatives don’t get along. This is why people from different religious tribes are always using the latest in military technology to blow each other up. This is why I hate the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In all of these examples, people are forgetting that other people are in fact people. We are lumping other people into groups and assigning traits that are ultimately simplifications and caricatures to them.Then we view these formerly individual people as being nothing more than members of a group that has certain characteristics that we don’t like and forgetting that we made the whole thing up in the first place!

The only solution I have found is very simple in theory, but in reality is very hard to do. It is this: remember that everyone wants to avoid suffering and treat them accordingly. Essentially, the golden rule. This is a truth that applies to all human beings. We do not want to suffer.

This helps simplify dealing with other people as the complex creatures they are without reverting to invented stereotypes. This is something that can be applied to everyone you meet. If you are in a position to cause suffering to a fellow human being, refrain. If you are in a position to alleviate suffering for a fellow human being, by all means do it.

This can be a very difficult thing to do because societies do not generally encourage thinking this way. It is not always explicit, although it can be, but societies develop in opposition to one another. Humans have a very strong tendency towards empathy, and I would argue that it is even stronger than our more selfish desires, but empathy diminishes as it is applied to humans outside one’s tribe. This is why mental models of other people become increasingly simplistic when applied to people and groups we don’t generally interact with. We don’t understand them so we don’t empathize with them.

In the modern world there are many more tribes than there ever used to be and this, I think, is why we get into such trouble with one another, why we’re always outraged and offended. I myself belong to the California tribe; the Bay Area tribe; the East Bay tribe;  the creative-type tribe; the musician tribe; the prefer beer to wine tribe; the married tribe; the male tribe; the spiritual-not-religious tribe; etc, etc, etc.

It all gets terribly confusing, so I imagine that to a fundamentalist Christian from the deep south I would be referred to as a member of the tribe of San Francisco, with all that that entails. Just like my mental picture of this imaginary person is as a member of tribe Deep South, with all that that entails.

It’s not that these models are necessarily wrong – after all stereotypes often exist for a reason – but they are incomplete. And if we are not careful, they will prevent us from relating to one another as human beings, as people.

Which is stupid. Because we can quibble about a great many things, but not about the fact that people from the Deep South and people from San Francisco, by virtue of being people, are in fact people.

This has strayed a bit closer to politics than I would like to go. There is a reason people in polite society do not discuss religion and politics, unless they happen to be in a room full of people from the same tribe. Politics and religion are the two most powerful tools for creating tribes. (As any good member of a tribe will tell you, their kind is driven by reason and a desire to do good, unlike the members of the other tribe who are driven by emotion at best and evil at worst.)

But people are people. Nothing more or less. All people create mental models of the world and the people in it. You yourself do this. It is unavoidable. But remember that the less you understand a person on a personal level, his idiosyncrasies, his fears, his hopes, and his failures, the less accurate your model will be.

So simplify. People are people. People want to avoid suffering. If you can relate to your fellow Man in this way, you are doing good.

But then, you’re a person, so you probably can’t. Speaking as a fellow person, I certainly can’t. That’s okay. There’s no such thing as a perfectly kind and empathetic person, since we made those things up too.  The only perfectly kind people who ever existed were largely fictional, like Jesus or Buddha.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. People are people. We just need to try our best to remember that.

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