Malevolence and Misunderstanding
Lancelot: Your rage has unbalanced you. You, sir, would fight to the death, against a knight who is not your enemy. Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around.
Arthur: So be it. To the death!
Question #1: How many times in your life have you lost a friend because one of you malevolently decided to hurt to the other?
Question #2: How many times in your life have you lost a friend over a misunderstanding?
I am glad to report that I have lost few friends in my life. But as far as I can tell, all of the rare exceptions were driven by misunderstandings. Someone spoke rashly, which hurt someone’s feelings, which led to retaliation, which led to more hurt feelings, and so on. Or, someone acted as they thought proper, but someone else perceived otherwise, which led to offense, which led to counter-offense. The same goes for all the people I know well. They’ve lost many friends, but years later they flounder to explain the casus belli.
Is my corner of the world unusually free of sheer evil? Probably. Still, I doubt my experience is unusual. I bet that most readers have lost at least five times as many friends to misunderstandings as they have to malevolence.
How can you tell the difference between malevolence and misunderstanding? Try this helpful thought experiment. Imagine both sides calmly describe what they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears to a neutral outsider. If the outsider would tell both sides to forget the dispute and stay friends, you had a misunderstanding. If the outsider would say, “This is a bad match,” you still had a misunderstanding; just one that’s likely to recur. But if the outsider would tell one of you, “Get away from this toxic person,” you saw – or were – malevolence.*
Why appeal to “neutral outsiders”? Well, the main reason misunderstandings arise is because most human beings rush to assume malevolence. Indeed, this is built into the very concept of the “misunderstanding”! Sure, I sometimes speak rashly. Sure, I’m no mind reader. When my friends speak rashly to me, or fail to understand my feelings, however, the default explanation is not that they spoke hastily or failed to see the world from my perspective. The default explanation is that they consciously decided to make me suffer.
Yes, it’s childish to think this way. But what can I say? People are childish.
Small example: Friday I was shopping with my sons. My back was hurting, so they were pushing the cart. When I got in line, a women immediately pulled up her cart behind me. By this point, my sons were ten feet away. When I asked her to make room for our cart, she grew angry: “Well that’s strange!” Even my highly visible back brace was not enough to make her wonder about my situation. When I meekly got out of the way and offered to let her go ahead of me, she huffed and moved to the next lane. To me, this was a textbook example of a misunderstanding. Still, I suspect she went home and told her family about how awful I was. I made the effort to understand where she was coming from, but somehow she gazed into the heart of a total stranger and saw malevolence.
You could object, “Yours is hardly an original point. Parents and teachers routinely alert children to the risk of misunderstandings.” Fair enough. My claim, however, is that this lesson rarely sinks in. Adults remain prone to misinterpret mere misunderstandings as malevolence. Indeed, there are mighty social and political movements that angrily strive to amplify this error – to ascribe malevolence recklessly, and demean those to ask us to mimic the perspective of a neutral outsider when conflict arises.
These days, the Me Too movement is the highest-profile example. When you carefully listen to the public accusations, their severity varies tremendously. The case of Bill Cosby is light-years from the cases of Louie C.K. or Aziz Ansari. Is it possible that the latter two celebrities were involved in misunderstandings that bizarrely became national crises? Entirely possible. But most Me Too activists don’t just gloss over this possibility; they view those who muse, “Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding” with hostility. At risk of creating a new misunderstanding, my reaction to most Me Too scandals is precisely, “Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding.” Indeed, I maintain that we should presume that conflicts are misunderstandings in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary.
How far should we apply this insight? Far indeed. Even tiny slights, uncharitably interpreted, often spiral out of control. So let us assess behavior with perspective and charity. Much conflict between Democrats and Republicans rests on misunderstandings. Much of the conflict between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter conflict rests on misunderstandings. So does much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, part of the reason why I’m a pacifist that so many international conflicts are plainly rooted in misunderstandings. (If you can’t wait to scoff, “So the Nazis just had a big misunderstanding with the rest of Europe?,” you are fostering a misunderstanding between us. Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around).
If we fully accepted the prevalence of misunderstandings, couldn’t a malevolent person take advantage of us? I’m afraid so. Fortunately, that’s a minor danger compared to the opposite mistake. Remember: When you lose a friend over a misunderstanding, you don’t merely mistreat a friend. You deprive yourself of friendship in a lonely world.
* A worse, but still tolerably good rule of thumb: If your own complaints against your former friend seem less compelling to you years later, you probably had a misunderstanding. If your complaints actually seem more compelling years later, malevolence is more plausible.
Sep 17 2019 at 11:39am
Bryan’s “neutral outsider” procedure of course makes one think about “impartial spectator” in Smith. (My lecture “Who Is Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator?” is online here.)
Sep 17 2019 at 12:28pm
The only friends I’ve ever lost in my life (and I have had and have many) were just from slowly drifting apart over the decades. Maybe I’ve just been more careful about who I’ve become friends with in the first place and more charitable with my friends, or perhaps you’ve made some poor choices yourself (or think many others have).
That being said, I agree completely with you about the dangers of ascribing malevolent intentions to people. I see that happen all the time, and I try to stick to Hanlon’s Razor whenever possible.
Sep 17 2019 at 12:34pm
For the first time, I feel a need to tell someone whose posts I have read,
“You, Sir, are truly wise.”
Your posts are a refreshing oasis on the web, and in the world. There is a good chance that if I met you in person I would like you instantly.
Sep 17 2019 at 12:50pm
A couple thoughts on this. First off I don’t you will generally find any cases of people losing friends via unreasonable malevolence because human relationships don’t work that way. I have lost plenty of friends via malevolence on both our parts but reasonably so and usually because the non-malevolent party aggrieved the malevolent party first and didn’t resolve the matter (or it was reasonably unresolvable). If you like many marriages end in malevolence but it’s hard to claim it’s unreasonable or because of a reasonable misunderstanding.
Second the issue with reflection in you P.S. is the standard time heals all wounds issue, i.e. cognitive dissonance coupled with confirmation bias. Fifty years later you might think “well my friend stabbed me because he was upset that I slept with his wife but you know what in retrospect that was just a misunderstanding so we should have remained friends”. No you really shouldn’t even if infact you deserved to be stabbed. The malevolence was reasonable on his part but equally your friendship was done the day you slept with his wife.
Really the end of the day malevolence v. misunderstanding is simply the eye of the beholder and a measure of the perceived wound you caused to the malevolent party. Spite may be petty and ugly but it’s often just as well.
P.S.: I will a respect your wishes to cop out on WW2 but it is exactly that.
Sep 17 2019 at 5:44pm
Your attitude might change some if you’ve been burned a few times. There are plenty of people that don’t consider it malevolent to screw you over. Space doesn’t permit me to list them. Neither is the language that I would prefer to use to describe those situations acceptable here. People will steal from you and then try to convince you it’s all okay, from multiple experiences. Some of them still anger me after decades.
Sep 20 2019 at 1:02pm
I expect this to vary quite a bit based on social groups and geographic areas.
If a person repeatedly finds themselves being the target of malevolent friend-breaking or something of that sort, then they probably need to move and change all their friends.
Sep 17 2019 at 9:03pm
Human relationships are complicated. There are lots of gray areas. What about these situations? They are all hypothetical, but closely inspired by my own experience.
You lend a book to your friend. It’s a an out-of-print book that is one of your favorites, so you tell your friend you really want it back. You mean this to override the default expectation that it is ok not to return a borrowed book. Your friend does not interpret it this way, and you never see the book again. Sure, there was a misunderstanding, but surely there was a degree of malice, or culpable negligence, in not returning the rare book?
Your friend makes a pass at your girlfriend. When confronted, he claims it was innocent and he didn’t mean the comment as a come-on. You believe him, but you also suspect that the comment was a Freudian slip fueled by an inner desire for her. Sure, there is a misunderstanding, but surely there is a degree of malice in the friend not coming to terms with, and acknowledging, his true feelings, especially as it lead to inappropriate behavior?
You pick up a couple of friends from the airport for the 5th time. The friends rarely thank you and when they do, it is not heartfelt. They don’t offer you meals or drinks, or to come in. They don’t offer you pickups in return. They have the financial means to take a shuttle or use Lyft. You had initially offered the rides in a genuine spirit, but are starting to feel a little resentment for being their driver-on-call. Sure, there is a misunderstanding about expectations, but surely there is some culpability in taken the favor for granted and never reciprocated?
Sep 18 2019 at 12:42am
My wife has a relationship with her sister that is exactly like that described in your final paragraph (but since we live in the same street, it happens far more frequently than the occasional airport pickup). Whenever I express discontent at being taken advantage of, my wife’s response is always that her sister doesn’t mean it. As if that is somehow an excuse. The point being, at some stage willful blindness to how you treat others becomes malevolence.
Sep 18 2019 at 3:42pm
Ouch, that’s tough. It is hard when it’s family, because it is almost impossible to extricate yourself. I hope you find a way to alleviate the situation. Agreed with your point.
Sep 18 2019 at 1:07am
I have lost most friends to lack of effort at staying in touch, and one who may have been malicious, even on reflection (though the malice was directed at a third party). I don’t think I’ve lost any to a clear misunderstand.
Sep 18 2019 at 10:42am
A bit related: people don’t know when they’re being disagreeable (they are better at assessing other aspects of their own behaviour).
Sep 18 2019 at 7:01pm
Ken Sinner: I can assure you that, were you to meet Bryan, you are correct that you would like him instantly. And he is, as you note, exceptionally wise.
Sep 19 2019 at 9:37am
“Israelis” disagree among themselves how to behave toward and take action against “Palestinians”. And vice versa. I don’t think it’s valid to include this conflict as an extension of an example of a misunderstanding between two individuals.
Sep 19 2019 at 11:56am
I agree with your point with regard to individuals, but I think it can fall apart at scale. In many of your examples, the continued misunderstandings are due to bad actors exploiting the misunderstandings for personal gain, deliberately portraying misunderstanding as malice. I think the state of our national discourse has deteriorated due to this exploitation.
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