How Not to Be Condescending to Political Opponents: The Case of Steve Jobs

Sometimes people make horrible decisions.  We have friends who make terrible life choices — they date someone who is cruel or bad for them or dishonest, or they leave their families to pursue a career path for which they have no aptitude, or they make a foolish investment.  How do we talk to them respectfully?

Consider the case of Steve Jobs.  Jobs came down with a form of pancreatic cancer which was curable by medicine.  He chose instead to treat it himself by drinking fruit juice.  (Or maybe vegetable juice — it doesn’t matter.)  He died.

Suppose we wanted to convince Jobs that he was making a mistake.  It seems we would have to say something like “I respect you.  You are an awesome guy.  I feel very bad for you that you have cancer.  I even feel a bit guilty that you have cancer and I don’t.  But because I care about you I must say — you are making a terrible mistake. This fruit juice thing is going to kill you.”

Something like this is I think how people should talk to people who are making terrible political decisions and it is not condescending.

Is this too rational and bloodless?  Does it avoid the language of moral condemnation?

No,  Jobs foolishly ending his own life because of pride is a moral failing on his part — or a psychological failing — or a character failing.  It is not categorically different than other mistakes that we call moral failings.

But suppose Jobs had said (he didn’t) “I don’t trust doctors because they are Jews.”  If that were the case he would be an anti-Semite and a racist (he wasn’t — I’m just making a conceptual point).  Would the appropriate response to him still be “I respect you, you are an awesome guy — you just are laboring under a misapprehension about Jews?  A mistake which will harm you and others?”

Sometimes it might be.  But in other cases that might not be the whole story.  It could be that we think the reason Jobs is railing against Jews is that he wants to bully us.  In other words that he is using his language to terrify us and make us afraid to argue.  In that case we might need to be tougher and scold him.  “Bad Jobs!  You are giving in to truly horrible human tendencies — and we expect more of you!”

Is that condescending?  It is disrespectful?  Perhaps we should say we are actually being condescending to those parts of his personality that deserve to be disrespected, so his true self, a child of God, or a rational member of a community of people each of whom acknowledge each other’s greatness can shine through.

He still might not like it.


7 thoughts on “How Not to Be Condescending to Political Opponents: The Case of Steve Jobs

  1. Susan says:

    This comment is about the first five paragraphs about the case of Steve Jobs. If he were a friend of mine or if he were a relative of mine this is probably what I would have said directly to him. Given that he was thinking with a clear mind at the time. “Steve, what the hell are you thinking! There are drugs that can help rid your body of this cancer. If you can rationally tell me why you won’t try that and will rely on juice cleanses, then I’ll leave you 2 your own decisions. We care about you and we care about the life you live. We want it to be full and rewarding and I hope that’s what you want for yourself as well. I hope I can change your mind and take the drugs that can help you. I’ll Stand By Your Side every step of the way. If the drugs work you can drink all the fruit juice you want as a preventative. And if the drugs don’t work and the fruit juice doesn’t cure you, I will be sad and all your friends will be sad and the community you work with will be sad but we will have put forward our best efforts together. —- Ok?. So now let’s talk about fruit juice.

  2. Susan says:

    However, (is just an inflated but) however, Jobs is out of the picture with a bad outcome so my above story is wasting away. – – – – I’m an older person with friends and aquaintances of several cultures, ages, and political leanings. They talk fairly openly about subjects. Some I agree with and some not. We have good times and I thought I could read most people well enough. Until this campaign started and they felt emboldened enough to be radical in front of me. I’ve always know the silent KKK supporters in my area and the dirty dealers in business, and the gun carriers who were a bit off balance and the entitled who never made an ethical dollar. I’ve heard some behind closed doors. But, I wasn’t prepared for the hate, and ignorance, and predijuces, and violence by those I’ve known for years. It is a mob mentality that has been simmering for 60 years. And during that time has grown to proportions that are more dangerous to communities than I knew. Now on an open National scale and with Govt. permission it is terrifying. There is no rational talking to irrational people. The character is in their makeup. I’m not sure I am rational. I am one that kinda’ knew and did nothing. 😦

    • I think you mean fervent people rather than irrational people. As Eric puts it, there are ‘terrible human tendencies’. But these tendencies are very human and come from instincts developed back in the stone age and before that – that there’s an enemy/an opposing tribe and they gotta fight that tribe. Because back then your tribe could get wiped out if you didn’t rally to a fight soon enough. It’s actually quite rational if we were in those stone age conditions. Or think of the star trek movie where they go back in time and the engineer decides to talk to one of the computers of the 1990’s to make it do something – it looks irrational. But it’s just missplaced in time.

      I don’t think they are irrational – I think the bulk of them feel threatened and reach for solutions that are baked deep into our bones. And then a few of them are exploiting the others fear, which is terrible.

      • Susan says:

        If their death was certain and the disease was incurable, I would NEVER interfere with their methods of dealing with it. Im told Jobs had a chance, so I would do as I stated. Frightened people need support and understand more than anything.- – – But, frightened Anti-semites and racists? No, I probably won’t be giving the ones I spoke about understanding or the respect that Eric mentioned. They are more evil than I can tolerate. I’m not as nice as you guys.
        We have an ancient inborn (caveman) need to procreate and protect our young…. but, I at times think rationally, so I haven’t produced 20 offspring to feed and look after. – Then too, We have Govt. Military to protect our borders from invaders. Local Police to protect and serve our communities. Today they have guns instead of clubs, so you may be quite right, we aren’t too far removed from those days of yore. Warring humans are slow learners.- – – – – – – I like Eric’s last paragraph and his last sentence. Sometimes we don’t get the outcomes we want.

      • I don’t think I’m being nice! To disarm a bomb you need to understand its wiring to some extent.

        It doesn’t have to require noting how they are victims of this or that circumstance, or considering that if oneself was raised in a racist household maybe oneself would be just as racist (and how can you blame a child for what family they were born into?). But it does take some understanding of their wiring – after all, simply detonating things that frighten them rather than defusing is the sort of thing they are inclined to do.

  3. I didn’t know Steve Jobs had opted for fruit juices? Still, I wouldn’t call that a moral failing. He chose poorly, as a ancient knight in a cave once said.

    Anyway, I would think in these situations, instead of just moral imploring, you look to where the other person shares a commitment to the same things you do (or their commitment largely overlaps your own) and identify where that commitment would be being broken. Then harp on that. Or is that too bloodless?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s