The year we’ve all become mind-readers

Woman reading Fake News newspaper

Disclaimer: this is a rant that’s been a long time coming. It’s the explosion of a feeling of frustration that has accumulated over the 2 years since the EU referendum.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that the Internet has given us a wider range of voices than traditional media, with engaged people from a whole host of backgrounds and life experiences becoming able to share their opinions with a more extensive audience than their dinner table or mates at the pub. Many well-written and informed blogs have been started along the way, and maybe I’ll make a round up another time. However, I have seen a rather worrying trend growing with this growing engagement: people who think they know it all, including people’s intentions and motives. This really doesn’t sit well with me. It seems pretty straight-forward to me that we can’t know people’s intentions even without studies proving we are really bad at reading them. After all, psychology has long taught us we are really bad at knowing our own in the first place (you’d think at least we’d got that one sorted).

Still, no amount of available knowledge seems to have given any self-awareness to the scores of people who authoritatively pontificate on the intentions of others, from those on the Left who accuse the government of deliberately killing the people who sadly fall through the net of a system not fit to cope with the demands as it is reformed, to those on the Right who know for a fact that the Remain PM is deliberately undermining Brexit for failing to achieve the unrealistic standards they set upon her during negotiations with a hostile party intent on getting the most out for themselves, as pretty much anyone in a negotiation would be.

By all means criticism of the deal is legitimate, it’s the moral judgement that implies bad intentions of someone most of those judging don’t even know personally that crosses a line. Fair enough, I don’t know her either, although I know she is surrounded by very decent people who have the country’s interests at heart, so I have no reason to doubt that she does too. The thing is, the reasonable thing is, if assuming the best of people is too optimistic for someone, to just admit that we don’t, we can’t, know people’s hearts, and judge the things we can judge knowing also we don’t really know what happens if we aren’t eye-witnesses (and even then, our knowledge is only limited to what we experience and our experience is filtered through our biased). We can hypothesise based on available evidence, which historians do all the time with letters and diaries, but we can’t truly know even when we can reasonably think the evidence reflect the true sentiments. Some people are known to have written in full knowledge that the diaries would be read, as they tell a sanitised story compared to truly private conversations.

How on earth do people think they can speak with authority about what is going on in someone’s mind when all they can judge them on is their public utterances? It’s not just politics. The whole of Pope Francis’ pontificate has been a series of people judging on the basis of what they think of him, not helped by the fact the Pope himself doesn’t seem to value clarity. The same people also read between the lines when people like Fr James Martin says something, except that when you actually read the lines he’s saying something different. I’ve also seen it in the attitudes of certain Catholics, dismissing with no empathy whatsoever the pain of women who don’t choose an abortion out of selfishness bt desperation, because to them it has to be selfishness as an altruistic person would choose life (even when it might mean a severely disabled child for a single mother without the support and the access to the medical resources she needs for the child to have any quality of life, or a woman with an abusive partner who actually meant the threat of killing her if she kept the child, and she knew he means it because he beat her so badly she could have died before, or whatever stories that may seem extreme but are all too real and we just don’t know who is going through a living hell).

I get the temptation: I’m a writer and if we ever have been in the same carriage on a train I have invented a backstory for you based on what you were wearing and where you got off. Still, I know this is just my overactive imagination and if I happen to guess right it’s a lucky coincidence, not something I knew. It’s funny how the English language would use knew to mean I had a hunch, when other languages would keep it in the realm of hypothesis, but it is not an attitude that is present only among English-speaking populations. It’s incredibly common, and we can all be guilty of it unless we make a conscious effort to fight our biases and prejudices, and walk a mile in a person’s shoes before we judge (or just not judge at all if we can).

I’m writing this on the way to the Cambridge Festival of Sustainable Fashion, a place where those who make summary judgements on the morality of the Tories would never expect me to be. It’s probably unrelated, but anything related to the charity sector still gives me a degree of social anxiety about finding people whose self-righteousness make them blind to the reality that people are complex and mostly unpredictable, and the climate whenever I log onto any social media other than Instagram only exacerbates it. I have been in situation when people have made entirely unfair comments with the tone that implies the expectation that everyone privy to that conversation agrees because it is obvious, when it the comment is entirely untrue. It’s rare, but it happens, and if it’s a situation when I’d better bite my tongue than start an argument I end up beating myself up for not standing up for myself, but that’s a story for another day. I wish everybody made more of an effort to be less of a twat, and more willing to give people the benefit of doubt because we don’t know what anybody is truly thinking when they act the way they do.

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