Assume Sincerity

One of the things I really struggle with is how to maintain a semblence of respect toward someone who has revealed a prejudice that I am adamantly against. For example, I work with some amazingly intelligent and extremely polite people. Once in a while one or more of them will say something homophobic, or anti-choice, etc. It immediately creates a dilemma in my head because those are things I care passionately about.

It's really hard for me to respect someone, even a little, after they reveal a blatant prejudice that clashes hard against my own values. Even when the individual is otherwise a great person and still treats me with respect. It's especially hard when the person in question is someone I have to interact with regularly. I'm not talking about anyone specific; living and working in Utah means that this dilemma is not an isolated incident.

One strategy that has really helped me cope with these awkward scenarios is to assume sincerity on their part. What I mean by that is that I believe most people think they are doing the right thing. I know that most of the Mormons in this state are just people doing what they think is right. Granted, I think most of them are totally delusional, but I know in their minds they are perfectly sane and their path to being righteous people is laid out for them clear as crystal. Having the understanding that they don't intend to be careless or hateful does help me treat them better.

Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster. - Sun Tzu

I think it's fair to say that the moment someone reveals a blatant prejudice that I just can't cast aside, we likely won't ever be close friends. At least not until they change their position on the issue. However, it's no reason to go around making enemies and isolating myself as I've done in the past. I live in a place where I am severely outnumbered by those whose values are polar opposites to my own. If I go around hating all of them, all I am doing is poisoning my own mind with negativity.

I can't magically change the minds of every Utahn, so why do I waste mental energy despising them? It's a petty reaction and if I'm to be a bigger person then I have to acknowledge that fact and work to solve that poisonous line of thinking. I get nothing by being pessimistic and unapproachable. I get a nice dose of negative mental energy and the other person remains unaffected. However, I get everything if I make them my friends.

By making friends with those who I might otherwise avoid, I open up many opportunities for both of us. They get to know someone who completely rejects the values, but is still a good person who cares about his fellow human beings. They get to see that I am a kind and caring person, without having to worship a god or have the promise of an eternal afterlife. I also get to learn more about them and why they believe what they do. I get to plant seeds of doubt by politely disagreeing with them on cursory topics that are relatively safe to open up a small friendly debate about. It's a friendship as well as a kind of passive war of attrition on the individual's beliefs by exposing them to lines of thinking they may never have considered before.

There are definitely those who I will never be able to bring myself to be friendly to, but most people are easily friendable. My coworkers are wonderful examples. I don't currently have a single coworker that I dislike. Unfortunately that doesn't prevent me from hearing them say certain things that I do dislike. I've learned to hate the belief rather than the individual, which has turned out to be a much healthier worldview.

Maybe there are areas where an atheist like myself can have the luxury of casting off any and all people whose values clash with their own, but Utah is certainly not that place. I have to learn how to cope within what I view as a sea of ignorance. That said, I don't pretend to be anyone other than who I am in order to fasciliate those relationships. For instance, I won't conceal the fact that I'm an atheist from anyone. After all, they rarely feel it necessary to conceal their beliefs from me so why should I? I don't need to go door to door letting them all know that I don't believe in their god, but I don't try to hide it either.

There's an interesting dynamic of mutual respect that is created when you learn to be yourself around EVERYONE and respect them for doing the same. If a person knows I'm an atheist and yet they still accept me as a friend, knowing full well that my values are in direct opposition to their own, I respect that immensely. It forces me to realize that I need to be the same way. As long as they are showing respect to me, then I need to return the favor.

I love to play poker. It took me a long time to learn how to lose with grace. It really annoyed me when I would lose and it annoyed me even more that my skill at the game wasn't ever improving, despite playing and practicing all the time. I finally realized that I had to stop being afraid to lose. It was only in analyzing my losses in detail that I started to improve my game. I turned my losses into a tool for improvement rather than stimuli for irritation. I have to stop viewing otherwise nice people who share opposing values as a reason to halt all interactions with that person. I only hurt myself when I behave that way. By analyzing and showing respect for the other person, I spread my values in a much more powerful way.