taking sides

Mean people who aren't mean all the time

Mean people aren’t necessarily mean all the time. Mean people aren’t necessarily mean to everyone.

I think most people who are mean are nice to at least some people at least some of the time. It can be hard to understand that they’re mean to other people in ways that matter if you don’t see it.

One example of this is that many men who are awful to women treat other men well. Some men don’t know this. They often assume that a man who treats them and their male friend group well is basically well-intentioned — and may have a lot of trouble understanding why their female friends think he’s dangerously creepy.

That happens in a lot of contexts. Some of which have to do with socially marginalized groups like gender or race or trans status or disability or religion or any number of other things. Some of them aren’t like that.

Sometimes it’s about in groups and outgroups in ways that aren’t otherwise connected to privilege.

For instance:

  • Jesse is mean, but not mean to everyone.
  • Jesse is nice to people who they like
  • Mostly, Jesse likes people who admire them and don’t contradict them about anything important
  • Jesse is mean to people outside their circle
  • People who are in Jesse’s circle and really admire Jesse might have trouble believing that they’re ever mean to anyone else
  • On the logic that “Jesse has never said anything like that to me; I can’t believe Jesse would say that”. Or something else like that.

It’s not unreasonable to base some of your opinions on what’s probably going on in a conflict on your personal experiences with someone. To an extent, it’s *necessary* to do it that way, because you can’t find out what’s going on by disregarding what you know. But it’s also important to remember that the way someone treats you might not be representative.

For instance:

  • If you’ve never contradicted someone, you might not know how they handle being contradicted
  • If someone’s never been mad at you or someone you respect, you might not know much about how they treat people when they are angry
  • Everyone gets into conflicts.
  • Everyone gets contradicted.
  • Everyone is wrong sometimes.
  • Nobody handles this perfectly. Some people handle this more-or-less reasonably; some people handle it horribly.
  • If you haven’t seen what someone does in those situations, it’s hard to know whether their reactions are reasonable

tl;dr It’s easy to misunderstand conflicts by assuming that people who have always been nice to you are always reasonable with everyone. It’s important to consider what you know about someone *and* to consider the possibility that your experiences with someone may not be representative.

There are different kinds of neutrality.

Content note: this post uses examples involving people doing awful things to explain why neutrality can be bad

One kind of neutrality is fake. It pretends to be a matter of principle. People who do this aggressively object to taking sides, and push you to see all sides as equally valid. That’s a bad attitude to take because sometimes the sides to a conflict aren’t equally valid.

For instance, when someone asks a guy to stop hitting on her and he gets offended, there are not two valid sides. When a parent deprives a child of food, there are not two valid sides. When people claim that vaccines cause autism, refuse to vaccinate, and cause outbreaks of preventable diseases, there are not two valid sides. Pretending that there are two valid sides ends up making you complicit in harm done to people who are being hurt.

But that is not the only kind of neutrality. Not all kinds of neutrality are objectionable. It is often ok to stay out of things. Sometimes you’re in them and there’s no way to be neutral that isn’t effectively taking a side by default. But sometimes you can actually stay out of them.

Sometimes neutrality means recognizing that you don’t understand an issue, and choosing to stay out of it, at least for now. A lot of stuff is really complicated to understand. No one can understand every issue where there are sides.

For example:

  • If you’re not in a position to be making military decisions or foreign policy, it’s ok to decide you don’t understand a certain conflict and be neutral about it (so long as you’re not pressuring other people to think it’s wrong to take sides)
  • If you don’t understand a piece of legislation, it’s often ok to not have an opinion on it, even if it’s related to an issue that’s important to your community (unless it’s in some way your job to understand it, eg: if you run an advocacy organization.)

It’s ok to stay out of many things, if you’re not in a position in which you have a heightened obligation to take a side because you have specific responsibility for what happens. Nobody understands everything important; nobody *can* understand everything important. You don’t have to drop everything until you feel up to taking a position on every issue that someone in your life cares about.

Another kind of neutrality is offering certain kinds of help to people who meet certain criteria, or even anyone who asks, without regard to who they are, what they’ve done, and without taking a position on whether they deserve it. That can be a good thing, or a bad thing, in ways that I’m not sure how to explain.

For example:

  • Operating a food bank and giving food to anyone who needs it
  • Advocating for better conditions in prisons for all prisoners, even those convicted of awful things, without investigating to see how strong the evidence is that the people you’re protecting did awful things

tl;dr Neutrality means a lot of different things. Some are good, some are bad. Sometimes it’s ok to stay out of things. It’s not ok to aggressively insist that there are always two sides to everything or to refuse to ever take sides on anything as a matter of principle.

The Glee of Malice





The red flag is when someone’s saying bad things about other’s is like — a hobby, or something. It’s hard to describe. But it’s very destructive.

wisdomengine said:

I have a guess at what you’re trying to get at: that it’s when the person takes pleasure in relating bad things about others. Of course sometimes we have bad things to say about others, whether negative information to share for others’ benefit or negative feelings to vent. But there is a world of difference between, “I’m concerned Tom is stealing from the till” (relating information) and “That Tom is no good, and I bet you he’s been stealing from the till — mark my words” (reveling in a negative judgment of another’s character).

There’s various ways people demonstrate taking pleasure talking ill of others. Perhaps they allege these negative things about another in a tone of voice that is jovial and light, as if what they were saying were funny and they think you would be inclined to laugh. “Oh, you know how she is, always the spaz, ha ha.” Perhaps they use a tone of voice which is satisfied or triumphant, and they are crowing. “Didn’t I always say that he couldn’t handle the pressure. Goes to show!” Perhaps they use body language that is not that of someone saying something they’re upset about, but something they’re pleased about — they’re not frowning, they’re smirking; their eyebrows aren’t dropped in consternation, they’re raised in knowingness; they don’t sigh and speak slowly like one sad or hurt or confused, they wave their hands casually and rattle off words like machine gun bullets. They use witty putdowns, and seem to be very satisfied with the cleverness of their snark.

Or perhaps they say these things in a way which telegraphs that they intend it as a commiseration, expecting you to agree with them as a means of social bonding, the way people commiserate about bad weather. “The receptionist screw up your appointment, too? I don’t know she ever gets it right. I don’t know why they don’t hire someone who can read.” Stereotypes and *ist epithets often get used this way. “What do you expect from a ____ like that?”

Perhaps they don’t betray any pleasure-taking in words or voice or face or posture, but do the concern troll thing, where they’re terribly, terribly concerned about someone else’s faults… and its always someone different, and they seem to need to have someone to be so concerned about, and in fact never have anything to say except negative things about one person or another, to the point you can’t recall ever having had a conversation with them which they didn’t center on disparaging some absent third party.

All of these are ways that someone might betray that they enjoy “talking smack” about others. And someone who enjoys talking smack is usually not a great person to involve in one’s life, for all sorts of reasons from they’ll eventually talk that way about you to when the other people who know that this person talks smack is someone you’re hanging with, what do you think they’ll conclude about you and whether they want to be your friend? to do you want to fill your ears (and your perspective on others) with that kind of relentless negativity? to we become like whom we cleave to. It’s not going to make you kinder, more charitable of judgment, more patient with others, a better friend, or more socially adept to hang with someone who uses others for verbal target practice.

realsocialskills said:

That sounds closer, yes.

That said, sometimes this can be misleading when you’re talking about abuse victims. People who’ve been abused often find it satisfying when other people dislike their abuser and notice the bad things they do. They also often find it satisfying to see the abuser fail to be accepted in communities, especially when that person’s access to an apparently safe community is a reason they trusted them.

That pattern can look similar to how people who just like to tear people down talk. It’s not the same, though, and someone feeling this way about an abuser isn’t a red flag about their ability to respect others.

Context matters.

wisdomengine said:


*blink* *blink*

My dear realsocialskills, I believe you have just put your finger on exactly why sexual abuse and assault victims receive the heart-breakingly familiar response they so often do, of being socially rejected, “Oh I don’t want to choose sides”, disbelief, and discrediting.

I mean, yes, sure, there’s all that stuff of wanting to believe the perp is a grand person, and It Couldn’t Happen Here We’re All Such Nice People and so forth.

But… most people can’t tell, can they? Some domestic violence victim starts talking about what happened behind closed doors, speaking with outrage of what was done to them, trying to convince other people that the perp doesn’t deserve their warm regard… and what they recognize it as is talking smack. Negativity. Trying to pull someone else down for purposes of personal satisfaction. So they put the person off. Their scripts for discouraging others from saying those sorts of things kick in, automatically.

I’m going to go think hard about this. I think it matters very much.

realsocialskills said:

It gets really, really complicated. There’s a lot of thinking that needs to be done about this.