Mindreader’s Rights: Don’t tell me what I’m thinking

Mindreader’s Rights: Don’t tell me what I’m thinking

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Doctor: Bob, bad news. You’ve got cancer.
Bob: Well, I’m going to want a second opinion.
Doctor: All right, you’re ugly too.

Joe: X is true.
Sue: No it’s not.
Joe: You just don’t want to admit it’s true because you’re stubborn.
Sue: That’s not true.
Joe: Yes it is.
Sue: Don’t tell me what I’m thinking.

Last week I discussed the second fundamental, the moment when the subject of debate changes from X to judgments about X. Instead of talking about whether X is true or false, we start debating who is a better judge of whether X is true or false. Any debate gets personal when the topic shifts from the truth value of X to each party’s ability to judge the truth value of X. At this second level, the evidence presented is not about X; it’s about biases in looking at X.


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Of course, some debates start out personal–when X is Joe’s opinion that Sue should change jobs, for example. If Sue disagrees, the debate can easily migrate upward to the question of Joe’s and Sue’s relative ability to judge the truth value of X. It’s like the doctor’s second opinion:

Joe: Not only is X true, Sue, but you’re stubborn too.
Sue: Not only is X not true, Joe, but you think you know everything.

The subject shifts because the debaters are like two lawyers arguing their cases with no final judge to declare the winner. It’s Joe’s word against Sue’s. Obviously, if you can’t agree about X, then you’ll want to debate whose word about X should be the final one. You’ll want to debate each other’s credibility as decider.

And what if you can’t make any headway on who has greater credibility as decider? The case gets kicked up to a higher court still, though not as it does in our judicial system where the question remains the truth value of X. Instead the topic becomes who gets to win the debate about who gets to win the debate about X.

Sounds ridiculous? Sure, when you think explicitly about what’s going on, as I do in these columns. Fact is, our minds can handle this kind of level jumping easily. And though we’re reluctant to play cat-and-mouse up these multiple flights of stairs, we’re also tempted to do so when we’re not catching the mouse on the current floor.

So yes, sometimes we drag others or get dragged ourselves into debates about who gets to decide who gets to decide who’s right. One of the common moves we make at this level is to invoke some kind of law preventing people from ascribing motives to us.

“Don’t tell me what I’m thinking.”


“Don’t psychoanalyze me.”

Is there such a law?

“Don’t tell me what I’m thinking” might mean any of four things, listed here from the most to the least severe:

1. You are not entitled to have an opinion about my motives. (Equivalent to “Don’t psychoanalyze me.”)
2. You’re entitled to your opinion about my motives, but keep it to yourself. (“Don’t tell me,” meaning literally don’t say your opinion to me.) 3. You can tell me what you guess my motives are, but you can’t argue with me about them. (“Don’t tell me,” meaning don’t argue with me.)
4. In a debate over my motives, my authority trumps yours. (“Don’t tell me,” meaning don’t hope to convince me.)

These are all appeals to implied commandments some higher authority might issue:

1. Thou shalt not think about my motives.
2. Thou shalt not express your thoughts about my motives.
3. Thou shalt not debate with me about my motives.
4. Thou shalt not win a debate with me about my motives.

Which higher authority? One does well to ask. To be sure, these appeals to higher authority have power. They often do shut the psychoanalyzer up. But when you look for the higher source they appeal to, it’s hard to find where it resides. Are any of these appeals universally applied across human culture? No. Are they agreements contracted to by consenting parties? Generally not.

As argued last week (The Second Fundamental), there’s a myth we invoke when it feels practical—the myth that you can’t or shouldn’t try to change anyone ever. We invoke it when we’re trying to gain some distance either from someone pushy or from someone we’re tempted to try to push. (“Yeah, I stopped trying to convince Bob to stop watching so much sports. I realized you can’t change people; you can only change your own attitude.”)

So maybe “Don’t tell me what I think” is just a highfalutin way to say, “Don’t go there.”

Rarely does my topic orbit so close to the central theme of the Mindreader’s Dictionary. It’s worth noticing the proximity:

Is it OK to read minds? Is it OK to do it out loud? Is it OK to defend your interpretation of what you’ve picked up? Is it OK to prevail in a mindreader’s equivalent of a debate with a book’s author over the right interpretation of the book?

I mean, what are you, a mindreader or something?

The third fundamental is reached when these appeals to authority don’t quiet the psychonalyzer, and a debate ensues:

Joe: Your belief about my belief about X is wrong. Sue: No, your belief about my belief about X is wrong.

Here the debate could shift up still one more level, to who gets to say who gets to say who gets to say that X is wrong. But at that level even I have to admit it’s ridiculous. Normally what we say to avoid hitting the fourth fundamental is something like this:

Joe: Well, you’re entitled to your own opinion. Sue: And you’re entitled to yours.

To keep from debating at the third level we say, “Don’t tell me what I think,” which is equivalent to “You’re not entitled to your own opinion.” If that fails to stop the opinion from arising, then we might flip the argument to “You are entitled to your opinion”—with the implied addition, “but I’m not buying it, so keep it to yourself.”

Are we entitled to our opinions about other people’s beliefs? Or to put it conversely, is there a moral imperative barring you from having a belief about another person’s process of forming beliefs?

A few issues back I suggested a moral litmus test: If you can make a self-negating statement out of a moral principle, it’s a moral dilemma and not a moral absolute. (See Moral Litmus Test.) For example, there can be no moral principle barring intolerance because “Be intolerant of intolerance” is a self-negating statement. Is there a moral principle barring you from forming opinions about my beliefs? How about:

Do not think you can tell me what not to think.

In an unequal relationship–one where double standards are permitted–this is not a self-negating sentence. It would mean “I can tell you what not to think but you can’t tell me.” In equitable relationships, where the laws that apply to one apply to the other, it is self-negating. In fact, it boils down to a variation on “be intolerant (do not) of intolerance (tell me what not to think).”

So no, there’s no moral absolute ban on having opinions about other people’s opinions. You are free to believe whatever you want about other people’s biases, and even to say what you believe. That may sound liberating but it isn’t especially. With freedom comes responsibility–responsibility to endure other people trying to tell you what you think and responsibility for picking the right times to tell them what you think they think.

Mindreader’s rights are not a moral absolute but a moral dilemma. When should you stick to your belief that people are being stubborn, and when should you take their word that they’re not? When should you try to convince them, and when should you let them do what they’re doing?

And conversely, when do you really know what motivates you? When might someone else be a better judge? These are not easy questions to answer. They can’t be answered universally but on a case-by-case basis. They can only be answered speculatively. Only time will tell who is a better authority on your motives, you with your intimate experience of them but self-defending biases or someone else who is unable to know what you feel but has the potential for objective distance. We can all cite people who didn’t know what drove them.

Indeed, a ban on having beliefs about other people’s intentions is downright totalitarian, an attempt to control not only behavior but thoughts. The alternative to totalitarianism is not libertarianism but give-and-take-ism, a.k.a. democracy–with people pushing, letting go, heeding and ignoring each other in different measure in different circumstances and trying to get the balance that will have the best outcome. Handling freedom of opinion competently takes work–work on other people, but also work on ourselves.

Beyond “Drink responsibly” there’s “Think responsibly.”

And beyond this article there are two more that follow pretty directly from it. One is on that most fascinating of words, “Really,” which translates as “Believe me when I tell you that you can believe me,” which smacks a bit of the liar’s paradox. The other is on a practical predicament often faced at work, when you find yourself advocating in a judgeless courtroom. You are assigned to a team that has to make decisions but is given no formal process for making these decisions. Should you make decisions or first decide how to decide? If you suggest decisions, are you just trying to railroad the formless process? If you suggest ways to decide, are you just trying to railroad the decisions? Again, complex stuff, but familiar.