How To Be Non-Partisan Without Getting Your Throat Slit

Life throws me chances to practice being independent every day. Yesterday, I landed in the middle of a political conversation when I sat down to get my hair cut. The customer in the next chair was condemning big companies for causing obesity. Her haircutter agreed that businesses have malicious ways of getting us to overeat. The young lady with her hands in my hair chimed in exuberantly.

I don’t share their view, and I usually run the other way when people start blaming their problems on corporations. I was stuck there, alas, and part of me wanted to scream, “Can’t you take responsibility for what you put in your mouth!” Another part of me wanted to say nothing, because I knew this was a mammalian bonding ritual rather than a real discussion. When mammals unite against a common enemy, their brains release oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, which feels great. If I disrupted this in-group feeling, I would become the out-group and the herd would turn on me.

I weighed the risk of speaking up against the risk of stuffing my feelings, and settled on a polite way to participate in the discussion.

“I think we’re free to choose what we eat.”

My haircutter seethed in response. That didn’t surprise me. Here in Berkeley, you’re expected to agree when people say they’re oppressed. No dissent from “progressive” orthodoxy is tolerated. If you dare challenge someone’s claim to victimhood, you’re treated like an evil person who must be reformed. The coiffeuse sanctimoniously told me what I should read and watch and think about the food industry.

I already knew these scriptures, but I didn’t share her fundamentalist interpretation of them. I calmly explained, “I don’t see it as a wealth-and-poverty issue because unprocessed food costs less than processed food.”

She erupted into a full boil. Her hands shook as she declaimed on the price of broccoli. Since she was holding a sharp instrument near my throat, I did not feel protected by platitudes like “everyone has I right to their opinion” or “the customer is always right.” I stopped talking.

Being independent means knowing when to open up and when to shut up. It does not mean winning arguments. I don’t try to dominate arguements because the mammal brain perceives that as a survival threat. If I cede the dominant position to the other person, it allows them to absorb new information.

Everyone talks about equality and empathy, but we have inherited a brain that seeks dominance. In the state of nature, social dominance promotes survival. Natural selection produced a brain that seeks status and control. There are myriad ways to achieve this in your own mind. Moral superiority is one of them. If you fancy yourself a victim of oppression, you can feel superior to those you deem “oppressors.” You instantly belong to the herd that shares your sense of oppression. Your victim theory helps you feel safe and strong. To your mammal brain, threats to this theory feel like threats to your survival.

I do not expect to persuade people with facts. But if I let another person have the dominant position, I can plant a seed. Sometimes the new information takes root and they believe they thought of it themselves.

I am a mammal too, of course. My limbic brain knows that predators eat individuals who stray from the herd. It knows that dominants get the good reproductive opportunities. Accepting my mammal brain helps me manage it without being a self-righteous herd-follower.

After the haircut, I handed the young lady a tip. Suddenly, I noticed that she was a little chunky. This fit my theory that people project their personal frustrations onto the system. The political is personal (Gloria Steinem had it backwards). I wanted to tell her, “I would never judge a person for their weight. But I admit to judging a person for playing the victim.” I shut up instead. I reminded myself that she’s responsible for her mammal brain and I’m responsible for mine. I soothed my inner mammal with the thought that I had planted my seed for the day, and another opportunity would come tomorrow. It did.