Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal with Passengers” reminds me of something I’ve noticed about teaching and consulting: 95% of people are fine, but that last 5% can occupy disproportionate time and mental energy.* There’s a temptation to become somewhat armored against that last 5%, which negatively impacts interactions with the vast majority of normal, reasonable people.

A lot of public-facing professions seem to have this problem, including emergency medicine doctors, cops, retail workers, and public school teachers. Because the bottom 5% can be noisy and time-consuming, a kind of misanthropy can set in, as one begins to think the few represent the whole—even if, intellectually, one knows it does not. Mental, psychological, and emotional armoring can reduce one’s overall effectiveness; this is particularly obvious in teaching, in which person-to-person connection plays a stronger role than it does in consulting.

Something about the human mind seems to make one negative interaction stand out more than 10 positive or normal interactions. I didn’t realize this at first, so a small number of negative experiences affected me much more than they should have. There’s a kind of crowding-out effect going on. Now, when I have to deal with someone who is unreasonable or at least not representative of the whole, I try to actively, consciously remind myself that they don’t represent the whole. Behind every irrationally unhappy person there are probably 49 to 99 normal people who aren’t giving me unwarranted grief.

Colleges in particular have been in the news lately, and a lot of people have read stories about crazy social justice warriors or censorious students—like the Middlebury College thing or the Halloween costumes at Yale brouhaha. Sure, these stories are in fact outrageous, but, again, they’re also salient because they’re unusual. Because they’re unusual, they make the news (and these kinds of events do represent a problem, though the problem tends to be overstated).

Friends and acquaintances sometimes ask me about the activists students suppressing speech. Yeah, I do, a little, but not very much. The vast, overwhelming majority of college students, seem to want what college students have always wanted: to learn something; to get by; to get a job when they’re done; to get laid; to learn something about themselves and the societies they live in; to make friends; to individuate from their families. You could add other items. Many students feel a vague sense of worry about being excellent sheep, and that worry is itself a sign of intellectual health. Most students, if they’ve thought about free-speech issues at all, vaguely support it. But a minority of well-organized and angry activists can make a lot more noise and news than the silent majority! As Nassim Taleb says, “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority.” A motivated minority, especially given the college-complaint apparatus, can create a lot of bureaucratic hassle.

Professors and other students often feel a kind of chilling effect, and one related to my essay, “How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?” Similar issues play out in many fields beyond teaching and consulting. One angry, unreasonable, or irrational customer or client drowns out a lot of generically happy or satisfied ones. Or consider “I was a landlord: This is what it taught me about people.” Landlords have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, and that preparation bleeds into their everyday scenarios and interactions.

Teaching, especially at the K – 12 level, suffers from defensive posture problem. A teacher who tries to be honest and interesting risks the ire of his or her angriest, unhinged, or most ideological students (and, even worse, their parents). Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students. Students who complain about school being boring get told that school is supposed to be boring. Students who complain about school being interesting (or “offensive,” or whatever) get much more attention.

It’s easy for outsiders to say teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized. It would be helpful for more administrations to make public statements like the University of Chicago’s, confirming a commitment to free speech and open inquiry.

Social media probably amplifies many of the problem traits described above by allowing the least-reasonable people to organize, scream, and (not infrequently) lie. I don’t know what, if any, solution exists to these problems, apart from most individuals to attempt to be as reasonable as possible and not succumb to the noisy but unhinged minority. Not much of a rallying cry, is it? No one, or almost no one, rallies for free speech and free inquiry.


* You can change the ratios some; I doubt the number of problem students reaches 10% in most scenarios, and I also doubt that the number declines below 2% (among professions that face the general public).

5 responses

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