The Subtlety Illusion

I had this atheist friend who used to be mean to every religious person he came across. He would call religious people “stupid”, simply for believing in religion, and mocking them in a mean spirited manner. I confronted him on multiple times over this, and he always argued reasonably – he even sometimes confronted other atheists when they said things like “If you weren’t stupid you wouldn’t be religious”. He was always nuanced, saying things like “We criticize the religious thought and ideology and do not negatively judge believers”. But he always judged believers negatively, and ultimately I came to the conclusion that his opinions are more nuanced and subtled than his actual mentality and attitude. He had a moderate brain, but an extremist heart. His ideas were nuanced and tolerant, but he himself was intolerant and abusive. When I came to this conclusion, I ended my friendship with him.

I was talking about him a while ago with another friend, and the other friend called him a “hypocrite”. But that word didn’t cut it for me. To me a hypocrite carries a very specific charge, that the person is aware of the dissonance between their thought and action.  Someone is hypocrite who is aware that their position is more nuanced than what is in their heart. I think a hypocrite would go on to sound nuanced, at least among people they knew would disagree with them.

To me, this phenomenon, that I have observed in many people, is not a thing they are conscious of. On the contrary, they genuinely believe themselves to be nuanced because of their nuanced arguments, and if you call them out on their reductive and abusive behavior they will say “but I’ve always said [the nuanced argument]“, and they would accuse you of strawmanning their position.

So it’s not hypocrisy, but it is an illusion for themselves and the others. The Subtlety Illusion.

[Disclaimer: I'm referring to illusion as used by magicians and as in "Optical Illusion", I do not plan on using mental health language in a negative way].

So, these people are like one of those optical illusion pictures. As surface you see a very complex assortment of colors, which hide a 3D dolphin. These people use an assortment of complex and nuanced arguments to hide an intolerant extremist picture hidden inside, and you will see that extremist only after staring at the picture long enough.

And I believe the nuanced arguments actually enable the person to deceive themselves. Their approach is something like “I am nuanced because my arguments are nuanced. So my position is correct. So I’m allowed to attack this person viciously.” Like, they really have considered multiple approaches and counter-arguments, and they have tackled them all in their own mind, so they consider the debate over, and they feel comfortable to write off their opponents as “stupid” or some other term.

The other way that this might be caused is that the abusive personality is caused by years of arguing over positions. To stick to our example, they have argued against the existence of god, read many books about it, and they have seen everything, so they navigate the mental landscape very easily. This causes them to be overly confident, and also they forget that many people are new to this, and they feel they have repeated this over and over and the become angry and impatient about it.

To them, in this case, a person arguing for god seems like someone who’s repeating very old arguments they have already dismantled a million times, so they tend to look down upon the person making it, and this attitude becomes more and more bitter and reflexive over time.

I have used the existence of god as an example, but I think this applies to all thoughts. An atheist or a theist, a liberal or a conservative, a feminist or a non-feminist – everyone can argue and construct rationalizations in a thoughtful nuanced manner but reject and abuse any person who disagrees with them even in a thoughtful manner in real life.

And the nature of social media doesn’t help this at all. Twitter, with its limit, allows only for sound-bites, and Facebook is cluttered by strangers who interact and don’t care to know each other in a way that results in mutual understanding.

The reason I meant to write this is simple. We need to look at ourselves and make sure that we are not like this, that we are not presenting to the world this false image. And to look at our allies, and to remember that nuanced arguments are not enough, but we need the correct attitude too.

Nuance and understanding need to be present in our actions, not only our thoughts.

About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • Bruce Martin

    Thanks for this post. It makes me think of it’s application to teaching any subject. Some experienced instructors may unconsciously expect this year’s students to know what last year’s were told. This makes it harder for instructors to have proper patience explaining initial ideas. They don’t intend to be gruff or mean, but end up being so, because of this illusion that they have already explained these topics. This may be even worse for professors who teach multiple sections of the same course in one semester.

    “How many times do I need to tell these kids the basics?”

    Well, at least once EACH class, not each year.

  • Shira

    Stunningly good post!

  • Ed

    A lot of situations are like these examples. A person can get in trouble with an assumption about themselves that assumes they have the traits they value– I am objective, I am subtle and nuanced, I am tolerant, etc. It can shut down reflection on one’s actual behavior. It’s better to think ‘I try to be _____’or something like that and then evaluate your behavior by your aspirations. I am rational can come to mean rationality and myself are synonymous.

  • Brett

    I grew up fundamentalist Christian (in the U.S.), and I remember seeing kind of a reverse version of this. For a lot of the people at the church, including my parents, they were really just too nice for what they said they believe. They would repeat the right hateful phrases, but their hearts just weren’t in it. They’re still in the church, but that open-mindedness that came across in their tone (but never their words) helped me get out.

  • wrog

    I’m referring to illusion as used by magicians and as in “Optical Illusion”, I do not plan on using mental health language in a negative way

    This sentence puzzled me since I am not aware of any meaning of “illusion” that is specific to a mental-health context (and seems to back me up on this).

    One thought that occurred to me is that, while “illusion” and “delusion” are distinct words/concepts in English, this might possibly not be the case in other languages

    (… whether this is actually true and, if so, whether such languages include, say, Farsi or Arabic, I have no idea, so I’ll have to leave it at that …)

    • Kaveh Mousavi
      • wrog

        I understood that part. Your use of “illusion” qua magician-tricks/optical-illusion makes complete sense except for the disclaimer, which I believe would only have been necessary if you had, say, titled your post “The Subtlety Delusion” (… which perhaps you had done in an earlier version, thought better of it, changed the title, and forgot to remove the disclaimer…), since “delusion” is a word that does carry connotations of mental illness.

        What’s interesting to me is how both titles actually work pretty well, i.e., what you’re talking about is both an illusion (people being fooled by an outward appearance of nuance) and a delusion (people fooling themselves about the extent to which their position is nuanced).

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