You only hear the advice you don’t need

We were in the middle of a translation and the word ‘Izland’ came up. As a native Hungarian I knew it meant the country ‘Iceland’ and moved on without a second thought. Iceland did not come up anywhere else in the text, that is true. It was only mentioned once, right there, capitalized at the beginning of the sentence, to make it even more confusing.

tumblr_ntvzvaaz0s1qc6ud8o1_500My co-translator, who only understood English, asked if I was sure. I said yes. It was the country Iceland. Then I explained that we don’t use the word ‘island’ or any iteration of it, to signify and island. The Hungarian word for island is ‘sziget’. ‘Izland’ means only the country. I expected to move on but he wouldn’t let go.

Surely, he explained to me in the most politely condescending manner, there must be a Hungarian word for ‘island’ that sounds like the British ‘island’. He kindly turned his screen toward me and even googled it. “There,” ha announced triumphantly, “all these languages have something similar for island.”

And the Hungarian version is ‘sziget’, as I said,” I pointed out. So he started to explain the concept of synonyms to me, very patiently, and strongly suggested that one of those must be similar to ‘island’ – aka. the only word he knows for a piece of land surrounded by a body of water. Because ‘Iceland’ doesn’t make sense to him.

Who was I to argue with the educated son of the British Empire? A native Hungarian? A journalist? A newspaper editor? A PhD in literature? Why do I even need credentials to teach him something about a topic he knows literally nothing about: my own mother tongue.

I felt the familiar exasperation I usually feel when a believer announces that facts are just fake news. That we have always been grateful to Russia. Or when an anti-vaxxer tries to educate me on quantitative research methods. Who emboldened these people to deny every fact that doesn’t suit their emotional narratives? Whatever “sounds logical” to them.

My co-translator reluctantly yielded – but he wasn’t quite convinced that I know Hungarian well enough. How could I be right when his version sounded so much more logical?

Seeking confirmation of what sounds logical to us, what fits with the pieces of information we possess, is a form of confirmation bias. It is also the reason why we only hear the advice we seriously don’t need.

In college, I used to have an anorexic room mate. During exams she studied 16 hours a day, went for a 2-hour run, then showered and slept. Every time we told her to eat something, she launched into a rant, citing research about the dangers of obesity and the cognitive benefits of fasting that she skimmed from the internet. Which may even be true, but her BMI hovered around 16 and she was threatened by the opposite of obesity. She looked awful and had bluish skin. Luckily, she ate apples because some esoteric pro-anorexia site claimed that ‘apples are negative calories’ and that ‘they cleanse out more calories than they bring in’ and she bought into that. Or maybe she believed that because she was starving and needed the excuse to eat something.

The reason anti-obesity arguments resonated so strongly with her was that she believed that already. She wanted it to be true and she wanted fasting to make her a superwoman who has it all and also “looks like a model” – so maybe her mother will finally love her. But that’s just our guess. She graduated and went on to high-achieve in Singapore.

She wasn’t the only person who quoted cherry-picked research results to me from the internet. I also heard weigh-related rants from the opposite side, the body-acceptance movement. I heard people ranting about how society pushes starvation and unrealistic body-image on men and women. Which is absolutely true, just as the threats of obesity are, but these were people who weren’t threatened by under-eating. These arguments always came from people who were fatter than they liked to be, they didn’t want to do anything about it, so they were merely looking for research (and opinions) that confirmed them.

In an ideal world my anorexic room mate would have read about body acceptance, and the softies about the risk of excess fat and lack of exercise. But we all know that will never happen.

Hearing only the advice you don’t need is a problem beyond the scope of this blog post. It starts with slicing up the world in a way that brings us the conclusions we wanted to hear (kill the rich, punish the poor, need to eat, don’t need to exercise, etc) and asking the questions that make us look right. We don’t even have to know how to do it – our chosen bubble does it for us.

Jordan Peterson might be right about his observation of (some of) today’s parents spoiling their kids with zero discipline and the lack of clear rules and regarding them like little, drooling fountains of wisdom – that eventually gets to their little heads and sets them up to becoming a failure in life and insufferable adults. But guess who will take Peterson’s advice to heart? The ones who already wanted to discipline the hell out of their kids. Parents who regard their kids as little parasites and are desperate for any excuse to dominate them and teach them how to serve their parents. Guess who will read Peterson’s disturbing advice on how to beat your children (legally)? No, not the parents who went overboard with the rainbow unicorn parenting nonsense. It is people who already had an inclination to beat their children, who will happily embrace Peterson’s lobster-inspired arguments for child-beating, and then some. The kind of coddling parents Peterson talks about before he lays out his counter-argument will never read his book.

Promoting assertive behavior also only works well on people who are already self-centered and pushy. A pushover will hear the advice, nod a little, and carry on being a pushover. Similarly, promoting selflessness and unreasonable altruism will always find a grateful audience among the captive underdogs who are scared to be less altruistic, people who would be punished if they ever refused to serve. They will lap up any ideology that claims that servitude is somehow the noble thing or that it gets rewarded. In the afterlife, if nothing else.

My co-translator eventually yielded that day, but I heard that he went on to ask others about the proper English translation of ‘Izland’. I have no idea who confirmed his logical-sounding hypothesis, if it happened at all. All I know is that the translated text went into print with ‘island’ as a translation for ‘Izland’ and he twisted the sentence until it made sense like that. Because that sounded more logical.

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