My brain is continually surprised when anti-feminists are people.

Because, you know, they’re my political enemies. Clearly when people are political enemies, it means that they go around cackling and wearing all black and burning kittens. So when it turns out that, in fact, anti-feminists are mostly just people who think sex differences are substantially larger than I do and that this fact justifies the existence of patriarchy, my brain gets really confused. “You’re… a nice person? And you make jokes? You have interesting thoughts about Lord of the Rings? DOES NOT COMPUTE.”

And I feel like this is a really common thing that people do. I mean, my brain assumes that anti-feminists advocate anti-feminism because they’re evil and want to hurt people. Other people might assume that other people advocate their political opinions because they’re too stupid to realize how bad it is, or because they’re literally just insane.

(Obvious Disclaimer: I feel like there are inevitably going to be a bunch of people in the comments going “but I don’t want to understand antifeminists as people! They’re horrible and hurt people! It is not the responsibility of the oppressed group to understand the oppressor!” Let me be clear: I’m not saying that you have to make the effort to understand the oppressor. The rest of this blog post will be working off the assumption that you do want to, and that everyone who doesn’t want to stopped reading and went off to play Parcheesi.)

(Second Obvious Disclaimer: everyone understands that “this political position is horrible and will hurt people” and “the advocates of this political position are people” can both be true statements at the same time, right?)

One time, when I was much younger, a friend gave me a piece of writing advice. “The trick to writing villains,” she said, “is that every villain is the hero of their own story.”

And I think that’s also the key to understanding people you disagree with. No one has a narrative of their lives in which they say “I’m stupid and crazy and also evil! Muahahahahaha! Let me kick a puppy!” No one wakes up in the morning and says to themselves “I’m going to support gun rights because I’m so insecure in my masculinity that I need a giant phallic object. Also, I like watching kids die.” Or “I’m going to oppose Plan B being available over-the-counter because I like it when fifteen-year-olds get pregnant.” Or “the reason some atheists criticize Islam more than other faiths is because they’re political cowards afraid to pick fights with people closer to home.”

Just like no feminist supports feminism because they want to fuck jerks and then force nice guys to pay for the baby, or as a desperate attempt to delude themselves about their attractiveness, or because we enjoy accusing innocent men of rape.

Of course you do get into a problem here, because sometimes people do believe things for irrational reasons, and it is fair to point out when people are being irrational. So I would like to present the following as heuristics for explaining why people you disagree with believe the things they do:

1) Only use explanations that you are willing to accept as explanations of your own beliefs. For instance: I value people being able to do things that make them happy and I think marriage makes people happy, so I support same-sex marriage. Joe Fundamentalist values people not doing things his church says is sinful and his church believes two women getting married is sinful, so he doesn’t support same sex marriage. In both cases, we believe something because it is in accordance with our deeply held values. (It helps that I think moral values are a sort of arbitrary preference.)

To pick examples with less sunny views of human nature: I often do things that are ethically dubious because it’s in my self-interest to do so, so “Monsanto is trying to get a monopoly on food because they will make lots of money if they do so” is an acceptable explanation. I sometimes oppose things that don’t hurt anyone because they gross me out, so “some people don’t support gay people having relationships because gay sex grosses them out” is acceptable. I feel like everyone would be bisexual if they just saw a sufficient number of appropriately-gendered hot people, so “some people oppose poly because they are monogamous and they think that everyone else must work the same way they do” is acceptable.

I like this principle because it accommodates multiple views of human nature. If you think people basically just believe things as an elaborate status game, you are welcome to, as long as you don’t think that your beliefs are magically the result of objective non-status-influenced reason. 

2) Try to come up with the explanation that makes the people you disagree with look most heroic. For instance, I could explain Monsanto’s actions as an attempt to earn money. On the other hand, I could be like “Monsanto put a lot of research money into developing these genetically modified organisms; if they let people grow the seeds that blow into their fields or the seeds the plants the people bought produced, no one will pay for their product and then they’ll go out of business and people will lose their jobs and no corporation will make GMOs anymore, even the really good ones that have increased nutritional value or survive drought and frost better or increase yield and thus prevent famines and world hunger and malnutrition and other bad shit.”

On the other hand, despite my best efforts, I can’t find an explanation for why fundamentalist Christians talk about same-sex marriage so much more than other sins, other than them thinking gay sex is really really gross. So I am willing to accept that as an explanation.

This strategy has two advantages. First, if it turns out your opponent actually has a good point, then you’re more likely to find out about it and find a way to ameliorate it. (In my case, I might support increased government or nonprofit funding of GMO research so we can still develop awesome famine-preventing seeds.) Second, people tend to go for the explanation of their behavior that makes them look best, so you’re being psychologically realistic. You’re more likely to have an explanation of why other people believe things that’s close to why they believe they believe it.

(I am not sure how I can modify this rule for people who have less sunny views of human nature than me. Maybe “you should not be significantly more charitable to people you agree with than people you disagree with”?)