The Greatest Social Mystery

Here is what I think is the most puzzling fact about human interaction: why don’ t we like some people?

You may think there is an easy answer. “Well” you say “there are class differences, and race differences and differences in terms of values and so we just end up not liking some people.”

This is true. There are lots of reasons not to like other people. But think hard about a time when you DID share values with another person, and in fact respected them and thought they were normal members of society, but just couldn’t STAND them. What I’m trying to say is that almost every theory you can think of about why we don’t like other people, just sometimes DON’T apply, and yet we still don’t like the person.

I can think right now of a person who I think is generous and hard-working. There’s nothing wrong with him, I simply don’t like him. I could tell you why in the sense that I could rationalize to you, but other people don’t see this person the way and in fact I’m not sure why I see them that way either. I can invent a story about my dislike for the person, but in the end, I’m not sure that such a story gets anywhere. There is a core of arbitrariness about it. I just don’t like this person. End of story.

What does this core of arbitrariness to certain social relationships indicate about us as people or humans more generally? I think there’s an upside and a downside.

On the bad side, I think it shows that conflict between people is inevitable. We will not like everyone and we can’t even interact with them in a wholesome way even after reflection or even after committing to deal with them in a certain way. Even avoiding someone can have subtle psychological consequences that spill into that person’s outlook on life or the outlook of others. What I’m proposing is that everything we as humans do is a result of the extreme micro-level of social structures. The largest cracks in our collective attempt to live together (war, injustice, discrimination, and just plain unfriendliness) I think grow out of small fault lines in individual conversations, walking down the street, and waving (or not) to our neighbors. It is in principle, impossible for us to create a holistically just or utopian society.

The plus side is a frequent them on this blog, which is that friction, tension, and outright fractures in the social architecture provide a backdrop against which all endeavors and actions have their value. Without anger, treachery, and conflict, there can be no sacrifice, redemption, or forgiveness. In fact, if we got along with everyone, what would friendship be? Wouldn’t it simply just dissolve into a kind of general get-along spirit with everyone?

Is arbitrariness a condition of value, of normativity? You can’t derive an “ought” statement from an “is” statement, but you might not be able to generate an “ought” statement WITHOUT an “is’ statement either.


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