They say something I don't like so they must be lying!

Assuming deceit

People frequently conclude inaccurately that someone who criticizes their community in some way is not only wrong, but also actively malicious; a liar, a manipulator, a troll. This faulty conclusion can lead to a lot of trouble.

I ran into such reasoning again recently, and I thought I'd try to explain to myself how I think normal human impulses can lead to such faulty conclusions. In case they prove useful to anyone else, I'll share my thoughts here.

So let's sketch out how I could react when someone criticizes my community in some way.

  • Someone says something negative about my community. It doesn't have to be extremely negative. Perhaps they just say that some people in that community are nasty to them, or that there's room for some improvement.

  • But I like my community! I've had pleasant experiences! This community helps define my identity. This hits me hard!

  • I don't want to believe these negative things! Cognitive dissonance kicks in.

  • This person must be wrong. What they are saying is false.

  • I need to convince myself and others of this. So I look for evidence. Since I've already drawn the conclusion that this person is wrong, I'm going to easily convinced by this evidence.

  • I just need to find one flaw. I focus on one thing in all the things they say. Perhaps it seems implausible to me. Maybe it has no evidence to back it up. Or maybe I can find some evidence against it.

  • In fact, I don't need to go looking for this flaw myself. Someone else in my community probably has found it already. I can just go with that.

  • I try to focus any discussion concerning this criticism on this one flaw I perceive. I ignore all the rest.

  • In time my community comes up with a whole list of perceived flaws. I focus on these details, not on the whole, and not on those details that do seem to be true.

  • We should be on guard against manipulators, psychopaths, and trolls!

  • Why would someone spread such falsehoods?

  • These flaws are evidence of their deliberate attack on my community!

  • I conclude that this person is lying to maliciously attack my community! Or they are lying to garner sympathy! Or both!

Most of us want to be in a community, we want to preserve and defend it, we want to think well of ourselves and our community, we are on guard against deception, we want the truth and we are inclined to believe people in our community before we believe outsiders. It's very human to go down this path, and people go down it all the time.

But these normal human impulses can lead us to conclude that a whistleblower or a victim or a constructive critic is lying. We conclude that this lie is part of a malicious attack. It is often easier to believe this than to deal with the criticism in another way.

We could instead choose to accept the criticism as partially or completely valid. We do not have to accept the criticism however: even when we reject it we could still have a calm discussion about the topic. We could also conclude that this person has very strange notions without thinking that they are lying or malicious. But unfortunately it's often easier to conclude the other person is a liar or a troll.

Negative consequences

This is obviously a bad outcome for the whistleblower or critic -- and even worse for a victim. It's also a bad outcome for our community -- this defensive behavior can block growth and improvement.

This is bad enough. If only it ended there. But this defensive reaction can then give additional reasons to criticize the community, and this then generates more defensive reactions. A vicious cycle has started.

A community can then build up a convincing list of apologetic arguments over time, entrenching it far more in one position than where it was when the whole thing started. The reactions back and forth can generate a whole lot more "evidence" that people are indeed viciously attacking the community. By that stage, there will be real vicious attacks if there weren't already before.

We end up with a lot of people badly hurt, bitter enemies, broken communities, maybe actual violence.


I think there are a number of things we as individuals can do to compensate against these human impulses, to prevent us from going down this path. One useful principle is Postel's Law, adapted from electronic to human communication:

Be careful in what you say, be liberal in what you accept from others.

Another useful notion is Hanlon's razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I'll give some variations here:

  • Treat criticism as intended to be constructive, even when it doesn't look constructive to you.

  • Before you conclude attack, try context, misinterpretation, perspectives, experiences, disagreement, hyperbole, mistake and being wrong.

  • Don't assume malicious conspiracy. Look for other reasons why people would all act in a certain way.

  • Assume that the attack isn't one, until the evidence for attack becomes vastly overwhelming.

  • When faced with criticism, err on the side of the positive interpretation.

  • When confronted with falsehood, assume a mistake before lying.

  • Do not judge a person before you perceive them.

  • Consider walking away instead of fighting.

  • Your community is strong enough to do without your defense. Your community becomes stronger by constructive endeavors.

There is a possible problem with this strategy. Not everyone is well-intentioned. There are real liars, trolls, manipulators and psychopaths out there. There are those among us who want to try to fan the flames for their own amusement. I think being generous to others in our interpretations can reduce their power to do so. Maybe I'll talk a bit more about this in the future.


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