Stereotypes can be a difficult thing to overcome. All of our human experience has been working to help us make decisions about people and choose whether or not we trust them, whether or not we date them, whether or not we strike up a conversation with them. But sometimes we can become so blinded by our own prejudices that we end up loading all of our own baggage onto another person who can only sit and wonder where the hell we’re getting all of this stuff.
Being an atheist, there are a lot of misconceptions floating around about what atheists are and what they believe. One theist, who I’d wager had never had a conversation with an out atheist before, said that she wanted to ask me some “questions” about my beliefs. When I agreed she stated making statements and conjectures about what I thought with absolute certainty.
She told me that since I didn’t believe in a god that I thought I was a god. I had to explain that atheism is a lack of belief in all higher powers, therefore, I *can’t* believe that I’m a god and still call myself an atheist. She also was surprised to learn that I didn’t believe in the devil. Because somehow, being an atheist just means that you don’t believe in the Christian god and that’s it. While I’d like to say that she learned something from talking to me, I’m not sure that she was any closer to grasping the entire concept of atheism at all. Her ideas about what atheism was were so set that an actual atheist could do little to convince her otherwise.
But I found that this is the case in a lot of different areas. If we see evidence and information that contradicts our already formed beliefs, it’s all too easy to No True Scotsman it out and continue thinking whatever we believe. People vehemently tell me that I hate men and believe that women should be superior because I identify as feminist. I can tell someone that I am a feminist and I believe in gender equality and so do other feminists and they will simply tell me, no, I’m wrong. They’ve read stories on the internet about feminists and they’re all evil and want to rule over men, therefore I do too or I’m not a true feminist.
I also find a lot of white people falling into this trap whenever a discussion about race comes up. How do they feel about race? Fine! They’re mired in white privilege and ready to tell anyone and everyone that there are no inequalities in the US. Anything else is just crazy talk. Even when a person of color points out that, yes, there are problems, the white people are still quick to deny the entire thing and make up excuses for racist behavior. White people are not the experts on the lives and experiences of people of color. White people need to shut the fuck up when discussions like this take place and listen to what’s really going on. No one who enjoys the privileges of being pale has the authority to tell any person who doesn’t what their experiences are like.
Being open minded and receptive to new information is the best thing that we can do. We can also work to take more time to get to know people before we make decisions about what they think or believe. But even if we can’t do anything that difficult, the least we can do is stop and not put words into other peoples’ mouths. When we don’t know someone and don’t know their experiences, their stories, their past, their points of view, we don’t have the ability to make judgments on what they think and why they think it.
Asking more questions and listening more than talking is a great way to avoid falling into this trap. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear someone tell you what you think when none of it is true. We all need to respect others and let them talk before we make up our minds about what they think and why they think it. As smart as we all want to think that we are, we can’t read minds.