The Principle of Charity, in Interpersonal Relationships

So yeah, I guess I studied philosophy or something. And I guess I was good at it? (3.9 GPA, departmental honors, Phi Beta Kappa Society, summa cum laude, etc etc).

But now that I am out of the academic world, I don’t think that’s anything that could be guessed by looking at me, a slight and quiet black girl fond of miniskirts and cat-eared hats. Girls normally study feminism if they study thought, and black people take cultural studies, isn’t that the stereotype?

And black intellectuals are rare enough that no one expects intellect of me. Although I relate to the absent-minded professor archetype and consider academia if only to complete the expectation, I feel that few people see me as intelligent. They see absentmindedness + blackness and think = stupid or they see absentmindedness + female and think = ditz. I know because they they start to overexplain, talking slowly, and I need to resist the need to roll my eyes until they break free of their optic nerves.

Such is the power of stereotypes.

Within philosophy, there’s a rule created to prevent this kind of lazy thinking. It’s called the Principle of Charity.

To quote Wikipedia:

In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker's statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation. In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies or falsehoods to the others' statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available.

In order to be charitable towards someone’s views, you assume that they are logical and truthful--and intelligent, I would add. In order to address a person charitably, you address the strongest form of their argument even when arguing against it. So no straw man arguments, no twisting people’s words, no playing dirty.

The people I like, the people who get me, the people I actually spend time with were first charitable with me. And eventually, they move from charitability to normal understanding, because taking my thought in its strongest form is the likeliest way to understand what I mean to say.

But for most people, I could say anything at all and I would be taken as an idiot’s utterance. Even if I stumbled across some of the greatest insights in the history of thought, I imagine it would play out like this:

Me: “One cannot step twice in the same river twice.”

Lazy Thinker: “Yes, you can, honey. Want me to show you?”


Heraclitus: “One cannot step twice in the same river twice.”

Lazy Thinker: “That sounds very zen. What does it mean?”



Me: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”

Lazy Thinker: “Don’t say that about yourself. Nobody knows nothing. Believe in yourself!”


Socrates: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”

Lazy Thinker: “So humble! Such an inspiration.”



Me: “God is dead! And we have killed him.”

Lazy Thinker: “What are you talking about? God can’t be killed. If you read the Bible, it says that...”


Nietzsche: “God is dead! And we have killed him.”

Lazy Thinker: “Wow, that’s super deep and edgy! Do explain.”




Me: “Man is condemned to be free.”

Lazy Thinker: “Uh, no. That’s a contradiction. What’s wrong with you?”


Sartre: “Man is condemned to be free.”

Lazy Thinker: “What, really? How?”




Me: “The medium is the message.”

Lazy Thinker: “No, it isn’t. Allow me to explain to you the ways in which you are wrong...”


McLuhan: “The medium is the message.”

Lazy Thinker: “It sounds like you know what you are talking about, so let me assume your competency and give you space to elucidate.”

I should more accurately title the “Lazy Thinker” as the Racist/Sexist thinker, because in case I haven’t hammered the point home, the laziness is stronger when the thoughts come from the mouth of someone in a place of power who perceives me unworthy of respect. Charitable interpretations require a certain level of faith in humans that even most philosophers don’t have towards women or people of color (see Nietzsche, Hegel, or Schopenhauer on sex or race).

So yeah, I guess I studied philosophy or something.

I was always the only black girl in class, often the only black or woman. I’m still thinking over what I got out of it, but I feel like I know enough about rationality and the history of thought that know that the history of thought is full of irrationality.

I feel a bit like an outsider to many conversations on intersectional feminism, because my entry point is capital-P Philosophy. But my identity requires me to investigate those issues, using tools not always designed for me. (In my heart of hearts, I believe that no true Utilitarian was ever racist, and they are my favorites school of thought, so.)

I would say something about how the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, but I don’t know enough context for that quote to use it correctly.