Should We Care What Other People Think?

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”

—Lao Tzu

In modern American culture—and in many cultures in many ages—there’s great admiration for the trailblazer, the inventor, the social reformer, for those who defy public opinion to speak the truth as they see it. (As long as they defy the right opinions, of course.) If you Google the phrase “care what others think,” the first page of results (as of this writing, on my computer) gives nine links and five images—and with one exception, all of them either passionately argue that caring what others think is a terrible idea, or they give suggestions on how not to do it. And I get that. After all, the trailblazers and defiers are the ones who make history, who change the world with their new ways of seeing and doing. As a card-carrying member of the Strong-Minded Independent Thinker Task Force, I admire that too.

But as an independent thinker who questions truisms and social norms, I want to question this one as well. I understand the desire to reject conformity and defy public opinion. Boy, howdy, do I understand it. But as a catch-all guideline for how we should all live our lives, “Don’t care what other people think” is far too simplistic.

As a matter of pure practicality, it makes sense at least sometimes to care what other people think. To give an obvious example: If I’m preparing for a job interview, I need to put at least some thought into what my potential bosses will think of me. Humans are social animals: we live in an intricately interconnected piece of social machinery, and we depend on other people for our survival and happiness. Being aware of how we’re perceived by others is part of what makes that work. If other people see us as arrogant and unfeeling, disorganized and flaky, or shortsighted and reckless—and we don’t realize it or don’t care—we’re going to be in trouble.

There’s a social justice angle to this as well. When other people have power over you, you bloody well have to care what they think. In some cases, your actual life might depend on it. Not caring what other people think is a privilege. It’s a whole lot easier when you have power, wealth, or other advantages—even to a relative degree.

But apart from these practical concerns, it’s important, at least sometimes and in some ways, to care what other people think. It’s important for one very important reason, one that should matter to humanists and freethinkers and skeptics: other people are a reality check.

*****

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Thus begins my latest Fierce Humanism column for The Humanist, Should We Care What Other People Think? To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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2 thoughts on “Should We Care What Other People Think?

  1. 1

    The ‘not caring’ trope is so ingrained as to be almost meaningless. Like all the waffling ‘positive thinking’ crap that pollutes the public discourse.

    Not being constrained by anticipated disapproval IS a worthy attitude. But other people’s thoughts guide other people’s ACTIONS. Including killings, rapings, robbings.

    Not self-censoring for the sake of bogus approval, makes it possible to engage against pernicious ideas and attitudes. This doesn’t quite fit on a bumper-sticker, but it needs to.

  2. 2

    Also, there’s the fact that social cooperation is a major culprit behind these big brains of ours, and our attendant evolutionary success. Not that previous evolutionary success is a reason to continue doing it, but it happens to be one of the things that continues to be a pretty hard determinant of survival, reproductive and otherwise. As a result, it’s pretty damn hard-wired into our thought processes. So: we’re hard-wired to care what other people think, and we’re still highly dependent on social cooperation for survival.

    Not everyone has enough social status to just be an asshole and still have a job, friends, a place to live, etc.

    I guess that makes it a pretty accurate taunt. There are all these classist undertones, but the surface is all about personality and style and one rugged individual’s perceptiveness re: the accuracy or relevance of others’ opinions.

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