Forbearance

I don’t agree entirely with this post by Patri Friedman, but I think it’s pointing at something important.  Patri is disturbed by the politicization of previously non-political organizations — people being fired from jobs or booted from conferences for their political views, private businesses discriminating against gays, etc.

If I try to defend the intuition behind this pattern, it’s something like “Workplaces should be about work, conferences should be about the conference topic, bakeries should be about baking — there should be an ‘impersonal’ or ‘public’ space that doesn’t care about your personal views or private life.”  It is nicer to live in a world where people mind their own business.  While in principle nosiness doesn’t violate the non-aggression principle, it’s perfectly reasonable to dislike busybodies who take every opportunity to call a referendum on who is a Good Person and who is a Bad Person, based on every detail you’ve ever posted on social media.

In a world where the distinction between public life and private life is fluid, it’s possible to be infinitely nosy and judgmental.  In the limit of this process, everything you’ve ever said or done is searchable and statistically analyzable, and all the minutiae of your life are potentially relevant to any situation.

And in a sense, this isn’t actually false. Everything you’ve ever said or done does reflect holistically on who you are as a person.   Seemingly disparate facts about a person might actually be connected to deep underlying facets of their personality or core beliefs.  I’ve argued that aesthetic tastes have moral relevance.  Scott Alexander has speculated about a General Factor of Correctness, so that people who are in some overall sense “better thinkers” than average are more likely to have correct opinions on all topics.  Jonah Sinick has ideas about a personal quality of “aesthetic discernment” underlying intellectual achievement across many disciplines.  IQ itself is an idea in this vein — the hypothesis that a single factor about human minds determines a wide variety of life outcomes, such that people with high IQs seem to do better at almost everything.  All of these ideas are sort of dancing around the intuition that you can look at somebody’s life as a whole and evaluate how generally good at life they are — and thus that boundaries like “personal vs. professional” or “personal vs. political” or “expertise in one’s field vs. expertise outside one’s field” are arbitrary.

If you believe in something like arete, and you’re a good Bayesian, then all the minutiae of a person’s life really are evidence about how generally excellent that person is.  And this isn’t necessarily crazy.  Beauty, intelligence, wealth, and health all correlate positively. Being successful in one area does make you more likely to be successful in others.  If arete “is a thing” (i.e. is a large principal component, speaking loosely), then the halo effect is an exaggeration of a real phenomenon.

If you believe in taking ideas seriously, and particularly if you are a “hedgehog“, then all your opinions and emotions potentially are reflections of your core beliefs and subconscious assumptions about the world.  The more integrated you are, the more connected your views are, even about seemingly disparate topics.  Aesthetic, intellectual, romantic, political, professional — it’s all part of a single worldview.

The problem with these kinds of “unifying” thoughts is that they make it very easy to be extremely judgmental, in a negative sense. If “the personal is political”, then every detail of your private life can betray the Cause. If aesthetics have profound moral import, then you can be berated for the media you consume (everything from “your fave is problematic” to “Mozart was a Red.”)  If your private life reflects your overall competence, then any photo of you at a party can jeopardize your career.  If there’s no such thing as “minding your own business”, if it’s possible and therefore imperative to judge everyone on everything, the result is endless conflict over minutiae.  I’m pretty far towards the “humorless extremist” side of the spectrum, myself — I was always a big fan of the Transcendentalists — but even I can see that we’ll eventually have to reach Peak Busybody.

The opposite of nosiness is forbearance.

Forbearance is the radical notion that not everybody has to be your soulmate.

A real soulmate probably is aligned with you on fundamental values. And aesthetics, and intellectual interests, and so on.  When someone is your soulmate, your kindred spirit, your twin flame, you’ll see the world the same way, to a very high degree of precision.  If you meet one, you might want to marry them.  If you meet several, you’re very lucky.  Soulmates are wonderful.

But there are seven billion people in the world.

Most people are not going to see the world as you do. Most people do not share your philosophy and aesthetics.  It’s possible to live peacefully with most of them anyway. It’s possible to be neighbors and coworkers and customers and acquaintances with people who aren’t your soulmates. It’s possible to cooperate with people who aren’t your soulmates.

One of the things I’ve learned to respect about the field of sales is that salespeople really understand this.  I have repeatedly thought, “There’s no way this deal could possibly work! The other guys don’t even live in the same reality as us! They don’t share our values at all!  Hey wait, why are you trying to be nice to them?”   But it does work. In a negotiation, the other guy doesn’t have to be your soulmate for cooperation to be possible. There just has to be a ZOPA.

Compared to the exaltation of connecting with a soulmate, forbearance seems kind of boring. Forbearance involves a lot of politeness and conventional formality.  Robert Heinlein said,

Moving parts in rubbing contact require lubrication to avoid excessive wear. Honorifics and formal politeness provide lubrication where people rub together. Often the very young, the untravelled, the naive, the unsophisticated deplore these formalities as “empty,” “meaningless,” or “dishonest,” and scorn to use them. No matter how “pure” their motives, they thereby throw sand into machinery that does not work too well at best.

Forbearance means not talking about stuff — declining to give opinions outside your field, not talking politics at the dinner table, not oversharing about your personal life at the office. It means deliberately compartmentalizing, even when you could unify all these areas of life, for the sake of reducing conflict.

Forbearance means being nonjudgmental, not in the sense of turning off your mind, but in the sense of choosing not to pick every fight.

Forbearance looks uncomfortably like being dull and middle-aged.  (Though it can also mean being funny and self-skeptical and humane, like Robert Anton Wilson or Douglas Adams.)

The reasons to practice forbearance are scope and freedom.  Scope, because you can’t do things that involve large numbers of people — working in a team of more than eight, say — unless you can cooperate with people who aren’t your soulmates.  Freedom, because you can’t really express yourself if your employer or the internet hivemind will shut you down the instant you step out of line.

I wouldn’t want to practice forbearance everywhere and with everyone.  Life would be a lot less passionate.  Forbearance isn’t as necessary with kindred spirits; the whole point of connecting with someone deeply is that you can engage with your whole self rather than an impersonal facade.  And the great advantage of writing in public is that you can find new kindred spirits through correspondence.  But if you can’t ever practice forbearance, you paint yourself in a corner.

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7 thoughts on “Forbearance

  1. ” all the minutiae of a person’s life really are evidence about how generally excellent that person is. And this isn’t necessarily crazy. Beauty, intelligence, wealth, and health all correlate positively” and “The problem with these kinds of “unifying” thoughts is that they make it very easy to be extremely judgmental, in a negative sense”

    → the problem comes from the (necessary) qualitative aspect of those considerations, combined with the fact that we often judge using purity-based reasoning.

  2. Or maybe the problem (in a Bayesian framework) is that these considerations are neceesarily quantitative! In other words, a drunken party picture or tweet is evidence that someone is incompetent, stupid, and evil, but extremely weak evidence taken on its own. The problem is that social media mobs can make one such tiny bit of evidence into the sole way a person will be evaluated for the rest of their life/career, effectively giving it enormous, undeserved weight.

  3. Heinlein’s point reminds me strongly of Seligman et al.’s _Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity_. (I summarized that at https://meaningness.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/ritual-vs-mentalism/ .) They argue that a functional society requires a balance between ritual (“empty formality”) and sincere expression, and that ours has, due to Protestantism, fallen way to far on the side of sincerity. Specifically, they argue that ritual is the only way of negotiating decent relationships with social groups that have different values. They say that much of the polarized divisiveness of current “politics” is due to rejection of ritual in favor of “sincerity” (i.e. blurting out whatever opinion you happen to have at every possible occasion). Sincerity requires agreement; ritual does not.

  4. I agree that forbearance is important, but I don’t think judgmentalness per se is the problem. You can judge someone as “not a soulmate” or even “a person whose ideals are opposed to mine” and still cooperate with them civilly. The problem is that once a negative judgment has been made, it expands beyond its proper sphere and threatens to turn everything into a battleground. The thing to emphasize is not to avoid talking about interesting and controversial topics (politics at the dinner table is the spice of life) but to limit it to talk and not censure people who are wrong.

    Some people are evil, but not everything is up for grabs in combat with them.

    • When someone says “eveything is up for grabs when combatting group X”, it is probably a stronger evidence for the speaker being evil than for the group X being evil.

  5. The thing that disturbs Patri is most certainly not caused by people looking for a General Factor of Correctness, or otherwise properly updating on the evidence that, basically, ‘someone who holds this political view could not possibly be competent to do the job.’ That doesn’t pass the laugh test; no one thinks the reason people tried to ban Moldbug was that, since his political views are so obviously crazy, he must also be technically incompetent or he faked his data. No one thinks that gays, because they chose a same-sex relationship, are unqualified to plan a wedding or purchase cakes.

    No, this phenomenon is punishment of those with views we disagree with, or an attempt to bully people into abandoning those viewpoints, or an attempt by those with a viewpoint to gain control in some way. This is a war against the other. That’s why Patri calls it anti-business and anti-market: People are sacrificing profits to enforce their norms, rather than using evaluation of people’s norms to help know who can help them maximize their profits. And of course, once it starts, people can pressure you to do it (“nice business you have here, shame if someone were to politicize it”) through what is effectively extortion.

    The effect of banning such behavior, however, is of course, a legal nightmare that makes the disease even worse while also causing side effects. I’d rather be refused service or fired than have every store and employer terrified that they’ll be sued if they ever refuse service or fired someone.

    • with you on all that. and it’s a good point that nosiness is not in practice always related to correct updating.

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