Epistemic Status: Guesses Based on Personal Experience
Lately I’ve been going through a family of learning experiences in the world of how to get things done cooperatively. It’s hard for me. Even very basic things in this area have been stumping me, overwhelming me, leaving me way more tired and drained than I’d expect. My productivity has gone to hell and — worse — I didn’t even notice for a while. This is hard stuff, and rarely written about by the people for whom it’s hard, so my hope is that processing in public helps someone. I generally think that data-sharing is good and helpful.
Collective Deliberation Isn’t Working For Me
At a conference, I was in a room full of people having a really good discussion. I wanted to get people together to have a follow-up discussion later — nothing elaborate, just a room with whiteboards and snacks and maybe moving towards some action items.
What I did:
- Passed around a sheet for emails to sign up
- Sent out an email proposing the parameters of the event
- Waited for people to propose dates that worked for them.
Somebody else suggested a poll where people could put down their preferred times and dates. Out of thirteen people, five signed up. Nobody volunteered “ok, we’re doing it on this date then,” so I did. I reserved a conference room at my office and bought a bunch of snacks.
The front door was locked on the weekend and my key card didn’t work even though it was supposed to, so I had to switch locations at the last minute. It wouldn’t have mattered anyhow, because one person showed up on time, and one other person several hours late.
Conclusion: it is harder than I thought to get ten people to show up in a room and talk to each other.
And I probably shouldn’t have expected an event to coalesce naturally from the mailing list. I have a strong “egalitarian” instinct that if I’m trying to do something with a group and in some sense for the benefit of everyone in the group, then I shouldn’t be too “bossy” in terms of unilaterally declaring what we’re all going to do. But if I leave it up to the group to discuss, it seems like they generally…don’t.
I’m also on a policy committee for a community organization, and it’s been a whole lot of heartache because I want to change some things about our policies and internal processes, and the process of trying to communicate that has resulted in a lot of hurt feelings, mine and other people’s.
The first thing I did was write up a document explaining why I thought the existing policies were harmful, and share it with the mailing list. This resulted in DRAMA because people heard it as a personal accusation. (I never meant to imply that my fellow committee members were bad people, but I felt strongly about the policy changes and my writing tone may have come out angrier than I intended.)
In retrospect, I should never have led with complaints — I should have started by proposing solutions. My intention had been to raise the issues I cared about while minimizing bossiness — this is an organization for the benefit of a larger community, and I’m only one member of a committee, so I thought it would leave more degrees of freedom open to the group to say “here’s why the existing policies have problems, what do you think we should do?” rather than “here’s how I’d suggest improving the existing policies.” I thought this was the considerate way to communicate. But from the committee’s perspective, it must have sounded like “You’re doing it wrong. Here’s a bunch more work you have to do to fix it. You’re welcome!” They were actually much more receptive once I wrote up a revised set of policies that I’d be happier with. Once again, being “unbossy” and hoping that collaborative discussion would resolve the issue was a total failure, because people had less bandwidth to engage in discussion than I’d anticipated.
Private Discussions Are A Flawed Solution
I’ve noticed that in a lot of deliberative bodies or organizations, the real decision-making doesn’t happen in groups. (Meanwhile Madison is grappling with the fact that/ Not every issue can be settled in committee.) The people who have “real power” meet in private and hash things out off the record. Nobody really shares their full thoughts on the internet or on an email list. It’s not necessarily “secrecy”, but it’s secrecy-adjacent.
I know this is how things are frequently done, but it bothers me. When an issue is officially the jurisdiction of a committee, everyone on the committee is equally entitled to be part of the discussion, and entitled to know what’s going on; having secret side conversations creates a hierarchy between those “in the know” and those who aren’t. (No-one else was in the room where it happened/ the room where it happened/ the room where it happened.) Still more, when your project is supposed to be for the sake of, and with the participation of, a broader community, it seems like fairness demands being transparent with that community.
Maybe this is just the geek-kid issue, or what people today tend to call the geek social fallacies. I’m deeply uncomfortable when I see what looks like an elite subgroup, a group of “cool kids” or “VIPs” or whatever, talking behind closed doors because hoi polloi just wouldn’t understand. I mean, yes, sometimes people wouldn’t understand! I get it. There do exist people who will be offended by my honest opinion (god knows), or who literally aren’t bright enough or knowledgeable enough to contribute to a discussion. I understand why it’s easier to talk in private with people who are already more-or-less on the same page. But still…there’s a pattern that gives me the willies. It’s “elites get to know what’s going on, randos are kept out of the loop,” and even when somebody says that I qualify as an elite, not a rando, it still bothers me, because I’m much more comfortable having rights than being favored.
This is part of what gives me a bad feeling about the discourse around “demon threads” (that is: big, addictive, internet debates) and in praise of “taking things private“, where tensions will be easier to defuse. There are real costs to acrimonious debate, in time and emotional energy, and I appreciate that people are trying to find ways to reduce those costs. But I feel nervous about anything that looks like it’s trying to sweep real conflicts under the rug. It’s like “don’t fight in front of the children” — except that in this case the members of the public are being placed in the role of “the children,” whether or not we want to be.
I occasionally find myself in situations where I feel I’m being asked to take a sort of Straussian stance — if you want to get important things done, you can’t be totally transparent about what you’re doing, because the general public will stop you. I’m not sure these people are wrong. But I really hope they are. I have a bad feeling about maintaining information asymmetries as a general policy. I have a dangerous temperamental temptation towards concealment — it’s just “minor” stuff like trying to hide my failures, but in the long run, that’s neither ethical nor practical — so I’ve developed a counter-tendency towards transparency, as a sort of partial safeguard. If I tell people what I’m up to, early and often, I can’t slip down the road of dishonesty.
Therapeutic Language: Another Flawed Solution
Peace is good, all things being equal. Fighting hurts. And many fights are unnecessary, borne of misunderstanding more than actual disagreement. I’ve seen this a lot firsthand. It’s much more likely that someone literally doesn’t comprehend your idea than that they oppose it.
And one of the most common types of misunderstanding is when people falsely assume you are damning them as a person. This is something I learned from Malcolm Ocean, who gave me the first really clear explanation I ever got as to what people are doing when they use NVC or Circling language or other types of very careful and mannered speech to avoid the perception of blame or judgment. Surely, I asked him, sometimes you do need to judge? To distinguish between good and bad behavior? To enforce norms?
After a while, we came up with this analogy:
There’s a difference between saying “You’re fired” and “You’re fired, and also fuck you.”
In the course of life, one absolutely does have to say things like “you’re fired.” Or “you can’t behave like that in this space”, “this work does not merit publication”, or “I don’t want to go on a date with you.” In other words, drawing boundaries is necessary for life. But drawing boundaries doesn’t always have to involve damning someone, as though sending them to Hell, utterly condemning their essential being. (What Madeleine l’Engle would call X-ing.) One can fire a person from a job, or reject their manuscript, or turn them down romantically, without saying it is bad that you exist and you should hate yourself. One can even, I believe, convict someone of a crime, or kill them in self-defense, without damning them, while wishing that they had not done the thing that forced you to draw an extremely severe boundary.
Boundaries are necessary; self-defense is necessary; damning people might not be necessary, and I’m inclined to believe it isn’t.
And yet, people do damn each other, very frequently; and even more frequently, as a result of these bad experiences, they assume they’re being damned when they’re merely being criticized. “You did a thing with negative consequences” gets read as “your essence is stained, you are a Terrible Person, it’s time to hate yourself.” So, as an imperfect attempt to forestall these misunderstandings, people have developed these extremely artificial locutions that, yes, make you sound like a therapist, and, yes, aren’t as natural as just speaking in plain language. But the hope is that they create enough distance to allow people to avoid immediately jumping to the conclusion that you’re accusing them of being Generally Terrible and Worthy of Eternal Hellfire.
Of course, the human mind being devious and wily at figuring out how to make us miserable, it’s possible to be easily set off by therapeutic language itself! It turns out I have such a sensitivity. “You’re insinuating that I’m having bad feelings — this means you’re saying that I’m Weak and Can’t Hack It and need Special Treatment — which means you’re calling me Generally Terrible! Screw you!” (This isn’t completely irrational; it is the appropriate norm for situations like work or school, where hiding physical and mental pain is expected and where people are penalized for failing to do so.)
Now, of course, I do have bad feelings sometimes, being a human. And, a lot of the time, the person using therapeutic language is trying to deal productively with that fact of the matter, rather than condemning me for it — they’ve moved on to Step 2, What Do We Do Now, while I’m still on Step 1, Is Sarah Terrible Y/N?
But you really can’t have good conversations while anyone’s still on Step 1. If you haven’t yet resolved “Do You Think I’m Terrible?” with a resounding “No,” then every other conversation that’s nominally about some topic will actually be about the vital issue of Do You Think I’m Terrible?
And, because the human mind is devious, Step 1 doesn’t stay resolved; you have to keep reaffirming it, because people will forget. You have to put what seems like a colossal amount of unsubtle effort into saying “I like you and I think you’re good” in order to keep discussions from becoming about “I’m good and not terrible! See, I’ll prove it!”
I have not mastered this art, or even close, but I basically agree with the need for it.
I have totally observed people being blunt and irreverent without hurting others’ feelings and while getting very productive discussions done — but I think what’s going on is not that these people don’t validate each other, but that they validate each other very well through different means than therapeutic language. Some people can get away with speaking styles that are very “offensive” by conventional standards, but that’s because they also show deep affection and regard for the people they’re talking to.
I think there are people who are more robust than others at independently maintaining a sense that they’re Okay and Good and Liked and Valid (and that’s great!) but I don’t think this in any way disproves the need for validation, any more than the existence of plants proves that organisms don’t need chemical energy.
Nobody (Exactly) Agrees With You
I’ve been struggling a bunch with the fact that people seem to disagree fractally and at every turn. It’s really, really hard to get exact alignment on worldviews and desires, to the point that I’m beginning to doubt it’s possible. I see someone who seems to see part of the world the same way I do, and I go “can we talk? can we be buds? can we be twinsies? are we on the same team?” and then I realize “oh, no, outside of this tiny little area, they…really don’t agree with me at all. Dammit.”
It would be nice to have someone to talk to who was basically the same person as you, right? Someone you could just melt into, the way all of humanity melted into a single sea of neon-orange thought-fluid in that anime.
But, in my experience, that just keeps not happening. Friendship and mutual respect, sure, I’m very fortunate to have lots of that; but merging doesn’t happen. There’s always me, or the other person, saying “no, not exactly” instead of “yes, and”.
Is it just that I’m unusual? Surely people who build movements get people to agree with each other?
The thing is, I’m starting to suspect they don’t. I recently went to TEDWomen, and saw a bunch of talks about activism and organizing, including by such luminaries as Dolores Huerta and Marian Wright Edelman. And here are some takeaways I got from them:
- Activists view the main goal as fighting apathy, that is, getting people to participate, literally activating people. Getting people to show up to vote or show up to a protest or to raise issues in conversations.
- Everybody in a coalition supports everybody else. It’s very “all for one and one for all.” They explicitly talk about how you shouldn’t allow anyone to frame things as “the environment” vs “women’s issues” vs “labor issues” vs “immigration” — everyone’s encouraged to push for everyone’s agenda together, for every sub-group in the progressive coalition.
- Activists endorse being moved more by individual stories and art and emotional appeals than by facts and figures. They don’t just talk about how “emotional appeals work better on the public” but they talk about how emotional appeals and personal connections work on themselves.
If you think of everybody’s beliefs as a forest of trees, where consequences branch out from premises, then “trying to get agreement” is building trees as big as they can get and trying to hash out what’s going on when two people’s trees differ. What seems to be going on in an activist frame is not building out the trees very big at all, only getting agreement on rather basic things like “children shouldn’t live in poverty” and trying to move straight to voting and fundraising and other object-level actions, without really hashing out in much detail “ok, what ways of avoiding child poverty are effective and/or morally acceptable?” They recognize that getting people to participate at all is difficult (in my shoes, they would have invested a lot more effort in getting people to show up to the event), and they don’t seem to even try to get people to agree in a deep sense, to agree on world-models and general principles and moral foundations.
Just because everyone is shouting the same slogan doesn’t mean they really agree with each other. They agree on the slogan. It might mean different things to different people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth being aware that it isn’t true unity.
The Greek for “with one accord” is ὁμοθυμαδόν, which appears frequently in the New Testament; it means literally “same passion” or “same spirit”, the seat of courage and emotion that lives in the heart. “Unanimity” is an exact translation into Latin — “one spirit.” You can have large groups of people who feel the same, who are filled with the same passion. It is much harder for all those people to have the same belief structure, to stay on the same page on the nitty-gritty details. Just getting groups of people to “weak unanimity,” namely, active participation, good will, and agreement on ideal goals, is a challenging full-time job by itself — and it doesn’t even touch getting worldview alignment.
The Cost of Complaint
One weird and maybe trivial thing that’s been nagging at me is trying to get a handle on the underlying worldview expressed by the Incredibles movies. Yeah, it’s pop culture, but there’s clearly an attempt to communicate a moral, and it’s a weird one.
Sure, there’s the inspiring, defiant pro-superhero note of “people shouldn’t be pressured to hide their excellence”, which often gets labeled Randian (but could just as easily be Nietzchean or Harrison Bergeron-esque).
But it gets weird when you look at the villains. The villains of both movies are genius technologists. Syndrome, the villain of the first movie, is a bitter, pimpled male nerd, resentful of superheroes’ elevated status, who wants to provide technology to give everyone superpowers. Evelyn Deavor, the villain of the second movie, is a bitter, urbane, worldly feminist, a technologist who dislikes the way technology has “dumbed down” its users, resentful of the public’s passive reliance on screens and superheroes. For plot reasons, of course, both supervillains pull dangerous stunts that put the public at risk, and need to be stopped by the superheroes. But their motivations are actually empowering humanity, weirdly enough. Syndrome is, effectively, a transhumanist, while Evelyn is an “ethical techie” type reminiscent of the people at the Center for Humane Technology. Their obsession is using their talents and hard work to make all people more self-reliant and capable of greater things — a mission that would actually sit well with Rand or Nietzsche, and, outside the world of the films, could easily work as a heroic cause.
What’s wrong with the villains, in the world of The Incredibles, is that they’re grouchy. They’re social critics. They complain.
Notice that, before we know she’s a villain, Evelyn tries to get Mrs. Incredible to commiserate about sexism; the heroine doesn’t take the bait. Before his villainous reveal, Syndrome is a whiny kid who wants to be Mr. Incredible’s sidekick and complains about not getting to tag along. And the initial controversy that drove superheroes underground was a suicidal man who sued Mr. Incredible for saving his life. The common thread among the antagonists is unhappiness. (And the misfit, gender-ambiguous, Tumblresque minor superheroes in Incredibles 2 are depicted as not exactly antagonists but vulnerable to being coopted by the villainous Evelyn because of their unhappiness.)
Also, notice that Brad Bird is taking a very firm stance in favor of optimism and against gloom, in the Incredibles movies and others; his movies overtly defend his creative choice to keep things positive and brightly colored in a world where critical acclaim usually comes in shades of gray. (The antagonist in Ratatouille, not accidentally, is a restaurant critic.) I think it’s really that simple: Brad Bird likes unity and positivity, and doesn’t like complaining. Critics like the New Yorker’s Richard Brody are right to see a threat in the Incredibles movies — their real enemy is criticism.
(If you look at Brad Bird’s actual words, he isn’t any kind of a libertarian or Randian, and says so; he’s a centrist, he’s big on finding common ground, staying positive, focusing on unity, and so on.)
It’s almost impossible to talk about the world intelligently while refraining from any complaint. Try finding a blog to read that never criticizes society, from any direction. Where you find interesting and articulate people, you’ll find people who express dissatisfaction with things as they are. There’s no principled way to say “hey I think everyone’s pretty much right,” because people don’t remotely agree with each other if you ask about any details at all.
And yet, people (like Bird, but also like me, and like many) get heartsick when we’re exposed to too much complaint or disagreement. Moods are contagious, and criticism is very often depressing, for all we try to tell ourselves that it’s merely an intellectual awareness. Sometimes I feel like “for god’s sake, World, for once could you give me a social context where literally nobody expresses dislike or disapproval about anything? Could we have a Happy Zone please?”
But I’m genuinely not sure if that’s possible. It may be a feature of language or logic itself that it’s hard to talk at all if you restrict yourself firmly to avoiding critical speech. I certainly would have a hard time sticking strictly to Happy Zone rules.
I don’t have solutions here. I’m just trying to figure things out. It ought to be possible, I think, to deliberate and collaborate with people, allowing “the group” to decide, rather than just deciding what I want individually and letting people collaborate with me to the extent that it sounds good to them. I know how to be an individualist; I’m trying to learn how to also do the collective thing, “voice” rather than “exit”. But I’m just stumped by the fact that people want different things, and think different things, and actual, far-reaching unity doesn’t seem to exist.