A case study in simulacra levels and the Four Children of the Seder

This was origi­nally go­ing to be a com­ment on Zvi’s ex­cel­lent post, The Four Chil­dren of the Seder as the Si­mu­lacra Levels, but it got too long and I thought it war­ranted its own post.

My cousin’s kid is hav­ing a tough time lately. He’s steal­ing trin­kets, de­stroy­ing things around the house, and ac­cord­ing to his par­ents he “lies all the time.” His mom will grill him over whether he’s ly­ing or not—ask­ing him again and again whether he’s brushed his teeth, un­til he breaks down and ad­mits that he didn’t.

It’s not clear that she has ev­i­dence in cases like this that he was ly­ing. I sus­pect that the ex­pe­rience of be­ing grilled is so un­com­fortable that the kid finds it eas­ier to make a false con­fes­sion and brush his teeth a sec­ond time than to stand up for him­self. I also guess that some of his steal­ing and de­stroy­ing habits come from act­ing out on frus­tra­tion with au­thor­ity figures. It’s a way of prac­tic­ing de­cep­tion, pro­vok­ing re­ac­tions, and test­ing adults. Be­cause he doesn’t see a way to gain the trust and re­spect of adults, he’s try­ing to figure out how to trick them most effec­tively.

Why are his par­ents be­hav­ing this way? It is be­cause they have be­come far less con­cerned with ob­ject-level re­al­ity—whether or not he’s brushed his teeth—than with the ques­tion of whether their child is a liar. The kid un­der­stands that ev­ery­thing they ask him to do is a test of his hon­esty. It’s a sym­bol. Brush­ing his teeth isn’t to pre­vent cav­i­ties. It’s a trial of his char­ac­ter.

So his par­ents are speak­ing to him on the level of sim­plic­ity. He may have started wise, but is be­com­ing wicked as his par­ents draw him deeper and deeper into a world of sym­bol­ism.

This high­lights one of the para­doxes of the lev­els. Whether or not the kid lied about brush­ing his teeth is an ob­ject-level truth. And if you asked his par­ents why they care, they’d tell you “be­cause we don’t want him to get cav­i­ties.”

A re­la­tion­ship that’s on a higher simu­lacrum level is of­ten still con­nected to level one. The higher lev­els ac­cu­mu­late, rather than re­plac­ing the lower lev­els. Brush­ing his teeth is about cav­i­ties, but it’s also about whether you can trick your par­ents, and it’s also about whether or not your child is a liar.

Our fam­ily is con­cerned about this, and we’re op­er­at­ing on level four. We un­der­stand that bring­ing this up with the par­ents is a del­i­cate is­sue, be­cause we don’t want to im­ply that they’re bad par­ents. And we pri­mar­ily strug­gle with “how to ask” them about the situ­a­tion. To us, the ques­tion of whether or not the kid brushes his teeth is al­most ir­rele­vant. We’re not try­ing to get any­thing out of them or con­trol their be­hav­ior.

We’re peer­ing into level three, try­ing to un­der­stand the sym­bol­ism around ev­ery­body’s be­hav­iors, and how our word choice, tone of voice, body lan­guage, and the con­text of the dis­cus­sion might fit into the sym­bol­ism of the dis­cus­sion as in­ter­preted by the par­ents.

For­tu­nately, we have slightly more clar­ity about how to deal with this than the Rab­bis seem to, though not much. Our best ideas so far:

  1. Talk­ing with each other about what’s go­ing on, and re­ally tak­ing our time be­fore en­gag­ing with his par­ents. Then talk­ing with the par­ents to start un­der­stand­ing their wor­ld­view. Peer­ing from level 4 deeper into level 3.

  2. Suggest­ing that they agree on fam­ily ther­apy. This way, they’d have a sin­gle, cred­ible, shared au­thor­ity figure—a ther­a­pist—rather than a patch­work of ad­vice, books, and their own opinions. We hope that the ther­a­pist can help them es­cape level 3 and get to level 2, so that they can stop brood­ing on this ques­tion of “is our son a good-for-noth­ing liar” and start ask­ing “how are our words and ac­tions in­fluenc­ing our son’s be­hav­ior, and how can we in­fluence him in ways that we like bet­ter?”

  3. Get­ting them to fo­cus more on ver­ify­ing their son’s be­hav­ior through ev­i­dence rather than grilling him, and giv­ing the kid tasks that fo­cus on di­rectly en­gag­ing with re­al­ity. We have him help cook us­ing sharp knives, we teach him the names of plants in the gar­den, and di­rect him to ob­serve na­ture closely and learn rules that count for some­thing: the pat­terns on a spi­der’s back, the shape of a weed’s roots, the rules of chess. And we try to give him op­por­tu­ni­ties to “teach” oth­ers about what he learns—tel­ling his sister that you can eat nas­tur­tium petals, for ex­am­ple. Re­ward­ing him for his en­gage­ment with re­al­ity.

In gen­eral, be­ing lost in higher simu­lacra lev­els seems to in­volve a break­down of trust that ba­sic care, for­give­ness, and ac­cep­tance is available; a frag­men­ta­tion of the group’s wis­dom and per­spec­tive; and stronger in­cen­tives be­ing at­tached to the higher simu­lacra lev­els than the lower lev­els.

This sug­gests to me in par­tic­u­lar that we have gone deeply astray with our ob­ses­sion with peo­ple’s char­ac­ter. The drive to figure out “what kind of a per­son” some­body is, or “what they think of our char­ac­ter,” leads us to ex­pe­rience sim­ple ac­tivi­ties as tests of our char­ac­ter. We ex­pe­rience re­quests, ad­vice, feed­back, and just sim­ple fac­tual claims as part of the test, not at­tempts to steer an ob­ject-level out­come. We be­come highly self-con­scious, ex­tremely con­cerned about how ev­ery as­pect of our selves might be in­ter­preted.

This goes on and on. Even peo­ple who os­ten­si­bly want to fight this can get caught up in it them­selves. Say­ing “I’m only tol­er­ant of in­tol­er­ance” cre­ates the per­cep­tion that you’re con­stantly en­gaged in test­ing the peo­ple around you for hav­ing a char­ac­ter of in­tol­er­ance. No­body will be able to rest easy un­less they com­mit, one way or an­other, to just not car­ing what you think about them.

And of course, when this gets done on a mas­sive scale, you get “I’m only in­tol­er­ant of en­forced tol­er­ance.” You tol­er­ate the most ob­jec­tively rep­re­hen­si­ble be­hav­ior, not be­cause you think it’s OK, but in or­der to show just how far you’re will­ing to go to push back against the other side.

What might be the way for­ward?

If I’m right, and the lev­els are lay­ers, then we have to scrape them away. The way that starts is by es­tab­lish­ing trust—first within our own side, and only then with the other side. We need to make sure we can cred­ibly show that we’ve got enough unity amongst our­selves not to turn a rec­on­cili­a­tion at­tempt into an at­tack, and that we bring wis­dom to the table.

With trust es­tab­lished, we try to bring in an agreed-upon au­thor­ity. This could be shared set of val­ues or con­cepts, a group of peo­ple with the cred­i­bil­ity to serve as a rec­on­cili­a­tion figure, or a pro­cess that cre­ates space for the dis­putants to figure out what they ac­tu­ally want from life, not from their en­e­mies.

Hav­ing a sense of shared au­thor­ity and pro­cess, we look for any op­por­tu­nity to re­ward peo­ple who are op­er­at­ing on level 1 and dis­play­ing a con­scious re­jec­tion of lev­els 2-4. Bring facts to the table? Ap­plause. Read that book rather than as­sum­ing you un­der­stand it from the ti­tle? Ap­plause. Crit­i­cize the fal­la­cies of your own side? Ap­plause.

Go­ing for­ward, I will try to bring up the idea with my friends (all Amer­i­can liber­als, like me), that a lot of the “other side” might be try­ing to re­act to a per­ceived au­thor­i­tar­i­anism of the left by os­ten­ta­tiously em­brac­ing what we find re­pug­nant. I want to see if we can form enough agree­ment around that that it would be­come imag­in­able that we could try to in­ter­face with the other side and build trust there as well.