Decoupling vs Contextualising Norms

One of the most common difficulties faced in discussions is when the parties involved have different beliefs as to what the scope of the discussion should be. In particular, John Nerst identifies two styles of conversation as follows:

  • Decoupling norms: It is considered eminently reasonable to require the truth of your claims to be considered in isolation—free of any potential implications. An insistence on raising these issues despite a decoupling request are often seen as sloppy thinking or attempts to deflect.

  • Contextualising norms: It is considered eminently reasonable to expect certain contextual factors or implications to be addressed. Not addressing these factors is often seen as sloppy or an intentional evasion.

(ht prontab. He actually uses low decoupling/​high decoupling, but I prefer this terminology. Both John Nerst and prontab passed up the opportunity to post on this topic here)

Let’s suppose that blue-eyed people commit murders at twice the rate of the rest of the population. With decoupling norms, it would be considered churlish to object to such direct statements of facts. Sure it’s unfortunate for anyone who is blue-eyed, but the truth is the truth. With contextualising norms, you could potentially be criticised for reinforcing the stigma around blue-eyed people. At the very least, you would be expected to have issued a disclaimer to make it clear that you don’t think blue-eyed people should be stereotyped as criminals.

John Nerst writes (slightly edited): “To a contextualiser, decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened, while to a decoupler the contextualiser’s insistence that this isn’t possible looks like naked bias and an inability to think straight”

For both these norms, it’s quite easy to think of circumstances when expectations for the other party to use these norms would normally be considered unreasonable. Weak men are superweapons demonstrates how true statements can be used to destroy a group’s credibility and so it seems entirely reasonable to demand contextualisation if you suspect this is the other person’s strategy. On the other hand, it’s very easy to start painting every action you dislike to be part of someone’s agenda (neo-liberal agenda, cultural marxist agenda, far right agenda, ect. take your pick). People definitely have agendas and take actions as a result of this, but the wide usage of universal counter-arguments should rightly be frowned upon.

I agree with the contextualisers that making certain statements, even if true, can be incredibly naive in highly charged situations that could be set off by a mere spark. On the other hand, it seems that we need at least some spaces for engaging in decoupling-style conversations. Elizier wrote an article on Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilisation. I believe that having access to such spaces is another key.

At the same time, I don’t want to fall for the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle and assume that both perspectives are equally valid. While there is truth in both, I feel that at the current time society needs to shift more towards Decoupling Norms. Zack Davis writes that he is afraid that “the concept of “contextualizing norms” has the potential to legitimize derailing discussions for arbitrary political reasons by eliding the key question of which contextual concerns are genuinely relevant, thereby conflating legitimate and illegitimate bids for contextualization”. I agree that is possible in theory, but it seems that people who want to derail discussions can already do that without a need for further justification. Further, contextualising norms are widespread enough at this point that we can’t really avoid dialog across these boundaries, which is what this concept enables.

Zack also wants to emphasise how contextual these factors are. That talking about the higher rate of blue-eyed people who are murderers is relevant when discussing the the higher number of blue-eyed people in prison, but irrelevant when someone mentions they are going to date someone with blue-eyes because the base rate is too low. This is a good point, but it’s always the case that we can shift from viewing a phenomenon as a binary at the lowest resolution, then a spectrum, then contextual. Zack worries that a spectrum wouldn’t be a useful model as there isn’t a general factor of contextualising. I disagree with this—it seems that social scientists lean very heavily toward contextualisation norms and mathematicians towards decoupling norms.

These complexities mean that there isn’t a simple prescriptive solution here. Instead this post merely aimed to describe this phenomenon, as at least if you are aware of this, it may be possible to navigate this.

Further reading: