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 your claims to be con­sid­ered in iso­la­tion—free of any con­text or po­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions. At­tempts to raise these is­sues 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 even 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. With con­tex­tu­al­is­ing norms, this is de­serv­ing of crit­i­cism as it risks cre­ates a 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 may be quite rea­son­able to re­fuse to en­gage in low-de­cou­pling con­ver­sa­tion if you sus­pect this is the other per­son’s strat­egy. On the other hand, it’s pos­si­ble to use a strat­egy of 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 loose use 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.

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: