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 up.

I agree with the contextualisers that making certain statements, even if true, can be incredibly naive in highly charged situations that can be easily set off by a 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: