Self-consciousness wants to make everything about itself

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Here’s a pat­tern that shows up again and again in dis­course:

A: This thing that’s hap­pen­ing is bad.

B: Are you say­ing I’m a bad per­son for par­ti­ci­pat­ing in this? How mean of you! I’m not a bad per­son, I’ve done X, Y, and Z!

It isn’t always this ex­plicit; I’ll dis­cuss more con­crete in­stances in or­der to clar­ify. The im­por­tant thing to re­al­ize is that A is point­ing at a con­crete prob­lem (and likely one that is con­cretely af­fect­ing them), and B is chang­ing the sub­ject to be about B’s own self-con­scious­ness. Self-con­scious­ness wants to make ev­ery­thing about it­self; when some topic is be­ing dis­cussed that has im­pli­ca­tions re­lated to peo­ple’s self-images, the con­ver­sa­tion fre­quently gets redi­rected to be about these self-images, rather than the con­crete is­sue. Thus, prob­lems don’t get dis­cussed or solved; ev­ery­thing is redi­rected to be­ing about main­tain­ing peo­ple’s self-images.

Tone arguments

A tone ar­gu­ment crit­i­cizes an ar­gu­ment not for be­ing in­cor­rect, but for hav­ing the wrong tone. Com­mon phrases used in tone ar­gu­ments are: “More peo­ple would listen to you if...”, “you should try be­ing more po­lite”, etc.

It’s clear why tone ar­gu­ments are epistem­i­cally in­valid. If some­one says X, then X’s truth value is in­de­pen­dent of their tone, so talk­ing about their tone is chang­ing the sub­ject. (Now, if some­one is say­ing X in a way that breaks epistemic dis­course norms, then defend­ing such norms is epistem­i­cally sen­si­ble; how­ever, tone ar­gu­ments aren’t about epistemic norms, they’re about peo­ple’s feel­ings).

Tone ar­gu­ments are about peo­ple pro­tect­ing their self-images when they or a group they are part of (or a per­son/​group they sym­pa­thize with) is crit­i­cized. When a tone ar­gu­ment is made, the con­ver­sa­tion is no longer about the origi­nal topic, it’s about how talk­ing about the topic in cer­tain ways makes peo­ple feel ashamed/​guilty. Tone ar­gu­ments are a key way self-con­scious­ness makes ev­ery­thing about it­self.

Tone ar­gu­ments are prac­ti­cally always in bad faith. They aren’t made by peo­ple try­ing to help an idea be trans­mit­ted to and in­ter­nal­ized by more oth­ers. They’re made by peo­ple who want their self-images to be pro­tected. Pro­tect­ing one’s self-image from the truth, by re-di­rect­ing at­ten­tion away from the epistemic ob­ject level, is act­ing in bad faith.

Self-con­scious­ness in so­cial justice

A doc­u­mented phe­nomenon in so­cial jus­tice is “white women’s tears”. Here’s a case study (em­pha­sis mine):

A group of stu­dent af­fairs pro­fes­sion­als were in a meet­ing to dis­cuss re­ten­tion and well­ness is­sues per­tain­ing to a spe­cific racial com­mu­nity on our cam­pus. As the di­alogue pro­gressed, Anita, a woman of color, raised a con­cern about the lack of sup­port and com­mit­ment to this com­mu­nity from Office X (in­clud­ing lack of mea­surable di­ver­sity train­ing, rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the com­mu­nity in ques­tion within the staff of Office X, etc.), which caused Su­san from Office X, a White woman, to feel un­com­fortable. Although Anita re­as­sured Su­san that her com­ments were not di­rected at her per­son­ally, Su­san be­gan to cry while re­spond­ing that she “felt at­tacked”. Su­san fur­ther added that: she donated her time and efforts to this com­mu­nity, and even served on a lo­cal non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion board that worked with this com­mu­nity; she un­der­stood dis­crim­i­na­tion be­cause her fam­ily had peo­ple of differ­ent back­grounds and her clos­est friends were mem­bers of this com­mu­nity; she was com­mit­ted to di­ver­sity as she did di­ver­sity train­ing within her office; and the office did not have enough fund­ing for this com­mu­nity’s needs at that time.

Upon see­ing this re­ac­tion, Anita was con­fused be­cause al­though her tone of voice had been firm, she was not an­gry. From Anita’s per­spec­tive, the group had come to­gether to ad­dress how the stu­dent com­mu­nity’s needs could be met, which par­tially meant point­ing out cur­rent gaps where in­creased ser­vices were nec­es­sary. Anita was very clear that she was cri­tiquing Su­san’s office and not Su­san, as Su­san could not pos­si­bly be solely re­spon­si­ble for the de­ci­sions of her office.

The con­ver­sa­tion of the group shifted at the point when Su­san started to cry. From that mo­ment, the group did not dis­cuss the ac­tual is­sue of the stu­dent com­mu­nity. Rather, they spent the du­ra­tion of the meet­ing con­sol­ing Su­san, re­as­sur­ing her that she was not at fault. Su­san calmed down, and pub­li­cly thanked Anita for her will­ing­ness to be di­rect, and com­pli­mented her pas­sion. Later that day, Anita was rep­ri­manded for her ‘an­gry tone,’ as she dis­cov­ered that Su­san com­plained about her “be­hav­ior” to both her own su­per­vi­sor as well as Anita’s su­per­vi­sor. Anita was left con­fused by the mixed mes­sages she re­ceived with Su­san’s com­pli­ment, and Su­san’s sub­se­quent com­plaint re­gard­ing her.

The key rele­vance of this case study is that, while the con­ver­sa­tion was origi­nally about the is­sue of stu­dent com­mu­nity needs, it be­came about Su­san’s self-image. Su­san made ev­ery­thing about her own self-image, en­sur­ing that the ac­tual con­crete is­sue (that her office was not sup­port­ing the racial com­mu­nity) was not dis­cussed or solved.

Shoot­ing the messenger

In ad­di­tion to cry­ing, Su­san also shot the mes­sen­ger, by com­plain­ing about Anita to both her and Anita’s su­per­vi­sors. This makes sense as ego-pro­tec­tive be­hav­ior: if she wants to main­tain a cer­tain self-image, she wants to dis­cour­age be­ing pre­sented with in­for­ma­tion that challenges it, and also wants to “one-up” the per­son who challenged her self-image, by harm­ing that per­son’s image (so Anita does not end up look­ing bet­ter than Su­san does).

Shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger is an an­cient tac­tic, de­ployed es­pe­cially by pow­er­ful peo­ple to silence providers of in­for­ma­tion that challenges their self-image. Shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger is ask­ing to be lied to, us­ing force. Ob­vi­ously, if the pow­er­ful per­son ac­tu­ally wants in­for­ma­tion, this tac­tic is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, hence the stan­dard ad­vice to not shoot the mes­sen­ger.

Self-con­scious­ness as priv­ilege defense

It’s no­table that, in the cases dis­cussed so far, self-con­scious­ness is more of­ten a be­hav­ior of the priv­ileged and pow­er­ful, rather than the dis­priv­ileged and pow­er­less. This, of course, isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but there cer­tainly seems to be a re­la­tion. Why is that?

Part of this is that the less-priv­ileged of­ten can’t get away with redi­rect­ing con­ver­sa­tions by mak­ing ev­ery­thing about their self-image. Peo­ple’s sym­pa­thies are more of­ten with the priv­ileged.

Another as­pect is that priv­ilege is largely about be­ing re­warded for one’s iden­tity, rather than one’s works. If you have no priv­ilege, you have to ac­tu­ally do some­thing con­cretely effec­tive to be re­warded, like clean­ing. Whereas, priv­ileged peo­ple, al­most by defi­ni­tion, get re­warded “for no rea­son” other than their iden­tity.

Main­te­nance of a self-image makes less sense as an in­di­vi­d­ual be­hav­ior than as a col­lec­tive be­hav­ior. The phe­nomenon of bul­lshit jobs im­plies that much of the “econ­omy” is perfor­ma­tive, rather than about value-cre­ation. While al­most ev­ery­one can pre­tend to work, some peo­ple are bet­ter at it than oth­ers. The best peo­ple at such pre­tend­ing are those who look the part, and who main­tain the act. That is: priv­ileged peo­ple who main­tain their self-images, and who tie their self-images to their col­lec­tive, as Su­san did. (And, to the ex­tent that e.g. school “pre­pares peo­ple for real work­places”, it trains such be­hav­ior.)

Redi­rec­tion away from the ob­ject level isn’t merely about defend­ing self-image; it has the effect of caus­ing is­sues not to be dis­cussed, and prob­lems not to be solved. Such effects main­tain the lo­cal power sys­tem. And so, power sys­tems en­courage peo­ple to tie their self-images with the power sys­tem, re­sult­ing in self-con­scious­ness act­ing as a defense of the power sys­tem.

Note that, while less-priv­ileged peo­ple do of­ten re­spond nega­tively to crit­i­cism from more-priv­ileged peo­ple, such re­sponses are more likely to be based in fear/​anger rather than guilt/​shame.

Stop try­ing to be a good person

At the root of this is­sue is the de­sire to main­tain a nar­ra­tive of be­ing a “good per­son”. Su­san re­sponded to the crit­i­cism of her office by list­ing out rea­sons why she was a “good per­son” who was against racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

While Anita wasn’t ac­tu­ally ac­cus­ing Su­san of racist be­hav­ior, it is, em­piri­cally, likely that some of Su­san’s be­hav­ior is racist, as im­plicit racism is per­va­sive (and, in­deed, Su­san silenced a woman of color speak­ing on race). Su­san’s im­plicit be­lief is that there is such a thing as “not be­ing racist”, and that one gets there by pass­ing some thresh­old of be­ing nice to marginal­ized racial groups. But, since racism is a struc­tural is­sue, it’s quite hard to ac­tu­ally stop par­ti­ci­pat­ing in racism, with­out go­ing and liv­ing in the woods some­where. In so­cieties with struc­tural racism, eth­i­cal be­hav­ior re­quires skil­lfully and con­sciously re­duc­ing harm given the fact that one is a par­ti­ci­pant in racism, rather than wash­ing one’s hands of the prob­lem.

What if it isn’t ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble to be “not racist” or oth­er­wise “a good per­son”, at least on short timescales? What if al­most ev­ery per­son’s be­hav­ior is morally de­praved a lot of the time (ac­cord­ing to their stan­dards of what be­hav­ior makes some­one a “good per­son”)? What if there are bad things that are your fault? What would be the right thing to do, then?

Calv­inism has a the­olog­i­cal doc­trine of to­tal de­prav­ity, ac­cord­ing to which ev­ery per­son is ut­terly un­able to stop com­mit­ting evil, to obey God, or to ac­cept sal­va­tion when it is offered. While I am not a Calv­inist, I ap­pre­ci­ate this teach­ing, be­cause quite a lot of hu­man be­hav­ior is si­mul­ta­neously un­eth­i­cal and hard to stop, and be­cause ac­cept­ing this can get peo­ple to stop chas­ing the ideal of be­ing a “good per­son”.

If you ac­cept that you are ir­re­deemably evil (with re­spect to your cur­rent idea of a good per­son), then there is no use in feel­ing self-con­scious or in block­ing in­for­ma­tion com­ing to you that im­plies your be­hav­ior is harm­ful. The only thing left to do is to steer in the right di­rec­tion: make things around you bet­ter in­stead of worse, based on your in­trin­si­cally mo­ti­vat­ing dis­cern­ment of what is bet­ter/​worse. Don’t try to be a good per­son, just try to make nicer things hap­pen. And get more fore­sight, per­spec­tive, and co­op­er­a­tion as you go, so you can par­ti­ci­pate in steer­ing big­ger things on longer timescales us­ing more in­for­ma­tion.

Para­dox­i­cally, in ac­cept­ing that one is ir­re­deemably evil, one can start ac­cept­ing in­for­ma­tion and steer­ing in the right di­rec­tion, thus de­vel­op­ing merit, and be­com­ing a bet­ter per­son, though still not “good” in the origi­nal sense. (This, I know from per­sonal ex­pe­rience)

(See also: What’s your type: Iden­tity and its Dis­con­tents; Blame games; Bad in­tent is a dis­po­si­tion, not a feel­ing)