Playing Politics

Epistemic Sta­tus: Guesses Based on Per­sonal Experience

Lately I’ve been go­ing through a fam­ily of learn­ing ex­pe­riences in the world of how to get things done co­op­er­a­tively. It’s hard for me. Even very ba­sic things in this area have been stump­ing me, over­whelming me, leav­ing me way more tired and drained than I’d ex­pect. My pro­duc­tivity has gone to hell and — worse — I didn’t even no­tice for a while. This is hard stuff, and rarely writ­ten about by the peo­ple for whom it’s hard, so my hope is that pro­cess­ing in pub­lic helps some­one. I gen­er­ally think that data-shar­ing is good and helpful.

Col­lec­tive De­liber­a­tion Isn’t Work­ing For Me

At a con­fer­ence, I was in a room full of peo­ple hav­ing a re­ally good dis­cus­sion. I wanted to get peo­ple to­gether to have a fol­low-up dis­cus­sion later — noth­ing elab­o­rate, just a room with white­boards and snacks and maybe mov­ing to­wards some ac­tion items.

What I did:

  • Passed around a sheet for emails to sign up

  • Sent out an email propos­ing the pa­ram­e­ters of the event

  • Waited for peo­ple to pro­pose dates that worked for them.

Ra­dio silence.

Some­body else sug­gested a poll where peo­ple could put down their preferred times and dates. Out of thir­teen peo­ple, five signed up. No­body vol­un­teered “ok, we’re do­ing it on this date then,” so I did. I re­served a con­fer­ence room at my office and bought a bunch of snacks.

The front door was locked on the week­end and my key card didn’t work even though it was sup­posed to, so I had to switch lo­ca­tions at the last minute. It wouldn’t have mat­tered any­how, be­cause one per­son showed up on time, and one other per­son sev­eral hours late.

Con­clu­sion: it is harder than I thought to get ten peo­ple to show up in a room and talk to each other.

And I prob­a­bly shouldn’t have ex­pected an event to co­a­lesce nat­u­rally from the mailing list. I have a strong “egal­i­tar­ian” in­stinct that if I’m try­ing to do some­thing with a group and in some sense for the benefit of ev­ery­one in the group, then I shouldn’t be too “bossy” in terms of unilat­er­ally declar­ing what we’re all go­ing to do. But if I leave it up to the group to dis­cuss, it seems like they gen­er­ally…don’t.

I’m also on a policy com­mit­tee for a com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tion, and it’s been a whole lot of heartache be­cause I want to change some things about our poli­cies and in­ter­nal pro­cesses, and the pro­cess of try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate that has re­sulted in a lot of hurt feel­ings, mine and other peo­ple’s.

The first thing I did was write up a doc­u­ment ex­plain­ing why I thought the ex­ist­ing poli­cies were harm­ful, and share it with the mailing list. This re­sulted in DRAMA be­cause peo­ple heard it as a per­sonal ac­cu­sa­tion. (I never meant to im­ply that my fel­low com­mit­tee mem­bers were bad peo­ple, but I felt strongly about the policy changes and my writ­ing tone may have come out an­grier than I in­tended.)

In ret­ro­spect, I should never have led with com­plaints — I should have started by propos­ing solu­tions. My in­ten­tion had been to raise the is­sues I cared about while min­i­miz­ing bossi­ness — this is an or­ga­ni­za­tion for the benefit of a larger com­mu­nity, and I’m only one mem­ber of a com­mit­tee, so I thought it would leave more de­grees of free­dom open to the group to say “here’s why the ex­ist­ing poli­cies have prob­lems, what do you think we should do?” rather than “here’s how I’d sug­gest im­prov­ing the ex­ist­ing poli­cies.” I thought this was the con­sid­er­ate way to com­mu­ni­cate. But from the com­mit­tee’s per­spec­tive, it must have sounded like “You’re do­ing it wrong. Here’s a bunch more work you have to do to fix it. You’re wel­come!” They were ac­tu­ally much more re­cep­tive once I wrote up a re­vised set of poli­cies that I’d be hap­pier with. Once again, be­ing “un­bossy” and hop­ing that col­lab­o­ra­tive dis­cus­sion would re­solve the is­sue was a to­tal failure, be­cause peo­ple had less band­width to en­gage in dis­cus­sion than I’d an­ti­ci­pated.

Pri­vate Dis­cus­sions Are A Flawed Solution

I’ve no­ticed that in a lot of de­liber­a­tive bod­ies or or­ga­ni­za­tions, the real de­ci­sion-mak­ing doesn’t hap­pen in groups. (Mean­while Madi­son is grap­pling with the fact that/​ Not ev­ery is­sue can be set­tled in com­mit­tee.) The peo­ple who have “real power” meet in pri­vate and hash things out off the record. No­body re­ally shares their full thoughts on the in­ter­net or on an email list. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily “se­crecy”, but it’s se­crecy-ad­ja­cent.

I know this is how things are fre­quently done, but it both­ers me. When an is­sue is offi­cially the ju­ris­dic­tion of a com­mit­tee, ev­ery­one on the com­mit­tee is equally en­ti­tled to be part of the dis­cus­sion, and en­ti­tled to know what’s go­ing on; hav­ing se­cret side con­ver­sa­tions cre­ates a hi­er­ar­chy be­tween those “in the know” and those who aren’t. (No-one else was in the room where it hap­pened/​ the room where it hap­pened/​ the room where it hap­pened.) Still more, when your pro­ject is sup­posed to be for the sake of, and with the par­ti­ci­pa­tion of, a broader com­mu­nity, it seems like fair­ness de­mands be­ing trans­par­ent with that com­mu­nity.

Maybe this is just the geek-kid is­sue, or what peo­ple to­day tend to call the geek so­cial fal­la­cies. I’m deeply un­com­fortable when I see what looks like an elite sub­group, a group of “cool kids” or “VIPs” or what­ever, talk­ing be­hind closed doors be­cause hoi pol­loi just wouldn’t un­der­stand. I mean, yes, some­times peo­ple wouldn’t un­der­stand! I get it. There do ex­ist peo­ple who will be offended by my hon­est opinion (god knows), or who liter­ally aren’t bright enough or knowl­edge­able enough to con­tribute to a dis­cus­sion. I un­der­stand why it’s eas­ier to talk in pri­vate with peo­ple who are already more-or-less on the same page. But still…there’s a pat­tern that gives me the willies. It’s “elites get to know what’s go­ing on, ran­dos are kept out of the loop,” and even when some­body says that I qual­ify as an elite, not a rando, it still both­ers me, be­cause I’m much more com­fortable hav­ing rights than be­ing fa­vored.

This is part of what gives me a bad feel­ing about the dis­course around “de­mon threads” (that is: big, ad­dic­tive, in­ter­net de­bates) and in praise of “tak­ing things pri­vate“, where ten­sions will be eas­ier to de­fuse. There are real costs to ac­rimo­nious de­bate, in time and emo­tional en­ergy, and I ap­pre­ci­ate that peo­ple are try­ing to find ways to re­duce those costs. But I feel ner­vous about any­thing that looks like it’s try­ing to sweep real con­flicts un­der the rug. It’s like “don’t fight in front of the chil­dren” — ex­cept that in this case the mem­bers of the pub­lic are be­ing placed in the role of “the chil­dren,” whether or not we want to be.

I oc­ca­sion­ally find my­self in situ­a­tions where I feel I’m be­ing asked to take a sort of Straus­sian stance — if you want to get im­por­tant things done, you can’t be to­tally trans­par­ent about what you’re do­ing, be­cause the gen­eral pub­lic will stop you. I’m not sure these peo­ple are wrong. But I re­ally hope they are. I have a bad feel­ing about main­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion asym­me­tries as a gen­eral policy. I have a dan­ger­ous tem­per­a­men­tal temp­ta­tion to­wards con­ceal­ment — it’s just “minor” stuff like try­ing to hide my failures, but in the long run, that’s nei­ther eth­i­cal nor prac­ti­cal — so I’ve de­vel­oped a counter-ten­dency to­wards trans­parency, as a sort of par­tial safe­guard. If I tell peo­ple what I’m up to, early and of­ten, I can’t slip down the road of dishon­esty.

Ther­a­peu­tic Lan­guage: Another Flawed Solution

Peace is good, all things be­ing equal. Fight­ing hurts. And many fights are un­nec­es­sary, borne of mi­s­un­der­stand­ing more than ac­tual dis­agree­ment. I’ve seen this a lot first­hand. It’s much more likely that some­one liter­ally doesn’t com­pre­hend your idea than that they op­pose it.

And one of the most com­mon types of mi­s­un­der­stand­ing is when peo­ple falsely as­sume you are damn­ing them as a per­son. This is some­thing I learned from Mal­colm Ocean, who gave me the first re­ally clear ex­pla­na­tion I ever got as to what peo­ple are do­ing when they use NVC or Cir­cling lan­guage or other types of very care­ful and man­nered speech to avoid the per­cep­tion of blame or judg­ment. Surely, I asked him, some­times you do need to judge? To dis­t­in­guish be­tween good and bad be­hav­ior? To en­force norms?

After a while, we came up with this anal­ogy:

There’s a differ­ence be­tween say­ing “You’re fired” and “You’re fired, and also fuck you.”

In the course of life, one ab­solutely does have to say things like “you’re fired.” Or “you can’t be­have like that in this space”, “this work does not merit pub­li­ca­tion”, or “I don’t want to go on a date with you.” In other words, draw­ing bound­aries is nec­es­sary for life. But draw­ing bound­aries doesn’t always have to in­volve damn­ing some­one, as though send­ing them to Hell, ut­terly con­demn­ing their es­sen­tial be­ing. (What Madeleine l’En­gle would call X-ing.) One can fire a per­son from a job, or re­ject their manuscript, or turn them down ro­man­ti­cally, with­out say­ing it is bad that you ex­ist and you should hate your­self. One can even, I be­lieve, con­vict some­one of a crime, or kill them in self-defense, with­out damn­ing them, while wish­ing that they had not done the thing that forced you to draw an ex­tremely se­vere bound­ary.

Boundaries are nec­es­sary; self-defense is nec­es­sary; damn­ing peo­ple might not be nec­es­sary, and I’m in­clined to be­lieve it isn’t.

And yet, peo­ple do damn each other, very fre­quently; and even more fre­quently, as a re­sult of these bad ex­pe­riences, they as­sume they’re be­ing damned when they’re merely be­ing crit­i­cized. “You did a thing with nega­tive con­se­quences” gets read as “your essence is stained, you are a Ter­rible Per­son, it’s time to hate your­self.” So, as an im­perfect at­tempt to fore­stall these mi­s­un­der­stand­ings, peo­ple have de­vel­oped these ex­tremely ar­tifi­cial lo­cu­tions that, yes, make you sound like a ther­a­pist, and, yes, aren’t as nat­u­ral as just speak­ing in plain lan­guage. But the hope is that they cre­ate enough dis­tance to al­low peo­ple to avoid im­me­di­ately jump­ing to the con­clu­sion that you’re ac­cus­ing them of be­ing Gen­er­ally Ter­rible and Wor­thy of Eter­nal Hel­lfire.

Of course, the hu­man mind be­ing de­vi­ous and wily at figur­ing out how to make us mis­er­able, it’s pos­si­ble to be eas­ily set off by ther­a­peu­tic lan­guage it­self! It turns out I have such a sen­si­tivity. “You’re in­sinu­at­ing that I’m hav­ing bad feel­ings — this means you’re say­ing that I’m Weak and Can’t Hack It and need Spe­cial Treat­ment — which means you’re call­ing me Gen­er­ally Ter­rible! Screw you!” (This isn’t com­pletely ir­ra­tional; it is the ap­pro­pri­ate norm for situ­a­tions like work or school, where hid­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal pain is ex­pected and where peo­ple are pe­nal­ized for failing to do so.)

Now, of course, I do have bad feel­ings some­times, be­ing a hu­man. And, a lot of the time, the per­son us­ing ther­a­peu­tic lan­guage is try­ing to deal pro­duc­tively with that fact of the mat­ter, rather than con­demn­ing me for it — they’ve moved on to Step 2, What Do We Do Now, while I’m still on Step 1, Is Sarah Ter­rible Y/​N?

But you re­ally can’t have good con­ver­sa­tions while any­one’s still on Step 1. If you haven’t yet re­solved “Do You Think I’m Ter­rible?” with a re­sound­ing “No,” then ev­ery other con­ver­sa­tion that’s nom­i­nally about some topic will ac­tu­ally be about the vi­tal is­sue of Do You Think I’m Ter­rible?

And, be­cause the hu­man mind is de­vi­ous, Step 1 doesn’t stay re­solved; you have to keep reaf­firm­ing it, be­cause peo­ple will for­get. You have to put what seems like a colos­sal amount of un­sub­tle effort into say­ing “I like you and I think you’re good” in or­der to keep dis­cus­sions from be­com­ing about “I’m good and not ter­rible! See, I’ll prove it!”

I have not mas­tered this art, or even close, but I ba­si­cally agree with the need for it.

I have to­tally ob­served peo­ple be­ing blunt and ir­rev­er­ent with­out hurt­ing oth­ers’ feel­ings and while get­ting very pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sions done — but I think what’s go­ing on is not that these peo­ple don’t val­i­date each other, but that they val­i­date each other very well through differ­ent means than ther­a­peu­tic lan­guage. Some peo­ple can get away with speak­ing styles that are very “offen­sive” by con­ven­tional stan­dards, but that’s be­cause they also show deep af­fec­tion and re­gard for the peo­ple they’re talk­ing to.

I think there are peo­ple who are more ro­bust than oth­ers at in­de­pen­dently main­tain­ing a sense that they’re Okay and Good and Liked and Valid (and that’s great!) but I don’t think this in any way dis­proves the need for val­i­da­tion, any more than the ex­is­tence of plants proves that or­ganisms don’t need chem­i­cal en­ergy.

No­body (Ex­actly) Agrees With You

I’ve been strug­gling a bunch with the fact that peo­ple seem to dis­agree frac­tally and at ev­ery turn. It’s re­ally, re­ally hard to get ex­act al­ign­ment on wor­ld­views and de­sires, to the point that I’m be­gin­ning to doubt it’s pos­si­ble. I see some­one who seems to see part of the world the same way I do, and I go “can we talk? can we be buds? can we be twin­sies? are we on the same team?” and then I re­al­ize “oh, no, out­side of this tiny lit­tle area, they…re­ally don’t agree with me at all. Dam­mit.”

It would be nice to have some­one to talk to who was ba­si­cally the same per­son as you, right? Some­one you could just melt into, the way all of hu­man­ity melted into a sin­gle sea of neon-or­ange thought-fluid in that anime.

But, in my ex­pe­rience, that just keeps not hap­pen­ing. Friend­ship and mu­tual re­spect, sure, I’m very for­tu­nate to have lots of that; but merg­ing doesn’t hap­pen. There’s always me, or the other per­son, say­ing “no, not ex­actly” in­stead of “yes, and”.

Is it just that I’m un­usual? Surely peo­ple who build move­ments get peo­ple to agree with each other?

The thing is, I’m start­ing to sus­pect they don’t. I re­cently went to TEDWomen, and saw a bunch of talks about ac­tivism and or­ga­niz­ing, in­clud­ing by such lu­mi­nar­ies as Dolores Huerta and Mar­ian Wright Edel­man. And here are some take­aways I got from them:

  • Ac­tivists view the main goal as fight­ing ap­a­thy, that is, get­ting peo­ple to par­ti­ci­pate, liter­ally ac­ti­vat­ing peo­ple. Get­ting peo­ple to show up to vote or show up to a protest or to raise is­sues in con­ver­sa­tions.

  • Every­body in a coal­i­tion sup­ports ev­ery­body else. It’s very “all for one and one for all.” They ex­plic­itly talk about how you shouldn’t al­low any­one to frame things as “the en­vi­ron­ment” vs “women’s is­sues” vs “la­bor is­sues” vs “im­mi­gra­tion” — ev­ery­one’s en­couraged to push for ev­ery­one’s agenda to­gether, for ev­ery sub-group in the pro­gres­sive coal­i­tion.

  • Ac­tivists en­dorse be­ing moved more by in­di­vi­d­ual sto­ries and art and emo­tional ap­peals than by facts and figures. They don’t just talk about how “emo­tional ap­peals work bet­ter on the pub­lic” but they talk about how emo­tional ap­peals and per­sonal con­nec­tions work on them­selves.

If you think of ev­ery­body’s be­liefs as a for­est of trees, where con­se­quences branch out from premises, then “try­ing to get agree­ment” is build­ing trees as big as they can get and try­ing to hash out what’s go­ing on when two peo­ple’s trees differ. What seems to be go­ing on in an ac­tivist frame is not build­ing out the trees very big at all, only get­ting agree­ment on rather ba­sic things like “chil­dren shouldn’t live in poverty” and try­ing to move straight to vot­ing and fundrais­ing and other ob­ject-level ac­tions, with­out re­ally hash­ing out in much de­tail “ok, what ways of avoid­ing child poverty are effec­tive and/​or morally ac­cept­able?” They rec­og­nize that get­ting peo­ple to par­ti­ci­pate at all is difficult (in my shoes, they would have in­vested a lot more effort in get­ting peo­ple to show up to the event), and they don’t seem to even try to get peo­ple to agree in a deep sense, to agree on world-mod­els and gen­eral prin­ci­ples and moral foun­da­tions.

Just be­cause ev­ery­one is shout­ing the same slo­gan doesn’t mean they re­ally agree with each other. They agree on the slo­gan. It might mean differ­ent things to differ­ent peo­ple. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, but it’s worth be­ing aware that it isn’t true unity.

The Greek for “with one ac­cord” is ὁμοθυμαδόν, which ap­pears fre­quently in the New Tes­ta­ment; it means liter­ally “same pas­sion” or “same spirit”, the seat of courage and emo­tion that lives in the heart. “Una­n­im­ity” is an ex­act trans­la­tion into Latin — “one spirit.” You can have large groups of peo­ple who feel the same, who are filled with the same pas­sion. It is much harder for all those peo­ple to have the same be­lief struc­ture, to stay on the same page on the nitty-gritty de­tails. Just get­ting groups of peo­ple to “weak una­n­im­ity,” namely, ac­tive par­ti­ci­pa­tion, good will, and agree­ment on ideal goals, is a challeng­ing full-time job by it­self — and it doesn’t even touch get­ting wor­ld­view al­ign­ment.

The Cost of Complaint

One weird and maybe triv­ial thing that’s been nag­ging at me is try­ing to get a han­dle on the un­der­ly­ing wor­ld­view ex­pressed by the In­cred­ibles movies. Yeah, it’s pop cul­ture, but there’s clearly an at­tempt to com­mu­ni­cate a moral, and it’s a weird one.

Sure, there’s the in­spiring, defi­ant pro-su­per­hero note of “peo­ple shouldn’t be pres­sured to hide their ex­cel­lence”, which of­ten gets la­beled Ran­dian (but could just as eas­ily be Niet­zchean or Har­ri­son Berg­eron-es­que).

But it gets weird when you look at the villains. The villains of both movies are ge­nius tech­nol­o­gists. Syn­drome, the villain of the first movie, is a bit­ter, pim­pled male nerd, re­sent­ful of su­per­heroes’ ele­vated sta­tus, who wants to provide tech­nol­ogy to give ev­ery­one su­per­pow­ers. Eve­lyn Deaver, the villain of the sec­ond movie, is a bit­ter, ur­bane, wor­ldly fem­i­nist, a tech­nol­o­gist who dis­likes the way tech­nol­ogy has “dumbed down” its users, re­sent­ful of the pub­lic’s pas­sive re­li­ance on screens and su­per­heroes. For plot rea­sons, of course, both su­pervillains pull dan­ger­ous stunts that put the pub­lic at risk, and need to be stopped by the su­per­heroes. But their mo­ti­va­tions are ac­tu­ally em­pow­er­ing hu­man­ity, weirdly enough. Syn­drome is, effec­tively, a tran­shu­man­ist, while Eve­lyn is an “eth­i­cal techie” type rem­i­nis­cent of the peo­ple at the Cen­ter for Hu­mane Tech­nol­ogy. Their ob­ses­sion is us­ing their tal­ents and hard work to make all peo­ple more self-re­li­ant and ca­pa­ble of greater things — a mis­sion that would ac­tu­ally sit well with Rand or Niet­zsche, and, out­side the world of the films, could eas­ily work as a heroic cause.

What’s wrong with the villains, in the world of The In­cred­ibles, is that they’re grouchy. They’re so­cial crit­ics. They com­plain.

No­tice that, be­fore we know she’s a villain, Eve­lyn tries to get Mrs. In­cred­ible to com­miser­ate about sex­ism; the hero­ine doesn’t take the bait, and points out that Eve­lyn is also stand­ing in her brother’s shadow. Be­fore his villain­ous re­veal, Syn­drome is a whiny kid who wants to be Mr. In­cred­ible’s side­kick. And the ini­tial con­tro­versy that drove su­per­heroes un­der­ground was a suici­dal man who sued Mr. In­cred­ible for sav­ing his life.

Also, no­tice that Brad Bird is tak­ing a very firm stance in fa­vor of op­ti­mism and against gloom, in the In­cred­ibles movies and oth­ers; his movies overtly defend his cre­ative choice to keep things pos­i­tive and brightly col­ored in a world where crit­i­cal ac­claim usu­ally comes in shades of gray. (The an­tag­o­nist in Rata­touille, not ac­ci­den­tally, is a restau­rant critic.) I think it’s re­ally that sim­ple: Brad Bird likes unity and pos­i­tivity, and doesn’t like com­plain­ing. Crit­ics like the New Yorker’s Richard Brody are right to see a threat in the movies — their real en­emy is crit­i­cism.

(If you look at Brad Bird’s ac­tual words, he isn’t any kind of a liber­tar­ian or Ran­dian, and says so; he’s a cen­trist, he’s big on find­ing com­mon ground, stay­ing pos­i­tive, fo­cus­ing on unity, and so on.)

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to talk about the world in­tel­li­gently while re­frain­ing from any com­plaint. Try find­ing a blog to read that never crit­i­cizes so­ciety, from any di­rec­tion. Where you find in­ter­est­ing and ar­tic­u­late peo­ple, you’ll find peo­ple who ex­press dis­satis­fac­tion with things as they are. There’s no prin­ci­pled way to say “hey I think ev­ery­one’s pretty much right,” be­cause peo­ple don’t re­motely agree with each other if you ask about any de­tails at all.

And yet, peo­ple (like Bird, but also like me, and like many) get heart­sick when we’re ex­posed to too much com­plaint or dis­agree­ment. Moods are con­ta­gious, and crit­i­cism is very of­ten de­press­ing, for all we try to tell our­selves that it’s merely an in­tel­lec­tual aware­ness. Some­times I feel like “for god’s sake, World, for once could you give me a so­cial con­text where liter­ally no­body ex­presses dis­like or dis­ap­proval about any­thing? Could we have a Happy Zone please?”

But I’m gen­uinely not sure if that’s pos­si­ble. It may be a fea­ture of lan­guage or logic it­self that it’s hard to talk at all if you re­strict your­self firmly to avoid­ing crit­i­cal speech. I cer­tainly would have a hard time stick­ing strictly to Happy Zone rules.

I don’t have solu­tions here. I’m just try­ing to figure things out. It ought to be pos­si­ble, I think, to de­liber­ate and col­lab­o­rate with peo­ple, al­low­ing “the group” to de­cide, rather than just de­cid­ing what I want in­di­vi­d­u­ally and let­ting peo­ple col­lab­o­rate with me to the ex­tent that it sounds good to them. I know how to be an in­di­vi­d­u­al­ist; I’m try­ing to learn how to also do the col­lec­tive thing, “voice” rather than “exit”. But I’m just stumped by the fact that peo­ple want differ­ent things, and think differ­ent things, and ac­tual, far-reach­ing unity doesn’t seem to ex­ist.