My Struggle With Literalism
All my life I have struggled to communicate effectively. Words are vehicles for structured ambiguity, and I always tried to structure my ambiguity to have tight corners, and grippable exoskeletons, so they could be manipulated and reconsidered with ease. I noticed that the vast majority of people tried to communicate with outlines that would require the other person to give them the benefit of the doubt and, if not given, would give a platform for backing out into generalities.
My parents—gold hearted optimists that they are—cared a lot about the concept of “honesty”. Being a straightforward loner who liked to philosophize and learned to code quite young, this made sense to me. If the information that is manipulated by a program is inaccurate, its result will be inaccurate, I thought to myself.
But people weren’t always honest, including my parents who made a specific principle out of it, and I questioned this endlessly. Why did you say that? We didn’t know it was wrong at the time. Why did you say that? It was just a white lie, which I thought would make things easier for everyone. Why did you say that? That’s what people do in situations like this, everybody knows that.
Warranties confused the hell out of me. My father would open some new gadget and start playing around with it and I would shout at him in a panic, “You haven’t read the warnings! What if it says you shouldn't click that button and you break it—or die!” For a long time he humored me, saying, “Oh you’re right!” and looking over them first. In retrospect, he liked knowing the details of things and said it in a way that he thought made clear how hilarious my panic was. But it was the worst thing he could have done for me, because it kept up the illusion that warranties were meant as honest descriptions, that everyone was trying to communicate as straightforwardly as I thought. Day after day, adults looked at me funny for my specificity, but praised me for trying to make the boxes of meaning straight and legible, because their modernism considered this to be an abstract virtue.
But there was still all the lying. I was not confused that people would lie—it obviously accomplished a lot of things. But people did not lie in the straightforward way that my naïve theory of lying would predict. People didn’t lie about their cool secret lives. Kids didn’t lie about the amazing objects they had at their vacation house that we would never see. Parents only exaggerated how smart their kids were, no straight-up lying as far as I could tell.
And that was the issue: there were exaggerations, white lies, omissions, but it seeped in at the corners. I remarked to my dad once, “The world only works if people round-up, doesn’t it?” He laughed and told me I was right. But what I wanted to ask more than anything, but couldn’t get across meaningfully was: What do people mean when they say things?
I knew that some teachers disagreed with each other’s actions vehemently; I could hear them talking behind each others’ backs. But when speaking to children, if another teacher had made a decision, they would defend it: “I’m sure they made the right call.” So there must be levels of control, and I’m on the bottom; maybe truth only operates horizontally, not vertically in the social space?
Kids did this not just in existing power structures, but to establish coalitions. Elsie would say “Sidney smells like soup.” Amy would say, “I never noticed that…” and depending on who could attract the crowd a group would be formed. I would notice that Sidney smelled like soup that day, but that she didn’t smell like soup ever again, other times I thought to notice. It didn’t matter, because the people who would say, “I had a bowl of Sidney for dinner yesterday,” (and laugh hysterically) ended up bonding with each other. Elsie had created a powerful ritual. I was friends with Amy, who chose to stay in the group and make soup jokes. She very quickly normalized soup jokes, and didn’t seem to remember how this reality had been constructed. Was she being dishonest by neglecting to think about her words and reality? Or was she mostly just being dishonest to my questions?
Of course, the answer is neither. Elsie was learning how to get what she wanted: friends, loyalty, prime-time playdates, prestige, and information. She didn’t have to say it to know it, and in fact she couldn’t say it. But I could only really understand things through language. Wielding the descriptions of truth I built up from hundreds of conversations and random snippets I read I concluded that somewhere along the line people were consciously lying everywhere.
As long back as I can remember, I’ve been hyper-conscious about my thoughts and decisions. I couldn’t forget the story of how things began with Sidney, and I didn’t want to make jokes about it, because it didn’t seem honest. But on the other hand, no one had managed to explain to me what exactly I was allowed to get away with. I was so incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of “getting away” with anything that I would literally shake, trying to use the most useless white lies. I didn’t like this calculus of "pointless" risks. I didn’t like having to think who might call me out, it didn’t seem like a good basis for any kind of society: wouldn’t people just end-up worrying about each others’ thoughts and never build anything real?
Years later, in high school, a friend of mine would suggest that when she becomes a mother she would enforce rules, but secretly be proud when kids found ways around them. I felt terribly bitter hearing that. I wanted to shout at her:
“You better hope that none of your kids are like me. Because if they are, everyday you’re going to be pushing them into a smaller slice of life than everyone else on the planet seems to occupy. You’ll justify it by saying they need to grow a spine, but you’ll never tell them how. They’ll come to you and ask what kind of transgressions are allowed and you’ll give them the most cleaned-up bullshit you can imagine, since that’s just how ‘everyone’ talks about these things. Every passing day they’ll get more depressed, seeing everyone else be free, feeling told to hate the others for their freedom, growing more desperate in the attempt to carve out a life from only publicly allowed goods.”
I saw in that moment of perspective what people had seen in me: a naïve fool who took espoused principles literally. Teachers who had glared at me for turning myself in on some minor rule-breaking and couldn’t figure out why I would act so deeply against my own interests, only to give them paperwork. Teachers who didn’t understand why I raised my hand every time I had the answer, only to be scorned by kids and teachers alike. Teachers who told the class about how I had sent them an email about the spelling mistakes I found on the test. Friends who didn’t understand why I bothered disagreeing with them, when they usually either agreed or said nothing as a means of keeping things positive. Peers who felt awkward when they asked if I was okay and I told them I was depressed. My parents, who didn’t know why I always asked questions I didn’t want to hear the answer to.
No one was willing to say it out loud, somehow. I would pour my heart out to my parents about how difficult it was to tell the truth, that I was being screwed over at every step. They perceived this as a kind of justice that I had invented, and for my part I tried to be proud of it, which seemed like the only role I had the qualifications for.
Except, I loved to observe people. The more I looked at how people acted and my conception of the world I knew something was wrong, something didn’t add up. People were actually terrible at lying when they really believed they were lying. And people would “stick to their words” even when the interpretation other people used was clearly wrong and against the speaker’s interests. Teachers clearly didn’t like it when I tried to follow their advice about how to be a good student, they liked it when I made their job easy. Yet they would grudgingly accept my behavior when I recited their instructions back to them, punishing me with their future behavior for things I didn’t do. I pondered on it, and slowly a deeper cynicism crept into my heart: people are just trying to protect their interests with every word they utter, and that includes being oblique enough to have no attack surface.
One day, an organization came to audit my school. Our math teacher described what they were doing, and how it would improve the quality of teaching. “…and they’ll come multiple times, so even if a teacher has one good day, they’ll be able to see their general effectiveness.” Angela, my crush at the time and a star student, asked “But what if they’re just good when they’re trying to be good for the auditors?” Our teacher pretended not to hear this and answered another question. Angela asked again, and our teacher pretended to not understand and went back to teaching. Finally, Angela got his attention, asked her question, and he replied, "Well, I'm not really worried about that." It started to make sense. People were mutually policing each other in a complex set of structures. Dumb as my literalism had made me, it mirrored people’s public standards of evidence and I finally got it. People felt that no one could “catch” them saying something wrong if it was only loosely implied and a “proper” interpretation could be substituted upon inquiry. (In this case, that teachers are good people and they wouldn't act like good teachers just for auditors.) This is why people didn’t pander infinitely, they were always butting up against a million different restrictions that got more or less intense, based on their proximity to enforcers and specificity regarding certain subjects.
Honeybees can generally only sting humans once: their stinger is barbed and human skin is thick and soft, so the stinger gets pulled out and ruptures the honeybee’s abdomen. Wasp tails are smoother and do not suffer from this issue. But the honeybee can sting the things it was evolutionarily guided to be able to sting, like lizards, as many times as it likes.
I had a problem, because I was a honeybee not a wasp, evolved to structure ambiguity cleanly for an audience that I had little contact with in my childhood. I recognized this, but it made no difference. My heart felt strongly that the point of talking was to be able to discuss ideas, but being stuck with this mindset in conversations where people were not intent on doing so would get me into trouble. And I got into a lot of trouble:
Saying “No.” when asked by my 8th grade science teacher if I thought McCain was a “senile idiot”.
Saying that I didn’t believe the teacher I was talking to could be trusted, when asked why I wasn’t saying more about an incident.
Saying that the square-root of -1 was i and not undefined because we learned about i tomorrow.
It happened again and again, and I saw it coming. I knew what it meant to keep my head down, and everyday I was learning more about the complex system of implicit policing that was holding my local environment together. Yet, in a conversation, when someone would say
“Do you think God is a delusion of cultural evolution?”
I would feel physically uncomfortable saying “No.” even when I knew it would be to my detriment to tell the truth, even when I liked talking to my religious friends, even when I would never bring it up that way if I had the choice. Sometimes I managed to hold my tongue, and I would walk around feeling nauseous for hours. I was set into a way of discourse as open discussion. In college I would write to my philosophy of language professor about the impossibility of an open discourse, and he would ask “who thought this was possible?” Yet, this seems to be the framing of every general discussion of philosophical and scientific principles pretends to take, criticizing the other perspectives of bending to the political will of their time.
I became good at thinking, because I did think like that, and when philosophers started to use sleight of hand in their arguments, I noticed. And when people criticized my thinking for their own purposes, I could still use the grain of truth in their criticism to sharpen my stance. I was constantly brutally honest with myself about the definitions of my concepts, where they came from, and what kind of logical system was needed to put them together. Literalism makes fertile grounds for exploration. Taking things at face value means that the words you use have incredible significance, and you can feel the things they imply viscerally. Everything, even your perception, appears to you as an object. Objects often resist explanation, but they take-up mental space that needs dealing with, and stops you from smoothing over your elegant epistemology with so much fancy linguistic sawdust. Without the ability to be literal, which is a very intense kind of earnestness at its heart, it is difficult to catalogue and describe new things. Implications generally have to point to known objects. Sometimes implications pushing in a new direction consistently can produce new vocabulary (e.g. “crypto” as a community identifier discrete from cryptography), but much of the time, people use a new word in a context that they believe straight-forwardly defines it. For instance “TFW” == “that feeling when” is often described by showing examples that are assumed to be taken at face value.
The downside is that I was ultrasusceptible to memes. If someone said something that seemed within the realm of literal possibility—even if I knew they didn’t have good intentions—it got archived away in my mind. I had to refute it using my own critical thought, instead of just throwing away the source. I was the perfect vector for any thought virus, because I most wanted to figure things out by dialogue with my friends, carrying it forward to everyone I could. I noticed that a number of the ideas I found striking and needed to discuss ended up getting taken up by people, even when I eventually felt I could refute them. People were not very interested in the refutation. I saw that I was causing pickup of things that were striking enough to me to require “dealing with", but which others just found addictive. And I hated it.
So I worked at myself. I pushed parts of my mind into specialized containers, that I can open and close with some pain and effort. They congeal into strange shapes and give me debilitating aches when they try to grow past the barriers I have constructed. I’ve sliced things into different parts of my mind that still try to communicate with each other, and begin to whither in their loneliness. I’ve numbed my reflex to think in ideas, my desire to say what is on my mind, and my ability to empathize with my conversation partner, who too often views these things as exploitable. I’ve gotten used to going home and crying a little bit, instead of trying to say: “Look, there are concepts A, B, and C and if we could all just agree on their definitions then…”
I don’t think there’s any way for me to be very comfortable with these things in general human discourse. I will always be confronted by people who have cultural expectations, where I must suck-in my literalism gut and try not to feel claustrophobic when someone asks a question whose answer is a ceremony that reinforces a cultural “truth”. I will have to hold my tongue at dinner parties when terms go back and forth in their meaning during a guest’s monologue. I can find communities that are more open to my divergences, but the truth is most communities still have their holy writ. It’s an awkward thing in the face of the absolute literalism that courses through my brain.
The most common failure mode in an honest conversation is someone iteratively bringing up new evidence, and me using the same counterargument every time, until at some point they say “You can’t just refute everything with the same argument.” But you can! But you shouldn’t.
I’ve tried to use my literalism to examine the world. I’ve struggled with social games, and yet somehow I have managed to see them, really see their parts, since I was a kid. When I learned the terms “status”, “satisficing”, “loss aversion”, “backchannel”, “Yes and”, and so many others it felt like confirmation that I wasn’t crazy or alone. And there are so many discrete points I can see in the world, that I still haven’t found words for. Past my personal vocabulary, I am still mystified at the ultimate forces and emergent effects that enforce these specific rules. It reminds me of my biology teacher telling me that increased surface area is why cells are so small. I asked, “Why not smaller?” And I ask to you, “Why aren’t lovers more intimate with one another?”
Every socio-political coalition is built on the ritual denying and upholding of its standard. I feel beaten and bruised by my struggle with literalism, yet it carries on because I find myself obsessed with the question: How does this social ecosystem function? Literalists are detectives, and this is a case for the Literalists.