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To Understand Context, Bring Back Earnestness
People have always wanted to explain people, but we haven’t done a very good job. The problem seems to be that people are damn complicated, and you can’t just reduce them to things like status, class, education, etc. even though each of these variables has an effect on behavior.
In an ideal world, we’d want to go to the atomic level—an individual human interaction—and study how variables influence behavior. People have tried using classical science here and it’s not clear that it’s very meaningful, because asking people to act naturally in a laboratory is pretty much the same as trying to get animals to mate in captivity. The subjects are so deeply aware that this is not “normal” that we can only map the boundaries of “laboratory behavior”.
Context is a selector over discourses. When you talk to your parents you take on a role, you decide certain things are on the able for discussion, what kinds of things you need to make sure to say, and a million other micro-mental-muscle contractions that we don’t have the words for because no one has figured out how to talk about them. You do this because you instinctively want to optimize your outcomes, because you’ve been conditioned to act certain ways by the mutual negotiation of a long-term relationship, because you HATE it when dad talks about your ex-girlfriend from high school who he still misses even though he mispronounces her name to this day.
The problem is, if we want to explain human interaction we need to understand context. I have little faith in laboratory science’s ability to do this, but maybe we can turn science on its head: What if we, the human race i.e. the Discourse Total, can explain context by developing language, diagrams, theories to explain these things to each other. Scientific studies trying to explain people inevitably end-up “accidentally” relying on some aspect of folk psychology, leading to infinite possibilities for critical responses. History is even more strongly in this space, as there are so many assumptions about human nature in any serious argument that one would not know where to begin a short critical response.
Instead we should begin by explaining what we observe in our world to each other—but with better memes. All the linguistic devices, causal diagrams, and mental theories will end up being memes if they catch-on and we can study the usage of the meme to study the theory. Negative results will be impossible, but that’s already true for Machine Learning, why should it worry us? When the null hypothesis becomes too complicated to describe, we are dealing with a system that is not susceptible to modern science.
The problem is that memes in the wild are weapons. They delimit social territory, and the more used they are the more people purposefully use them as a reference point, just like a monument on a map. In theory this is good: we want shared reference points. But when the online world has become a memetic war, this provides little hope, because reference points lose all meaning as they inevitably become no man’s land.
One idea would be to have a “safe space” for ideas and discussion. This doesn’t work. Inevitably, that safe space is saturated with a culture of its own, and certain things become taboo. Sometimes that taboo isn’t a given idea, but the idea of not accepting a logical step. Culture is inevitable and we should not shy away it when we try to explain it, any more than we should shy away from water when trying to explain the ocean.
Instead we need to bring back earnestness. To be earnest is to say what you mean with youthful naïveté that allows one to expect a thoughtful response on the other end. In the right circumstances, it works, but it seems those circumstances are harder and harder to maintain, most especially on the internet which is where we can expect people to actually try to cutting across numerous contexts. On the internet people aren’t usually earnest, because the ones who have managed to feel like they “win” are the ones who are sarcastic past reproach, who rely on a background notion of ennui that makes any real opinion impossible.
No matter, we must simply develop a “civil discourse” for addressing cross-cultural intercourse. How? I have mixed feelings about many “rationalist” communities, but I think there is a deep and important skill to be learned from them: the ability to take things at face value if someone says they’re presenting it at face value. What if we could just being message with a standalone capital “C” in order to indicate the need for civility in the following interaction:
I’m wondering if the New York Times purposefully makes both sides hate it, because it’s realized that’s the method for being successful in contemporary media. Border disputes seem to be the most profitable enterprise.
What would happen?
Let’s say at first the people who use this are kind to each other and openly use it to have real and important discussions. Very quickly two things would happen:
Some would attempt to punish earnestness which they see as so repulsive as to be beyond acceptability for any kind of discourse.
Some would purposefully misuse it, and others responding back with good intentions would end up getting burned and feeling cheated.
(1) is actually the reason why I think the word “civility” is so out of fashion these days. On the left it seems to stand for a kind of tacit acceptance of injustices that they view it as standing for on the right. I believe this is a kind of scarymandering where one side imputes the flaws they see into a redefinition of a term that the other side commonly makes use of. But a civil discussion is necessary for a functioning discourse. A civil discussion with cannibals is necessary to interface with their society in a non-violent way and cultural trade and virulent memes are the battleground and weapons that will get you what you want. There are other methods, but this is the path forward in the globalized world we are arriving in, unless we want a much more violent dystopia. I, for one, want no more wars, hot or cold.
But what do we do about (1)? We can do nothing, but make means. Perhaps we will have to meet only in private chatrooms at first, only face the issues publicly that are defendable for the people involved, slowly pushing the limits. Our discussions’ goal should not only be to understand how context creates discourse, but what kind of memes we need to expand this discourse. This is true of all discourses that survive.
(2) isn’t as much of a problem as it seems. Crossing a large narrative gap is not for the faint of heart. If one wants to understand why they don’t belong somewhere, one must be prepared to have one’s beliefs rejected, even in a good and earnest conversation. To have one’s earnestness rejected is also painful, but it is a very similar kind of risk and one that those who would explore how culture is constructed must accept.
What should we dig into in this newly civil discourse?
We need to invent a vocabulary for the operations an individual can make on a discourse and their role in it. When someone says, “Oh, I’m so happy for you!” often they are purposefully removing themselves from the picture, indicating they are happy for you in a general way but not a participant. When someone tells you “Maybe you feel that way.” they are tearing you away from the group you mutually inhabit by an interaction, drawing a boundary in discourses. When you tell them back “But didn’t you say yesterday…” you are not just trying to convince them, you are making a claim at some notion of persistent identity and membership, countering their attempt to cut the space. You could have just as easily asked “Oh? How do you feel about it?” but something—a reaction, an intention, a cultural norm—made you choose your words a certain way.
Describing all the ways this can happen, is the next work of this millenia, barely begun. Developing a framework for conceiving of the problem is our challenge for today, and it must begin in earnest today.