Category Archives: Blog

Trauma

There’s a danger mode that society has been engaging in for years (decades/centuries/millenia?) that simply denied trauma. It was ignorant of trauma, or acted as if it didn’t exist, or verbally repudiated it. People were expected to tough out bad things that happened to them. Men especially were not allowed to express it, except (eventually) if it occurred as the result of war.

The pendulum has swung somewhat, and I hear rumblings of worry about whether we’re treating trauma too seriously. If we’re over-correcting and making things out to be more traumatic than they “really are,” and to what degree trauma is the result of people being told that something that happens to them is “traumatic” or is made a big deal of. This second failure mode concerning trauma is the worry that someone will fall off their bike, scrape their knee, and be taken to the hospital amidst parental tears and shock, thus cementing a lifelong fear of bikes or intolerance of pain.

While I think this second failure mode is probably true for things like how offended or outraged people get by things, I don’t think it’s in our sight-lines just yet for “actual trauma.” Over protective parents are a thing, always have been. If a kid falls off their bike, they are much more likely to cry if their parent freaks out. And yes, to some degree how society treats a thing will inform how people react to it. There are some people who are sexually molested or emotionally abused and essentially move on from it without ever telling anyone, or seeking professional help. This is particularly something you’ll hear from people who are older, and grew up before modern perspectives on trauma or awareness of abuse or rape was as prevalent as it is. There’s a fairly famous older man who got in some hot water for saying something like “Well, I was raped a number of times at the male boarding school I went to, and it sucked, but that was just a thing that happened. The older boys would do that often to the younger ones. It wasn’t the end of the world.”

People will look at accounts like this and be somewhat reinforced in believing that the response to traumatic events is moderately, or even largely, to blame for how traumatic it is.

But the thing to remember about trauma is that by its nature it is anti-correlated to reports and disclosures. You will hear more from the people who recovered from traumatic events or were not traumatized by bad events more often than you will those who were. This is axiomatic to what it even means to be traumatized by something vs not.

On top of the other points, like how no two situations are alike, and no two people are alike, and so making a general rule out of anecdotes is dangerous, it’s also hard to think of people who are actually traumatized by the response to a thing versus the thing itself. My experience is that Eddie Kaspbraks are really, really rare in real life, even in less stereotypical, absolute incarnations.

What I do run across instead, and quite often, are stereotypical incarnations of people who have spent years, if not decades, bottling up their trauma and appearing to all observers, even close observers, as if they’re okay, or as if the behaviors that they have that are harmful to themselves or others are just the result of who they are, and not what they’ve gone through, until something comes out and sheds light on dark machinery. Part of that just comes with the territory of my field of work, but even outside of it, that seems to be far more common than the inverse situation.

And when people who go through events others might call traumatizing, but who were not traumatized by it by some combination of factors that are so far unknown, see such people, I worry that their conclusion will be that this is proof that trauma is the result of low willpower or resilience or “grit” or whatever.

The pendulum may well be swinging toward society being too sensitive to traumatic fears and causing more harm than it’s preventing in highlighting bad experiences as “traumatic.” But so far I don’t know that I’ve seen enough evidence to conclude that for sure, and I hope we get better metrics and tools to determine if that’s in fact what’s happening before we start encouraging a narrative that might make those who suffer from trauma feel in some way as if it’s “all in their head,” like society used to.

On the Same Side

Sometimes I think about people, particularly those I disagree with strongly, in a sense of “but would they be on my side, ultimately?” The group of people likely to fight with me on something gets smaller as it goes higher on the list, but usually includes everything below it.

(I’m trying to keep these strictly life or death, or else there’s a ton that can go between them, every cause or injustice in the world that people are mostly like “yeah this sucks we should donate to it” but not “this is so bad would spend my life to end it or die trying”)

Quest to End Death

[Some more stuff probably goes here]

US Civil War II (Electric Boogaloo)

Widescale Terrorist Attack

Zombie/Post-Apocalypse Survival

Time Traveling Nazis (who are bad at using time travel)

Super Happy Alien Invasion

Mindless Evil Alien Invasion

Orson Scott Card

Here are three sentences:

Orson Scott Card is a hateful bigot.

Orson Scott Card has bigoted religious beliefs.

Orson Scott Card has aligned himself with bigots.

To some people, they are all different ways of saying the same thing, or just plain indistinguishable, particularly with an eye to consequences. To others, there is an important distinction about each; not just what they say about the shape of the beliefs themselves, their bedrock, but about the man himself, his epistemology and his values.

OSC is easily in the top 3 most influential writers in my life. Not just in regards to my love of reading or writing, in my life. I first read Ender’s Game when I was 12 and cried at the end of the very first chapter. I cried again at the end of the second. This probably says more about me and my life than the book, but the series as a whole has been powerfully moving and inspiring and motivating for me. I identified with Ender, but after I read Speaker for the Dead, I wanted to be one, an essentially made up profession, embodied by his older self. I would often ask myself “What Would Andrew Do?” and would get back answers that made me a kinder and braver and better person.

I first started looking into his beliefs about a decade ago, confused by the stilted and poorly written political commentary underlying Empire. I was shocked and heartbroken, and only read about a dozen articles and blog posts he’d written on various topics before I turned away from what seemed to be either the onset of dementia or a sad example of how people can calcify with old age. That may seem like a lot, but it’s not my usual deep dive into someone I really want to understand the perspective of with the goal of feeling I can reliably predict their stance on common topics. I gave up before then because, frankly, seeing a hero spout such toxic shit (not just about homosexuality) was painful.

I did the deep dive much more recently after being told that he was a respectable conservative thinker, and sadly, I can’t even give him that. But are any of those statements at the top true?

First, let’s define bigotry. For the purposes of this post, I’ll say “false beliefs about a specific demographic that knowingly disadvantage or cause harm to that demographic.”

To be clear, Card has said many times that he believes homosexuals deserve compassion and respect and safety. I have yet to hear him say anything clearly hateful toward gay individuals or people.

But Card has also said that gay sex is sinful and that not just gay marriage but sex should remain illegal, if for nothing else than to strike fear into the hearts of those who might practice it openly and thus “shake the confidence” of the community in its ability to police harmful behaviors. He has pushed the frame that homosexuality is more environmental than genetic, and linked its origins for many to “seduction,” molestation, and rape. He asserted that children need a mother and father rather than two of one, and has even said, as recently as 2008 after judges began ruling gay marriage bans unconstitutional, “How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”

(No, none of that is made better by context or his justifications. It’s fairly easy to read his own words if you want to find them, and to me the words are clear. If we start to argue that he was being hyperbolic or hypothetical, we’ve stopped arguing about what he actually said and started arguing about what we want him to have meant by his words, and I don’t think that’s a productive line of discussion for someone who is clearly intelligent and articulate, and an accomplished writer who should know better than to be careless with language so repeatedly and in such a consistent pattern.)

((See also, Jordan Peterson))

This presents a seemingly intractable contradiction; how can someone who writes such intelligent and compassionate characters feel so fanatically about something so harmless?

I do not use that word lightly: it is one thing to say that you disagree with gay marriage, it is another to publicly state your position, and then it is yet another entirely to go to the lengths Card has gone to crusade against it. Card is, from a policy perspective, an anti-gay fanatic, shy of actually enacting the violence he insinuated multiple times was justified to “protect families.”

I put that in quotes, by the way, not because I don’t believe that OSC honestly believes that. I know it’s a justification that makes sense in his head. But I don’t think it changes much; if you’ve spoken with bigots at all, they always have justifications for bigotry. It does not transmute “false beliefs about a specific demographic that knowingly disadvantage or cause harm to that demographic” into something else.

Regardless of what he purports to believe about the sinner, he has spent more time and energy fighting this sin specifically than any other I could find save perhaps for Islamic terrorism after 9/11.

That, to me, is indicative of something more than someone holding an honest religious belief and advocating for it. There are, after all, others sins: Card planted his flag on this one, drew a slew of criticism and appeals to his better nature, and kept planting more flags, insisting all the while that he was being maligned and misunderstood.

(Which to some degree he was, but I don’t respect people who only engage with the worst of their critics, and his attitude has repeatedly been one I would characterize as self-righteous bitterness, in much the same way a lot of modern “Intellectual Dark Web” members talk about the “Intolerant Left.” Example: “Faggot” and “Homophobe” are “exactly analogous,” according to Card, and thus anyone who decries one and uses the other is apparently a hypocrite. This by the way is from an article that’s probably Card’s most liberal explanation of his views. Again, context does not help)

So: Why do that? Why accept the role of “villain” to so many without batting an eye? More to the point, why do it specifically to fight homosexuality?

The easy answer is religion, of course. Card would be far from the first bright mind whose rationality seems bizarrely warped by his sincere and unshakable faith, and further, bent to its service. CS Lewis wasn’t just a fiction writer but a prolific Evangelical apologetic who was capable of accepting evolution as a scientific theory, and truly understood what that meant, decades before the Catholic Church could manage to, but still drew a similar line at its implications for human origins. Card has expressed other bizarre beliefs that show a similar warping root, such as his insistence that the Book of Mormon is vanishingly unlikely to be a work of fiction, not by historic or archaeological evidence (fun fact: Card studied archaeology before he gave it up for being “hard work”), but by simple analysis of the text from the lens of one who also writes science fiction.

It’s important to highlight at this point that Card is not what I would consider a particularly rational person. Intelligent, certainly. And he does an amazing job of writing intelligent and rational character in stories.

But the magnitude of the mistake that Card makes in deciding that Mormonism is likely true because he can’t imagine that someone could write the Book of Mormon, structurally and stylistically and in richness of content, as a hoax… is so irrational I would call it hostile to rationality. It’s turning 180 degrees away from not just evidence, but reason as basic as Occam’s Razor and as complex as Bayesian Probability, to bend reality around what he wants to be true.

He shows similar irrationality with things like Anthropogenic Climate Change as recently as 2007, demonstrating not just stark ignorance of the scientific mechanisms and decades of research, but that he takes his news about those he disagrees with by their political enemies: his points were not original, but canned and labeled by conservative pundits and anti-global warming “news” sites. He showed a way of thinking that makes it clear that his epistemology is not grounded in truth seeking, but political considerations. He does not see those sounding the alarm over ACC as honestly mistaken: he sees them as conniving and dishonestly motivated, and writes a narrative that appeases that outcome rather than one that fits the facts or context or history.

So while religion is a tempting answer to Card’s efforts to bend reason over backwards to justify beliefs that primarily disadvantage homosexuals, there are plenty of Mormons and ex-Mormons who rejected such things, and it just doesn’t seem sufficient to answer the question of whether Card is a bigot, or just holds bigoted religious beliefs, or is just pinching his nose while standing aligned with bigots for the sake of strong personal conviction of what’s True and Right.

Still, if you truly believe that your faith is right and you want to act out its tenets, and that those others of your faith who disagree are just misled or hypocritical, then the Good and Brave thing to do is plant your feet and tell the world “No, you move.

Right?

Weeell…

There’s another problem with blaming his religion. I’ve been saying bigotry all this time, both because “homophobic” has other connotations, and I don’t think this question can only be applied to homosexuality, sadly.

Mormonism is historically an explicitly racist religion which barred African Americans from full participation until 1978 (when Card was 27), which is about when God apparently realized that being tax-exempt might be more important than preventing interracial marriage or black priests.

And I can’t for the life of me find where Card came out against that, or talked about the church’s racist views. If someone can find an article on it, please send it to me: it could be a crux for this next part.

Because remember, that’s his justification for being against homosexuality: you “can’t serve two masters.” If God says X, you don’t try to insist that it’s genetic or that the law of the land says it’s okay, you either accept God’s word or you don’t.

So what were Card’s views on black Mormons? What are they now? Because gay marriage is legal now, but in a world where tax-exempt status for religions relied on willingness to perform gay marriages, I wonder if he would accept God’s about-face.

The world may never know. But I surely wonder, because Card’s views on Obama’s presidency reek of a similar and startling fervency to his crusade against gay marriage that makes me uneasy.

I should note first that I find accusations that any criticism of Obama are racist to be tiring and dangerous. There’s a lot you could criticize Obama for: expansion of the spy state, excessive use of drone strikes, not protecting whistleblowers, failing in his promise of transparency, too many executive orders, unwillingness to compromise with Republicans (if you’re conservative), attempting to compromise too much (if you’re liberal), and so on.

But I know racists who criticize Obama, and I know people-I-have-no-reason-to-believe-are-racist who criticize Obama, and there’s a pattern I’ve noticed in the former. While Card doesn’t quite fit that pattern, and breaks from it entirely in some places, he made one that seems to run parallel to it in other places.

In 2012, Card made the rare step of admitting that a politician he disagreed with as fervently as possible, Obama, is a better person than the one whose policies he supported, Gingrich. That’s ridiculously uncommon. He also claimed in 2008 that he voted for Obama in the Primary, though ultimately he ended up supporting McCain because Obama was seen as soft on Islamic Extremism (a view Card continued to hold even after Bin Laden was killed) and his fear of “dictator-judges.”

And then he wrote Unlikely Events, where, in regards to foreign policy, Obama is called “the dumbest president in history” not 5 years after Bush left office. You know, the guy who started the worst military blunder since the Vietnam war with no exit plan and caused massive instability in the region. No, it’s not better that Card named white guys who have never held office as runnerups; somehow it’s still America’s first black president who has that honor.

Do I think he would have said that if Obama wasn’t black?

Do I think he would say that “Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator” if Obama wasn’t black?

Do I think he would “imagine” (all in good fun, of course, haha, it’s just me Card the kooky science fiction writer imagining things that definitely won’t happen the way we science fiction writers do) Obama turning “young out-of-work urban men” into a national police force to maintain his dictatorship if Obama wasn’t black?

Or that he would say “Having been anointed from the start of his career because he was that magical combination — a black man who talks like a white man (that’s what they mean by calling him “articulate” and a “great speaker”) — he has never had to work for a living, and he has never had to struggle to accomplish goals. He despises ordinary people, is hostile to any religion that doesn’t have Obama as its deity, and his contempt for the military is complete.” if not?

…I really don’t think he would. That level of unhinged-from-reality means those false beliefs have to come from somewhere, and maybe he’s just really, really bad at filtering truth from lies and misinformation, like with ACC, and so if Obama was white the general criticism of Obama would be less unhinged and the pundits Card follows and their views of his policies would be less divorced from reality. But also maybe it’s easier for him not to filter unflattering lies about Obama than Bush for some reason.

(Counter-evidence: Card has, thankfully, been a steady critic of Trump, calling him dictatorial as well. But as far as I know, he has not apologized for or amended his views of Obama in light of what the real deal looks like.)

Part of me is asking myself right now, “Hey now, despite insisting he’s a Democrat, he very clearly holds a lot of conservative views. Isn’t extreme and undeserved hatred of Obama just part of standard conservative dogma?”

And another part of me responds, “Yes. And your point is?”

My mom is a racist. I love her, but she is. She’s not often a hateful racist. She has minority friends. I’m pretty sure she voted for Obama.

But she’s still a racist who believes certain ethnicities are intrinsically better or worse at certain things, who is quicker to attribute negative features to someone’s race if they’re not white, and who holds all sorts of prejudices both big and small. It’s a sad cultural feature of many in her generation, and seems even more prevalent for those who are even older… like Card is.
So, just on priors, what are the odds that Card avoided that cultural and generational feature? Would 50% be fair? Just from my observations of my parents’ generation, way too generous. 20% feels closer to right, and still may be generous.

All I know is that his attitude toward Obama, which is wildly out of scope in its criticism compared to the reality of what Obama’s presidency entailed (like most conservatives), strikes me as suspicious in the same way as when my mom told me I couldn’t sleep over my black neighbor’s house when I was 8 because he “lives too far” struck me as suspicious, given that “too far” in this case was a walk of less than a minute within the same gated community.

She was always friendly to him when he was around. I genuinely think she held no hate in her heart toward him. That didn’t change the fact that her perspective is racist, the same way her blatant preference for white residents years later while on the HOA for the community was racist.

So. Do I really think the man who wrote Alvin Maker is a racist? The man who wrote Magic Street?

I don’t think so. Not by most definitions of that word. Again, he has not said anything explicitly racist, and has written against the evils of racism. But there are suspicious underlying failures in thinking, which can collectively be called prejudices, that I can’t ignore. He doesn’t do well based on priors, and together with the way he pattern matches onto people I know who have stronger-than-average prejudice, the underlying irrationality that Card has shown himself more than capable of can include racism.

Alright, let’s look at these again.

Is Card a hateful bigot?

Insofar as that word denotes hatred or disgust, I don’t think so. Being so vociferously anti-gay marriage, like being disproportionately inclined to think the worst of Obama, is mild evidence for hatred or disgust, but not strong evidence.

Does Card hold bigoted religious beliefs?

Undoubtedly. Justifications do not excuse bigotry; the fact that his honest faith tells him that homosexuality is a sin does not absolve him of responsibility for the actions of that belief. Someone who shoots an abortion doctor is still a murderer, no matter how good their intentions or true their belief. Just so, someone who argues for inequality on religious grounds is still espousing bigotry.

Does Card align himself with bigots?

In many ways, yes. He fought the same fight with the same goals. He argued against hatred or violence, but he still worked to deprive gay men and women of equal rights, and stayed in and supported the Mormon church for years despite its racism.

To someone who faces oppression, these questions are academic at best and disingenuous at worst. I understand that from the person getting hit, the intentions don’t matter. I don’t say “most Trump supporters are racist” because I don’t think it’s true, but I don’t nitpick friends who say it because “most Trump supporters don’t care sufficiently about racism to let it influence their vote” looks and feels close enough.

But I think it’s important to note that, while hatred is about values, prejudice is ultimately built on poor thinking. One can be solved by education, another can’t.

Unless, of course, the value of Truth is too low on the hierarchy. There’s a chance that Truth just doesn’t matter overly much to Card. He has too many beliefs that come not just from the land of ignorance but of falsehood. When that includes religion and poorly fact-checked conservative websites, neither of which are particularly known for their tolerance or promotion of real equality, again, it seems hard to care about the difference.

Card is not, ultimately, a simple person who can easily be put into a box. I don’t think he’s an evil person. I think he’s genuinely disgusted by overt or even covert bigotry, and insofar as he was cheering on homophobes fighting gay marriage, he did it with a fervent wish that they would be more compassionate and kind. In my list of grand alliances, I think he ends up pretty high.

But at the end of the day, when I think of what’s more appropriate for a situation, conflict theory vs mistake theory, what I tend to think of is how tractable the disagreement is, and what the consequences of someone’s beliefs and actions are.

For conflict vs mistake theory, Card does not seem simply mistaken. He doesn’t act like he seeks Truth. He acts as though he is fighting a war, to preserve Mormonism, Americanism, Life, Liberty, etc… but sort of in that order? Where each value is colored by the one preceding it, and I can see him holding evidence in his hand that Mormonism was made up or that ACC is true or that Bush lied about WMDs and just tossing it in the trash.

And for consequences, at the end of the day, giving him as much agency as I want others to give me, Card has now spent decades seeing his words hurt people he insisted he held no animosity toward, for no reason and to no gain other than the strength of his conviction and faith… and he stayed the course until the bitter end, moderating his language only when his side lost. He could have put in the hard effort of looking his belief in the eyes and judging, as a being of reason, whether it was justified or just caused pain. He could have “evolved” on homosexuality as many do, like Obama ostensibly did. He chose not to.

I don’t respect that. More importantly, I don’t think it’s what Andrew would have done.

My feelings for Card used to be complicated. Now they’re just a little sad and a lot disappointed. Maybe someday before he dies he’ll recognize his mistakes and not go down in history with such a tarnished legacy. I hope so.

But thankfully, art and man are separate. Thankfully, truth doesn’t belong in a person, and someone can stumble onto it even when a little lost. I can look at the wisdom of many of his books and characters and draw from them, without being bothered by the contradictions and irrationality, if maybe not quite bigotry, in the man himself.

Arguing with Adults

This is a quick summary and mash-up of the sorts of things I often tell kids about arguing with adults, particularly their parents and sometimes their teachers.
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Quick disclaimer, a lot of what I’m talking about here is using generalized assumptions, like that your parents are mostly responsible adults, and love you, and have some sense of fairness, and are not suffering from mental illness, and are not in some altered state of mind due to drugs or alcohol. This may not be the case for all of you all the time, and I’m sorry about that. For those of you it does apply to, try not to lose sight of how lucky that makes you. It doesn’t always seem like much, but it at least might allow some of this advice to come in handy.
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Before talking about how to win arguments, it’s vital to understand power imbalances and learning to lose. When you learn self-defense, one of the first things they teach is learning when not to fight at all. If you take a martial arts course so you can go around beating people up, you’re going to get in trouble one way or another. Similarly, you have to be capable of recognizing arguments that are winnable and those that are not, so you can pick your battles.
Your parents have power in your house, and you don’t. Your teachers have power at school, and you don’t. That means sometimes you have to be ready to lose an argument, even if it means admitting to and apologizing for something that wasn’t entirely your fault, or being the bigger person and apologizing first even when it’s not fair. When you’re older and driving, and a cop pulls you over and tells you you were speeding when you know you didn’t speed, would you argue with them? What do you think would happen next? Arguing with adults as a child can be similar. This does not mean you should not have any pride, or just always admit to things you didn’t do to avoid arguments. It just means that sometimes the real time to fight is later.
If you forget that you’re arguing with someone who has more power than you, you’re more likely to say or do things that will get you in trouble. On the other hand, if you learn to pick your battles, you can earn trust by admitting defeat on things, which will be important in arguments that you can potentially win. Kids who always drag every argument out no matter how many times their parent says “no” quickly lose the impact of fighting hard for something when it really matters and might make a difference.
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An extension of that is situational awareness, particularly of status imbalances. Parents and teachers don’t just have more power than you, they also demonstrate status differences that are socially reinforced between adults and children in general. If you’re not polite or don’t show respect, even if you have a good reason not to, adults will often get more upset with you than they would if another adult did the same thing.
This is especially true if other adults or children are present: if you are rude to your parents around their friends or while out in public, their embarrassment will often make them more angry with you, and they may feel like they have to be more strict or else be seen as “bad parents.” If you contradict or are rude to your teacher around other students, they may feel as though they have to respond with stronger punishment to show that they are in charge and that the other students have to respect them. Do not forget the social context you’re in when arguing with adults. Try and be polite and respectful, even if you are angry, or you will make arguments even harder to win.
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With those two things in mind, the most important thing to remember when arguing with anyone is different priorities and values. It is almost impossible to win an argument with anyone if you do not understand their perspective, including what they want or care about, and why. When arguing with your parents, you have to recognize that they have different concerns and goals than you do. To use some simple examples and generalize a bit, they want you to be safe, your grades to be high, and your chores to be done, likely in that order. Most parents don’t care how well you do in your video games, or how much you want to spend the weekend with your friends. This is not the same thing as not wanting you to be happy: I didn’t list that above because happiness is hard to measure, while those other things are not.
The point is that their priorities are often skewed toward what they believe is best for you and the family in general, right or wrong, and yours are more often skewed toward what will make you happy. A more severe example is that, compared to how much your parents want to be able to afford the bills, they may care very little how much happier you will be if you get to eat out, or can have those shoes or clothes you want. To reduce conflict and improve your ability to reach compromises or win an argument, it helps a lot when you can demonstrate that you understand what they want and don’t shy away from it just because it is not what you want. Show that you actually can take their priorities seriously, and it can be a lot easier to build up the trust needed to convince them to give you leeway sometimes.
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You will almost always be entering an argument with reputation. You are going to be judged by what you’ve done or failed to do in the past. More, you will often be judged by what they believe you’ve done or failed to do in the past, regardless of whether you argue that they’re wrong. And even more than that, you may be judged by what your siblings or classmates have done, mistrusted by association. It’s not unheard of to be judged by what complete strangers do that your parents heard about and are now worried you will do.
All of which sucks. But the one thing you have control over is your behavior, and how well you have earned trust on your own. I can’t promise that everyone will always care about this, but I have often seen how much arguing with bad reputation is like fighting on quicksand. Your behavior sets an expectation of you, and that expectation will either be in your favor or against you. Trust is important in arguments. If you make a habit of saying you’ll do something and then forget to do it, you lose the trust needed to negotiate in future arguments.
So when you’re trying to decide whether to do something or ignore something that will upset someone, particularly your parents, you have to weigh not just the short-term gain you get by doing it, but also the long-term difficulty it will cause you in future conversations and arguments when your parents or teachers are unable to trust you as much as you or they might want.
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Building up all that trust is important, because it’s the cornerstone of any negotiation. This is the actual work of winning an argument with adults. It may not seem like negotiation is the right word for all kinds of arguments, and it may not be for every single one, but you might be surprised by how many arguments ultimately can be described as negotiations, or can be reframed as one to help reach a positive conclusion. Kids often argue with their parents about what they’re allowed to do, or what they want, and if the parent is resistant, it’s usually because they are being asked to give something up or compromise something they want, even if it’s invisible or not a big deal to the kid.
When you ask to stay up late, from their perspective you’re actually asking them to risk your health or ability to get up on time tomorrow morning, to risk an argument and being late to school or them late to work. Even if it’s on a weekend, you’re asking them to let you change your sleep schedule, which may carry over to Monday morning. These are the things you are negotiating for. These considerations are what parents often think about all the time.
You have to have something else to offer in return, and I’m not talking about something like money. It might be extra chores that you offer to do, but you can instead also offer your well-being in other ways. If you’re doing well in school, you have more leeway to say something like “I really need some extra time to relax after this week.” What I’ve observed is that parents are easier to talk into the things their kids want when the kid has good grades, does their chores, and is well behaved in general. This probably seems obvious, but it’s worth reiterating that these are things your parents want for and from you, and so they are what you have to negotiate with.
This also extends to more important arguments about, say, your future career, or your romantic lives, or your religious choices. These are areas where what you want to be happy and what your parents want for you are at odds because of different expectations about the world and different information. Arguments like these, including those about some scientific fact or political belief, can also be framed as a negotiation of sorts: the thing you’re negotiating for is often respect.
Parents want to make sure that you understand and respect their knowledge and experiences and perspective (whether it’s wrong or not), and offering them that respect as best you can, doing your best to make sure you show that you understand where they’re coming from, can often help a lot in such arguments, even if you still end up disagreeing forever. Which is okay too: it’s normal for parents and kids not to agree about everything. There are some arguments that you will never win with your parents, but should never feel the need to lose, either.

(Edit: for those who want more on this, r!Animorphs writer Duncan Sabien, aka TK17, has a video out where he goes even more in depth on the topic. Definitely worth checking out!)

Naiveté

I’ve heard the word “naive” bandied about fairly often in lofty (or not so lofty) philosophical debates, and thrown it around a time or two myself, though I’ve been trying to stop recently.  I started thinking about the word and how it really applies after witnessing an exchange where both parties on opposite sides of an issue called one-another naive.  They clearly weren’t using it in the most common form of “inexperienced” or “gullible.”

Probably the best functional definition of “naive” I can think of is one who believes overmuch in the simplicity of cause and effect. In my experience most of the important and contentious topics are incredibly complex and multilayered, and naivete isn’t simply believing something others tell you without question so much as believing the easiest/most appealing explanation available, despite lack of empirical support or extensive experience in the matter.

(To stave off an invocation of Occam’s Razor: the law of parsimony is about accepting the explanation that fits all the facts while making the least new and unproven assumptions.  When both arguments are based on unproven philosophical tenets or claims that are not easy to verify, neither can be employing Occam’s Razor.)

As an example, here’s a simplified conversation I’ve heard from many different people and been a part of multiple times:

Person A: “All rich people are selfish.  They can never fix problems, because ultimately they’re looking out for themselves.  All the major problems in the world come from the rich hoarding wealth from everyone else.”

Person B: “I don’t think that’s true. It might be harder for an unselfish person to become rich, but there are plenty of selfish people who aren’t wealthy too, who do exactly the same things as the rich, on smaller scales.  It stands to reason they’d do the same thing if they were rich, so the problems aren’t due to rich people’s character: we just notice it more from them because they have so much more influence, so it’s easier to see.  It would take a lot of poor people doing something selfish to match one selfish act of a rich person, but each act might be just as selfish.”

Person A: “You can’t blame the poor for trying to survive in a world that’s hostile to them.”

Person B: “But that’s a matter of circumstance then, not character. By your argument if the rich person was poor, they would be doing the exact same thing due to their circumstance, so there’s no moral classification or blame you can apply to people based on wealth.”

Person A: “That’s because the system itself forces people to be haves or have-nots.  You can’t gain without someone else losing, so the most selfish and ruthless people are the ones who get to the top.”

Person B: “That’s only true in zero-sum economics, not all commerce.  Maybe people who engage in that kind of business are greedier than people who don’t, but there are plenty of corporations who became rich by positive-sum means.”

Person A: “You’re so naive.  Open your eyes and look around you at all the terrible things the wealthy do!”

Person B: “I am, and I see good and bad people in all walks of life, doing good and bad things to everyone. You’re the one who’s naive by thinking in such absolutes!”

So.  Here we have two people who are using “naive” in very clearly distinct ways.  Person A is calling B naive in the sense of “Thinks the world is a better place than it is.”  While this certainly is related to lack of experience or insight in our culture, where the dominant discourse for children is that the world is a good, fair, just place, it’s not laterally translatable: he’s effectively calling Person B an optimist, which Person B may not actually be.  His stance in this situation is considered optimistic only from Person A’s perspective, who is far in the negative side of the Pessimist/Optimist scale.  From the hypothetical Person C’s far positive side of it, Person B’s contentions that not only rich, but also poor people act selfishly, is what marks him as a pessimist, as Person C would say that ascribing negative emotions to people’s actions is assuming the worst.  If B and C were in a debate, B might eventually call C naive in the same way that A called B.

However, when Person B called Person A naive, he was using it in a different way: he was accusing Person A of taking the “easy” route of dividing the world between “Have” and “Have-not,” which can be just another way of saying “Evil” and “Good.”  This is also related to lack of experience or insight, as this kind of moral or sociological dichotomy are prevalent in everything from childhood stories, whose audience is by definition uneducated in complex systems,  to major blockbusters, which still simplify those systems immensely to create easy-to-digest narratives (think of House of Cards, which is cynical and thus believable, but still presents a very simplistic view of government). Person B is criticizing Person A on the simplicity of his beliefs based on lack of information. And this is also much more objective label he’s placing on Person A: that his views are uninformed. That can be verified.  It’s a falsifiable criticism.

Furthermore, it’s hard to do the same to Person A as we did with Person B and imagine someone else on the other side of Person A, making an even simpler proposition that make sense in any way: they could only make a similarly simple but wildly different view, such as that “All poor people are lazy and all rich people are hard workers.” or “God/karma rewards good deeds and punishes bad.”

Simple doesn’t mean wrong, but it does mean easy to believe, and the less someone knows on a topic, the easier it is to convince them of anything about it.  That’s the source of my distrust in simplicity, and why “naive” will always primarily connote a lack of understanding.   Just as one encounter with someone from another culture can give rise to a simplistic stereotype, immersion in that person’s culture, and meeting multiple people from it, gives an understanding of complexity.  The same goes for any job, or hobby, or genre of art.  It’s easy to accept simple beliefs that we have no information or experience on.

The older we get, the more experience and information we have, and the more complex our worldviews become in some respects, while others generally don’t. If my model of how beliefs are formed is correct, the areas of our lives we have experience in give rise to more complex views.  Those that we remain ignorant on, stay simple. People usually don’t realize this, because wildly complex things are often summed up by simple explanations, to make it easier to understand. “Gravity makes things fall down.”  Sounds simple, but the words themselves mean nothing more than “Thor makes lightning in clouds” unless you actually know what “gravity” is, and why “down” is subjectively defined the way it is.  As a child, the words are enough: to someone educated in the fields, astrophysics can be an elaborate and complex lens to view something as simple as a falling apple through.

Just so for debates about social matters, or economics.

Most people will freely admit their naivete in a scientific field unless we’ve studied it extensively, and sometimes even then.  Even deniers of global warming or evolution will not pretend to be experts in physics or astronomy or chemistry. Where there are no implications beyond the field’s purview, people don’t care enough to fool themselves into pretend expertise. As soon as some mathematical theory is shown to have implications that people disagree with, I predict a higher number of people who will pretend expertise in mathematics, or willfully ignore the importance of their lacking such.

Meanwhile, social matters are all about the implications.  It’s hard to find a topic related to people’s behavior or society’s norms that doesn’t bump up against people’s Values in some way. And so people who have never seriously studied anthropology, world history, economics, psychology, government, etc, nevertheless feel confident that their understanding of such topics, simple as they may be, are sufficient to reach correct beliefs.

Acknowledging complexity would directly challenge our surety in the rightness of our Values, and so we do not confront our naivety in these fields because it is far easier to take an assertive stance that makes sense to our Values than to face the uncertainty of a complex world. But that’s exactly what we have to be willing to do if we want to ensure our beliefs are aligned with reality.

Simplicity should be embraced in predictive models that are demonstrated to work, but we should be skeptical of it when debating hypotheses about how the world works.  Being “naive” is considered a bad thing because it makes one easy to fool… including by one’s own preferences and biases.

Disgust and Politics

So, I don’t particularly believe or disbelieve the latest scandalous Trump story about his ties to Russia. I’m waiting on more evidence.

But I find it morbidly amusing that people seem to think some of the weirder details of the report are so important, like him supposedly paying prostitutes to pee on the mattress that Obama would sleep on.

Even for Trump that seems ridiculously pointless and petty, but the thing is, I don’t think any appreciable amount of his supporters would care even if it were true. This is a potential “scandal” in the sense that it would “scandalize” those who already dislike him, while those who voted for him would, at worst, cheer on such behavior, and at best, wrinkle their nose and say “How distasteful, but really, we need to better control our border.”

If the actual ties to Russia are substantiated maybe it would provide Republicans in congress enough cover to start an impeachment process so they could get the ultra-conservative Mike Pence that they really want. But other than that, in terms of how his supporters feel about him, I don’t see it really mattering even if true, given all the other things that have already come out about him.

I recently saw a post on facebook about a line from the great book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.”

A lot’s happened since I first read that paragraph in the book itself, and upon rereading it, my mind reached for an analogy to politics. What it grasped was mostly shapeless, just vague ideas. After thinking about it more since, I don’t think that initial reaching was justified. Politics is nothing like a bowl of cherries with a cockroach in it. Or maybe it is, but the above quote doesn’t apply as cleanly.

To millions of American, the analogy might fit in that there are certain beliefs that are “cockroaches” which poison any given person’s bowl of cherries. Liberals might think a conservative politician is wrong, greedy, ignorant, whatever, but still not consider them “unfit for office” even if they want to dismantle social security. However, if the politician has said anything remotely racist or sexist, to liberals this seems to be a cockroach that should bar them from office, and liberals will often be the loudest to express shock and disgust at conservatives for not feeling similarly. Of course, many conservatives do, but the tolerance point is clearly set at a different place. Many conservatives agree that such views are “clearly wrong,” but they like the politician’s views on on taxes or abortion, so what’s a few cockroaches here and there?

On the other side, (traditionally, recent times seem to have changed things) conservatives might think a liberal politician is stupid, naive, soft, whatever, but really only raise a howl if there’s some type of sex scandal or infidelity, and express shock and disgust that liberals don’t seem to care as much as they do. Again, some liberals do, but again, the tolerance point appears to be set differently, in general. I’ve seen many liberals bemoan the “sex obsessed” culture of politics in the US, and wish for less Puritan views, like those of much of Europe, where presidents can be bachelors, or have mistresses without being demonized. Sure, Bill Clinton may have cheated on his wife with an intern (after all, maybe the two have “an arrangement”), but the economy was great, and we didn’t invade any countries! Aren’t those cherries juicy?

But beyond vague ideas like that, the analogy falls apart. There are too many examples of people who are happy to vote for a bowl of cockroaches, even if only for a single, juicy enough cherry. And since politics in the US often comes down to a choice between two imperfect options, I can understand that. If I had to eat either a bowl of 6 cockroaches and 4 cherries or a bowl of 8 cockroaches and 2 cherries, well, that’s life sometimes.

The only really concerning part is when tribalism rears its ugly head, and cockroaches are called cherries to avoid admitting flaws, or quietly ignored so as to avoid that feeling of dissonance. “What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.”

I feel like if we were all more honest and upfront about where our lines in the dirt are and aren’t, it would help clear up a lot of the conversations and arguments about who we vote for and why. It also might reduce the toxicity and antagonism around political discussions, if people are willing to admit (to themselves as well as others) how imperfect their politicians are, and hold them to a higher standard on both sides.

Then again, that requires us to actually spend time thinking about what we’re really willing to tolerate and why, and that’s a hard thing to do until reality forces particularly strange or distasteful truths and choices upon us.

I Notice That I Am Upset

In Chapter 20 of The Origin of Species, Red uses a mental flowchart to identify why he’s so upset at something Psychic Narud said to him.  People have asked what it’s from, so here is a rough draft of that flowchart in its entirety.  I came up with it as a way to help clients improve awareness of what upsets them and work through why, and you’re welcome to use it as you will.

upset-flowchart

“Safe Spaces” for the Right and Left.

Apparently, Texas students stormed out of a class wherein the professor asserted that humans all descended from Africans.

Texan students storm out after professor says we’re all of African descent

My brain feels wobbly around this, which tells me there’s something more to it that I’m not grasping right.

I’ve always thought of trigger warnings and safe spaces in college campuses as obviously important-if-done-properly, but widely blown out of context and misunderstood and exaggerated by detractors in order to talk down to millennials or find a new avenue to attack “PC culture.” I haven’t been in school for about five years, so it’s never really affected me, but my sympathies have always been vaguely with the people asking for what I consider to be justified uses for triggers (to prepare students for traumatic content in lessons) and safe spaces (to allow discussion of voices that normally self-censor due to fear or anxiety).

This event seems to fit into neither of those. It’s a professor, apparently innocently, relaying facts, and people getting upset and leaving the class as a result of their own political beliefs (as opposed to walking out because the environment was not “safe,” since presumably, no one was heckling people for walking out until they started to do so).

What makes this interesting of course is that the politics of it are flipped around from the stereotypes. So presumably, “PC” liberals would be hypocritical to mock the people walking out, but only if they don’t view trigger warnings and safe spaces as applying the way I described: if they do only consider them as meant for traumatic material or oppressed minorities, then they’re not being hypocritical in mocking people for reacting in a way that they themselves are often mocked for supposedly condoning, since they would consider that mockery to be aimed at a strawman that they are watching occur in real-time, but from the “opposition.” In other words, gleeful mockery at seeing people who normally might make fun of them for doing the exact thing the people leaving the rooms are doing is kind of understandable. Kind of like seeing a bully run home crying to their mother after the bully has repeatedly used the “crybaby” insult on them.

(Whether they’re being rude, or whether it’s the best reaction to have, is a different matter, of course.)

On the flip side of this, there are potentially conservatives who are NOT okay with trigger warnings of any kind, and NOT okay with safe spaces of any kind. Hopefully none of those people are making excuses for the people who walked out (in the interests of not being hypocritical), but if they’re attacking them for being representative of how “PC” and “pampered” college kids are these days, then they’re still strawmanning, because again, the usually proposed uses of trigger warnings and safe spaces would not apply to this circumstance. So once again, I find my sympathies aligning with the liberals ever-so-slightly more than I do the conservatives, assuming no one is being hypocritical (for the hypocrites, obviously, my sympathy is minimal).

Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding what the real use of safe spaces and trigger warnings have been about. Maybe I believe in the “ideals,” but in the trenches of the war these ideas are fighting in, people are pushing for safe spaces for ANY topic, or trigger warnings for ANY topic, that might offend anyone and, as the detractors insist, simply serve as an excuse to further distance themselves from ideas they dislike, and entrench themselves in intellectual bubbles.

I don’t doubt that some people might in fact want that, but I tend to view those who do as in the extremes: maybe that’s a mistake. Since I’m not in the trenches, I don’t know.

But for now, I’m going to hold onto the ideal, and examine this circumstance (at last) through the lens of what I hope might do the most possible good:

Do the people who walked out of this class deserve a “safe space?”

The uncharitable view, of course, is that they simply walked out because they didn’t want to listen to someone talk about things they considered “obviously wrong” or “offensive” to their notions of what humans were, where they came from, and how their religious beliefs and racial identity tied into their ego and sense of self.

So assuming the professor acted professionally, which seems to be the case just from the article, most people I think would say no, on both sides of the aisle. This is, as I said, the classic strawman of this position, made all the more contentious because it’s being actualized by the political culture that tends to most often be against “PC” culture.

But from the perspective of the kids who left, do THEY feel like they had to leave because they were unable to speak their mind free of ridicule or peer pressure?
 
And that, I don’t know. But it’s possible. On most college campuses, even in Texas, conservatives can in fact be a minority that feels “unsafe” airing their political or religious views for fear of the ridicule it’ll bring.

So if I’m being charitable, which I’d like to be, maybe these students really do need a safe space to talk about their beliefs about the origin of mankind without being mocked or feeling pressured into accepting the views of those around them, so they can really articulate what they believe and why, and maybe be more open to having their views challenged and changed.

And of course maybe there was a mix of both such students who walked out of the class. Apparently some stayed behind to argue, in any case.

Ok, the wobblyness has mostly faded, now that I’ve written all that out and feel a bit more secure in what I think and why. If anyone wants to let me know if I’ve missed something, please do.

Confirmation Bias

If confirmation bias had an image, it would be something like this:

How many black dots do you see in there? If you’re like most people. chances are you see 1, maybe 2. Until you move your eyes. And then you see another 1, maybe 2. And the first ones you saw are gone.

There are 12 black dots in that image. At most you can probably only see a fraction of them at a time.   And yet your mind convinces you that it can see the whole image perfectly… so much so that it helpfully fills out the grey intersections where the other dots are, leaving them empty. Don’t mind them. Nothing to see there.

Our minds are so good at pattern recognition they will ignore data about reality to complete the patterns they perceive. And if you’re one of the rare people who can see all 12 at once, don’t worry: there are plenty of other things that will fool you instead.

If your brain can trick you into only seeing one or two of the dots on this image at the same time, you can rest assured it can trick you into thinking you know more than you actually do about data that isn’t even all in front of you at the same time, let alone data that isn’t all the data in the world about that topic.

That’s the trickiest half of confirmation bias. Not just focusing on data that confirms what you believe, but ignoring evidence that goes against what you believe, so thoroughly that something in your mind filters it from your senses or memory before it even reaches “you.”

There’s nothing wrong with having a belief without having all the data concerning it.  We’re imperfect beings, and can’t go through life having 0% confidence in things just because of unknown unknowns.

But believing something isn’t the same as being 100% or even 90% confident that it’s true. You can believe in something and acknowledge that you’re only 70% confident in it, or 53.8% confident, as long as you know of things that would increase or decrease your confidence if brought to your attention.

But most people don’t think that way. They don’t talk about their beliefs in probabilities. Even if they acknowledge that they “might be wrong,” they’re confident that what they think is true. And research has shown people to be overconfident in their beliefs again and again and again.

Thanks to empiricism and reason, we do have good reasons to believe certain scientific and philosophical ideas. They’ve been vigorously tested and used to make correct predictions about the world. They’ve been used to change things in our external, shared reality. It’s okay to be confident in things like “I exist” and “things in the world can be measured.”

But things like political beliefs? Beliefs about people you’ve never met? Beliefs about systems you’ve never studied?

Lower your confidence in all of those. All of them.

When you’ve reached the point where you know what you value (Equality, Justice, Health, etc) but are not quite positive about what the right things to do to achieve the optimal balance of those values in the real world are, you’re a bit closer to understanding what you think you know and why you think you know it.

If you’ve reached solipsism, dial it back. That way lies madness, and insufferable, pointless arguments.

The Power of Guilt

“Sorry is the Kool-Aid of human emotions. It’s what you say when you spill a cup of coffee or throw a gutterball when you’re bowling with the girls in the league. True sorrow is as rare as true love.” -Stephen King

Inside Out was a movie about a young girl named Riley who has five anthropomorphized emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear. The emotions each played an important role in keeping Riley safe and happy, though it took the plot of the movie to teach everyone what function Sadness served: to signal to others that you are not okay, that you are not happy with things as they are, that you need help. Sometimes it’s an emotion that tells you that, so you become motivated to change things.

Surprising as it may be to some, this is not an obvious thing. There are many people who do not understand it, and even understanding it, have trouble integrating it into their behavior and worldview. One group of such people are children or teenagers who experience grief and don’t receive the proper support. They can often act in destructive ways, to themselves and others, until they receive help processing their own emotions and the changes in their lives. Another group are adults who were handed too much responsibility at too young an age, and, later in life, have trouble expressing sadness or hurt. This is especially true when the people causing them distress are simultaneously those that need them to be fine.  Others are adults who were conditioned at a young age against showing any weakness or vulnerability, either as a method to control them or a misguided attempt to strengthen them, and never shook off that conditioning.

Like any emotion, sadness can be overtuned or undertuned to the point of dysfunction. But the reason the movie was valuable is that it shined a spotlight on an emotion many people don’t understand as well as they do Joy or Anger or Fear, an emotion that can make them inherently uncomfortable to talk about or express.

If I were to write the sequel to Inside Out, it would be about Riley growing into a teenager with a host of new emotions, and the focus of the plot would be learning about Guilt.

Like Sadness, Guilt is an emotion that causes discomfort. We actively try to avoid actions that we know will cause it, and subconsciously try to explain our actions or thoughts in a favorable light to assuage it, a process misnomously referred to as “rationalization.”  When Guilt is too active, when people are conditioned to feel it too much from too many things, it can lead to self-flagellation and undeserved repentance that limits growth and makes happiness seem itself a poison.

But without Guilt, we end up with a world of dangerously static people. Guilt, properly felt and understood, leads to change. Guilt, properly acknowledged and reacted to, leads to growth.

What Do I think I Know, and Why Do I Think I Know it?

When I was too young to understand rational justifications for behavior, Guilt was the emotion that led to the most memorable moments of personal growth.  When I was at summer camp we used to throw crab apples at each other for fun. One that I threw accidentally hit a girl near the eye. Her wails led to an intense sensation of guilt that did far more to deter me from repeating the action than any punishments the camp counselors devised. When future games of throwing crab apples commenced, I found something better to do with my time. Well, probably not better, but less likely to hurt others.

That was an accident. Once in elementary school, I hurt someone out of cold, calculated anger. The PE teacher randomly divided us into two teams and sent my group to the field first.  When we switched, I ended up at the back of the line for kicking the ball. Someone had to be there, and that day it was me. It had been a long, hot 30 minute wait to get my turn to kick, and I was counting down the minutes before I knew the bell would ring. Finally, with moments to spare, it was my turn. I positioned myself, watched the bright red ball come bouncing toward me, and just as I prepared myself to kick it, one of my classmates ran in front of me and, laughing like a loon, sent it sailing over the field.

The bell rang before the ball could be returned, and as we walked back toward the school buildings, my eyes locked on the back of the ball-kicker’s head. My “righteous” rage thinned to a laser point, and I strode up to him from behind, tapped his shoulder, and sucker-punched him in the face as hard as I could.

I can’t remember if I got any satisfaction in seeing him curled up on the ground and screaming in pain. I only remember the guilt afterward, as I promised myself I would never do that again.

And I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean I never hurt someone again.

My older brother used to beat me fairly often when we were young. Our relationship got a lot better after I moved out for college, and better still after he left for the military, but while I was young he would hit me for all manner of things, sometimes in frightening rages, other times just as a playful form of expressing annoyance.

It wasn’t until my best friend broke down in tears and told me he wanted me to stop hitting him that I realized I’d adopted my brother’s behavior. Not in anger, just “playful” punches on the arm or slaps upside the head.  It was like someone had shined a light on a dark corner of my mind, illuminating machinery I hadn’t even known was there. I began to cry too, and promised him I would stop. And I did.

I cried again years later while reading Ender’s Game for the first time. “I’m just like Peter,” Ender thinks at the end of the first chapter, crying over the boy he beat.  “Take away my monitor, and I’m just like Peter.” Becoming my older brother was my greatest fear as a child.

Hurting people isn’t the only thing to be guilty about, of course. I used to steal all the time as a child. Magic card packs from toy stores, food from supermarkets. Eventually I got caught, threatened with jail, fingerprinted, and released without a trip to the police station. I felt miserable the whole ride home. My mother’s recriminations stopped at “next time don’t get caught,” but my own continued all the way to my bedroom. While there, I lay on the covers and stared at the ceiling. I knew I had to fight my urge to steal, kill it completely dead, before it landed me in more trouble. So I identified each and every one of the irrational thoughts I’d been repeating to avoid Guilt at stealing, my “rationalizations,” and discarded them.

It’s not fair that we’re poor and can’t afford things. If everyone who was poor stole society would collapse, and I’m not literally starving to death. Discard.

I’m stealing from large stores and national companies, not individuals. They won’t even notice the loss. Individual people work at these stores and rely on them doing well to maintain their job or get better pay. Discard.

I’m very kind and generous to others. It balances out. Helping others does not justify unrelated actions that harm others. Discard.

By the time I left my room that evening, I had resolved never to shoplift again. The community service and special classes I had to attend were superfluous: my desires for self preservation, and guilt over the people I was hurting, were strong enough to fuel change, and I was thankfully rational enough to leverage them into the right changes to my thinking patterns to be effective. The urges to steal were still there, but they were easier to resist every time I did, until they ceased almost completely. I haven’t shoplifted since.

All this isn’t to say I’m perfect. I got into a fight a couple years ago and hurt someone more than was justified by the circumstances. I still occasionally fill my water cup with soda from the fountains at fast food places. Guilt only works as a mechanism for change when it’s genuinely connected to an action, and that disconnect between actions that are intellectually recognized as wrong, but don’t emotionally result in guilt, is what confuses so many people who struggle with change, either in themselves or others.

How Does This Knowledge Help?

Besides the value in understanding guilt’s role in helping us grow, there’s also the value in understanding what its absence in others signals.

In my line of work, and often through my extended social circle, one of the hardest challenges I see people struggle with is emotional abuse. Because it isn’t as overt as physical abuse, and because by its very nature it turns one’s own thoughts and feelings against them, it’s important to understand how valuable guilt is to changing someone’s behavior and helping them grow, so that you can also identify why those that lack guilt, won’t.

Narcissists exist. They can be parents. They can be siblings. They can be friends. Whether it’s due mostly to biology or social factors, this reality has to be confronted and addressed at some point in many people’s lives. Narcissists aren’t sociopaths, or psychopaths. Just people who cannot help but primarily see the world in terms of their own wants and needs. And of course people can fall on a spectrum for narcissism. But those at the extreme end can be frighteningly hard to know how to deal with… especially if they’re someone close to you.

In systemic therapy, all behavior is examined through the system it’s a part of, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. When someone emotionally abuses their spouse, we ask “What is that spouse doing that’s allowing that behavior to continue?” Not because we’re blaming the spouse for being abused, but because everything people do communicates something to those around them, and either reinforces or punishes the actions of those around them. If you can’t make someone want to change (and you often can’t), sometimes you have to change what happens if they don’t.

If there was a quick and simple one-size-fits-all solution to getting people to change negative behaviors, the world would look like a very different place. People are complicated, and different enough from each other that, even with generally applicable incentives and behavior models, finding just the right lever to pull or button to push can be the work of hours of intensive exploration and analysis.

But over time we’ve generally learned what doesn’t work, and that knowledge is worth spreading.  The word “enabling” is tossed around fairly often, and is an important concept to understand when it comes to battling addiction. But people don’t just enable each other’s alcoholism or gambling obsessions. People also enable each other’s selfishness or cruelty, usually because we don’t realize how we’re doing it.

And that’s where the presence or lack of guilt is so important.

Shame is an external form of guilt. If someone is acting selfishly, or callously, or dishonestly, shame done right can shock them into better self-awareness. It’s an extrinsic motivation, an outside incentive that can help lead to change even if the person doesn’t want it. It’s not the ideal mechanism, but it can be a vital starting point.

Unfortunately, as a tool, shame’s natural state is a mallet. It’s hard to wield with the precision necessary to constructively affect behavior. It’s also far too often wielded in the name of ego rather than compassion.

Shaming someone for their religious beliefs (or lack of them), their sexuality, their hobbies or interests, or because they reflect poorly on the shamer, are all done far more often than the “constructive” forms of shaming. It’s this widespread destructiveness that’s given “shame” and “guilt” such negative connotations, where it’s considered wrong by many to impose your beliefs or morals on another’s actions.

Let’s focus on that distinction here:

Destructive shaming frames the issue as outside the person’s control.  It often manifests in contempt, shouting, and belittling. It tends to either incite self-loathing or defensiveness, neither of which lead to positive changes.

Examples: “You always do this. You never do that. Why do you do that? Why are you like that?  Are you lazy/stupid? You’re a horrible person. You’re pathetic.”

Constructive shaming focuses on appeals to the actor’s better nature, and their stated or ostensible values and desires to not harm others. It manifests in frank but calm language, is surrounded by support, and followed by a positive goal.

Examples: “I want to make sure you know how much this is hurting me/them. I know you don’t want that. What do you think might be causing this? Is there anything I can do to help?”

Constructive shaming is not a magic bullet. People who repeatedly act in their own interest at the expense of others, or at the expense of themselves, have spent years learning to “rationalize” and justify their actions, and, at a more advanced level, learn to cycle through self-recrimination as a method of assuaging guilt.

Enablers are often sought out at this point. The guilty party will admit their shameful acts to people who are “safe,” friends or family that they know will offer empty platitudes as support, like “You’re a good person” and “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy.”

Telling someone they’re a good person when they made an honest mistake is helpful. Telling them they’re a good person when they repeatedly do things “good people” don’t is not.

Telling someone they deserve to be happy is important when they keep putting other people’s desires over their own. Telling them they deserve to be happy when they repeatedly put their own desires first at the expense of others is not.

And yet this is what makes up a lot of a friend-group’s or family’s interactions when someone expresses guilt. They want to help. They want to signal support. These are admirable desires, but they have to be measured against history and desired outcomes.

If a friend calls you to berate themselves over cheating on their significant other while simultaneously fishing for support in how unhappy they are with their SO, recognize that distinction between support and enabling.

If a sibling laughs about how they can’t remember their “crazy hijinks” of the night before because of how blackout drunk they got, laugh with them if you want to, but see if that laughter is covering some deeper issue.

People often hide their own concerns for their safety and wellbeing, or their fear of judgement/shame by others, in humor or a casual assurance that everything is fine.  Expressing guilt becomes a form of guilty pleasure, a signal to attract comfort from others, and receiving comfort and absolution from others makes it easier to continue the same behavior.

The first step in changing that behavior is often changing the responses to it. Every part of a system has some affect on the other parts of the system, and if you can’t directly change the behavior of Part A, you can try to alter it through the behavior of Part B, or through the response of Part B through Part C.

The Takeaway

When trying to change your own behavior, lean into guilt. Focus on it, remember it, and ask others to provide the external shaming of your future self if necessary. Don’t let the guilt consume you: use it as strength and motivation to become the best version of yourself.

When trying to change someone else’s behavior… well, that’s where things get complicated. Always try to change people’s behavior through kindness and understanding first. When that fails, “tough love” is sometimes necessary, assuming you have the right relationship with them and temperament to ensure it’s done properly.

But sometimes love isn’t enough.

Idealistic Me wants to believe that everyone can change, when they’re ready and if they have the proper support.  Pragmatic Me recognizes that, time, effort, and resources are limited, and that if someone does not want to change, sacrificing good people’s time and effort and value to enable bad actions is not just irrational, but immoral.

Even the worst human in history might change and grow and become a better person with a thousand years of life to live. Unfortunately, for now we only have a handful of decades to work with, and for many, that’s just not enough.

To make things worse, there are many ways society pressures people to persist in helping those that abuse them and others: “they’re family,” or “true love is unconditional,” or “friends are meant to support each other.”  These too can be the tools of an abuser, to turn someone’s guilt against themselves and keep them trapped in servitude.

For those that cannot be guilted, cannot be shamed, who wear their selfishness on their sleeve or repeatedly promise change without demonstrating it, often hiding behind tears and dramatic acts of attention-seeking self-destruction, the best option is often to simply cut them out like a cancer.

And this is always easier said than done, a bitter path to take, full of its own facets of guilt that need to be examined, acknowledged, and in this case, often discarded.

But that’s another post.

In the meantime, recognize how important guilt is to change your own behavior, when you need to. There’s a certain point where not judging yourself, not beating yourself up over your mistakes, is just as wrong as putting yourself into a self-hate spiral.

Until you can put the behaviors behind you, the ones that make you harm other people, the ones that make you harm yourself, you shouldn’t forgive yourself for the pain you cause.

Become a better person first. Use whatever tools you can, including guilt, to get there. And once you’ve got a handle on it, then forgive your past self, because you’re not that person anymore.

And at the same time, recognize how important a lack of guilt in someone else is as a signal that they’re not ready to change .

Don’t let guilt become a cage you lock yourself in, and don’t let others who lack guilt use your love for them against you. Narcissists and emotional abusers don’t need to trap you in their own dysfunction: they know exactly how to take guilt and make into a prison that you’ll build for yourself, deflecting any shame aimed at them and handing it back to you, brick by brick.