Tag Archives: sociopolitics

Classy Agency

[Epistemic status: still figuring things out. Like most discussion of class or society, this is a somewhat reductive view on categories of people and their thoughts/preferences/behaviors. I’m trying to figure out and point to broad trends, not prescribe what should be, or what has to be, for any given person.]

The relationship between class and agency has been really interesting to poke into as a way of exploring both. I’ve been working on developing a new lens on this in relation to my actions and what perspectives/generators they’re coming from, and it seems to have uncovered some assumptions/blind spots.

Starting to notice what class my actions would signal has lead to a feeling of constraint on what I could actually do to solve problems around me. The explicit version of an inexplicit chain of thought I had today would be something like “If I want to test this brush before I buy it, the obvious thing to do is just lay my jacket out on the floor and test how good it is at getting dust off.” Which totally works, assuming you don’t care what strangers in a store who you’ll probably never meet again think of you.

And that lack of care can be crucial to actually getting things done sometimes. When you boil it down, about a third of what “having agency” ends up requiring in the world includes the willingness to break social norms that others would be too afraid of censure or judgement to breach. This is a big part of why Quest Day is so successful for students at the end of SPARC or ESPR; it creates an atmosphere that gives license to do things that are, in essence, “weird,” such as walking up to strangers and gathering data on unusual questions, putting on an impromptu improv show at a local pub, or asking a cab driver to let you put on a blindfold and get dropped off at a random location.  Weirdness isn’t necessary in many cases where showing agency is what gets something done, but it can’t be an impediment if the thing you’re prioritizing is actually to Do The Thing.

But there are costs to ignoring some Chesterton Fences around others’ comfort that someone blind or uninterested in class or status is much more ready to pay. And this means more than just how people judge you; it includes the comfort of those associated with you. Being able to make that trade can be vital for someone who has no other options in getting something difficult done, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it, if you judge the tradeoff too high.  you can have more than one consideration while prioritizing, and there’s a fine line between determination and tunnel-vision, and if you’re used to doing things with low resources, then you might get stuck in a local maximum when your context has changed.

High class people don’t have this problem, because they operate with fewer constraints, and have socially supported ways of exercising agency. This isn’t to say that all of them do; I’m not actually sure which classes are most or least “agentic,” and maybe the framing itself is still too entangled in what it means to enact your will on the world.

But it seems more clear to me now how, when high class individuals exercise agency, it looks different than what lower or middle class people are used to; primarily, it’s through delegating tasks to others. My friend Lulie made the analogy of limbs as an extension of the self in enacting agency in the world, and obvious though it seems in retrospect, it unlocked a whole cascade of realizations.

Giovanni makes a similar argument in my story at one point, but at the time I wrote it more as a method to achieve difficult goals, not ways-of-being. How well you delegate suddenly doesn’t just seem a matter of efficiency; it’s like an entirely different theory of self.  When you legitimately think of yourself as not just your body, but the resources at your command, your agency is enacted through everyone who does what you want them to, for whatever reason you give them to do it.

From many low or middle-class perspectives, this can look like indolence, sloth, parasitism, etc. Part of this is because being low-resourced develops habits that skew against relying on others, but I think another part is because bodily skills feel intrinsic and heroic, while social skills seem (and in the case of things like money, often are) transferrable, which is bucketed with concepts like “unearned” or “vulnerable.” The average skilled laborer could get dropped naked onto a deserted island and maybe build themselves a shelter, but the average elite raised with a silver spoon would be helpless.

Except that’s clearly a challenge biased toward one set of skills. Social skills may be more contextually fragile, but they’re also immensely more powerful in a world as interconnected as ours; success through skills useful in the state of nature may be a more deep-seated value evaluators, the same way muscles do, but social muscles are no less real for being invisible.

(This is probably in part reinforced by fiction. Heroes (both in life and in stories) use charisma all the time to talk their way out of problems, but most fiction doesn’t turn those sorts of actions into interesting plots resolutions outside of a few narrow situations like rousing speeches or duplicity. This is largely because a) most writers are themselves unused to seeing these dynamics play out, and b) most readers wouldn’t find the challenges of someone in this position as relatable or aspirational. By and large, people want to be rich and socially respected to *avoid* conflict and hardship in life, not to face new types.)

What’s left, then? Well, there’s also general attitude of what agency “looks like” and what it says about the person.

One of the major marks of an “Honor Culture” is that how you’re perceived has actual effects on how you’re treated. The best example of this is what’s considered an appropriate response when someone gets insulted. In most “modern, progressive, civilized” societies, ignoring insults is a sign of maturity and status; it indicates that you’re secure enough in your life and sense of self to be utterly unconcerned by what someone else thinks of you. But in Honor Culture it’s a sign of weakness, because reputation often means as much, if not more, than resources. If being perceived as weak invites attack, then you have to show strength at all times.

Similarly, I think taking action to solve one’s own problems seems intrinsically to be a lower class act by those in the upper classes. For the leisure classes, security is taken for granted, and so any actions taken are at most a hobby or interest, not something you get invested in. In more cut-throat setting, being invested is a sign of vulnerability; if you care about something besides your wealth, you may be willing to trade wealth for it at disproportionate rates.

In addition, not having someone at hand to do something for you could indicate a lack of sufficient security itself. Taking on the task of repairing an out of date automobile is impressive if it’s a choice, but it doesn’t signal competence at anything that “matters,” because the moment you actually need a car to be fixed, it’s almost always a better use of your time to hire someone else to do it for you.

To lower and middle class people, being personally dependable and resourceful in this way is an attractive and admirable trait, but if it is the only way you can get something done, it seems on net a weakness.

This is all still a series of tentative hypotheses, but they feel like the start of a new generator. Meanwhile the class-lens feels much clearer, and the self-reflective part of it feels less restricting; instead it’s more like there’s new space for “me” to stretch into, if I choose to.

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.