Friday, September 20, 2013

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

I recently decided to get active on Facebook. The groups dealing with economics or politics appeared to have a higher ratio of hostility to content than I was comfortable with, so I have mostly been posting in the SCA groups. I encountered interesting conversations there but also a pattern that I found disturbing—and suspect is not limited to that particular context.

One version takes the form of "it's all a matter of opinion" or similar statements, offered in response to a question about different ways of playing the game. When pushed, the poster seems to be saying that opinions are entirely arbitrary, that there are no reasons relevant to whether (for example) it is better to specialize in things associated with your persona's culture or to ignore that and do whatever in the SCA period seems interesting. 

A different version of what I suspect is the same pattern appears if I offer an argument for doing something—for example, for trying to do things as they were done in period even when the failure to do so will not be obvious to others and so will not interfere with their experience (discussed in an earlier post). Some people respond with arguments agreeing or disagreeing with me. But others respond with some version of "stop attacking me for not doing things your way" or "nobody should try to shove his views down anyone else's throat." It is as if offering reasons for doing something is merely a disguised way of trying to force people to do it, a form of aggression.

These responses suggest an unstated assumption that reason is irrelevant to much of what we do, that there are no good reasons for or against, that decisions such as how to play the SCA game are as arbitrary as opinions about the relevant merits of chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Taken seriously, that seems to imply both that there is no point in conversation about these topics—why should you care what my opinion is if opinions have no basis—and that we might as well make our decisions by flipping coins. I suspect it goes along with a culture that regards "judgmental" as a pejorative term—as if there is no reason for people to make judgements.

The title of this post is a slogan used in fund raising for black colleges, but I think its application is wider than that. There is little point to having a mind if you do not believe it is of any use.

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At 11:38 PM, September 20, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

I like Facebook because it allows me to have a kind of social life with friends in many different countries: chatting, jokes, personal photos, etc. Perhaps it's not an ideal place for serious discussions, although they do occur to some extent. Some people are more serious than others.

Some people post a lot about political issues, which can get a bit tiresome, especially if they're all variations on the theme of "I hate this political party". Anything can be done to excess.

If you don't like the way that particular people behave on Facebook, you can of course defriend them; although this may not help if you're participating in a group that you don't control. I mostly talk to friends and don't participate in groups much.

Facebook is far from perfect and I don't feel loyal to it. I tried Google+ when it came along, but it didn't seem to have any significant advantages, and fewer of my friends use it, so I continue with Facebook for now.

At 12:28 AM, September 21, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

I used G+ first and still use it, but the total population seems considerably smaller, judging by the responses I've gotten.

My problem isn't not liking the way particular people behave but being puzzled and worried by what seems an alien cultural attitude. The people in question may be perfectly nice people. But there seems to be a sort of underlying "all ideas are equal" attitude.

At 12:44 AM, September 21, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

Hm, as I know that you've had extensive previous experience of Internet discusssion forums, I'm surprised that you haven't encountered this alien cultural attitude before. It's surely not specific to Facebook. But perhaps you get a more representative sample of the general population on Facebook, because it's so widely popular. You can find almost anyone on Facebook these days. My mother (who died in March at the age of 82) refused to try it, but my son and all his friends have been using it for years, and he's just turned 13.

At 12:55 AM, September 21, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

David: I believe that if you talked to those people in person, it would be different. A lot is lost in the translation from your mind to the computer screen of someone else. The words are the same, but people read them differently. The reason emoticons were created is to at least compensate a little bit. Some people have a hard time to spot irony if you don't include something like ":D" after the message. And if you're telling them why you think some way to do the SCA is better than others, they translate it sort of as "my way or the highway". Some people even have a tendency to see anything on the internet as an attack against them (although these people are usually better to simply avoid). I responded to one SMBC joke about economics on their facebook page, stating that it probably stems from a misunderstanding of what economics is about - that it is an approximation, a model and that the simplyfiing assumptions don't have to be perfectly true to give useful information. Someone (not the author) responded that it is just a joke and I should not get all that upset about that. So I had to reply that I was not really "offended", but that observational jokes have to be true for me to find them funny. I guess if you told those people that you are not trying to force them (which is what they see it as) but just explain why you think some ways are better, their response will also be better.

(it was this comic:

At 1:15 AM, September 21, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is as if offering reasons for doing something is merely a disguised way of trying to force people to do it, a form of aggression."

It's an implied accusation that they are behaving badly if they don't do things your way - which carries the further implication that they ought to be forced to do things your way.

People are doing things their way because they want to do things that way. They do not have, nor do they believe that they need to have, any better reason or justification than that. Then you come along, with your argument implying "Your behavior is apparently wrongful on its face. You are therefore obligated to either justify your apparently-wrongful behavior or else to change it."

So yes, offering reasons for doing something is taken as being merely a disguised way of trying to force people; as a form of aggression.

At 3:36 AM, September 21, 2013, Blogger EH said...

It is as if offering reasons for doing something is merely a disguised way of trying to force people to do it, a form of aggression.

They may be projecting their own attitudes there; for most people, this is a thin line indeed.

Trying to maintain a distinction between 'my way of doing things' and 'what I will coerce you to do when given half a chance' is a rather peculiar habit, that few people care to cultivate. Most often in everyday applied morality, giving your opinion on a matter is exactly intended as a thinly veiled statement of how you would coerce others.

Given that, I don't find the reaction surprising. But I agree, it is very regrettable when the discourse does not rise above that level.

At 5:12 AM, September 21, 2013, Anonymous J Storrs Hall said...


As they made no effort to communicate with me, but simply stood round me smiling and speaking in soft cooing notes to each other, I began the conversation. I pointed to the Time Machine and to myself. Then hesitating for a moment how to express time, I pointed to the sun. At once a quaintly pretty little figure in chequered purple and white followed my gesture, and then astonished me by imitating the sound of thunder.

For a moment I was staggered, though the import of his gesture was plain enough. The question had come into my mind abruptly: were these creatures fools? You may hardly understand how it took me. You see I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything. Then one of them suddenly asked me a question that showed him to be on the intellectual level of one of our five-year-old children—asked me, in fact, if I had come from the sun in a thunderstorm! It let loose the judgment I had suspended upon their clothes, their frail light limbs, and fragile features. A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. For a moment I felt that I had built the Time Machine in vain.

At 5:23 AM, September 21, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

young people are WAYYYYY to sensitive today. our society is has been feminised by the kind of femininity 1970s 3rd wave feminists peddle.

At 9:38 AM, September 21, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

It was David Hume who said that reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions. That seems to imply that in the last analysis there is no point in giving reasons for anything; reasons cannot account for why you choose to do something and cannot be expected to change what you choose to do. So they must be a disguise for something else, a way of asserting one's values or preferences or loyalties to other people, and perhaps of demanding that they accept them.

Of course, those same people, in stating their own views, have by their own logic demanded that you accept their values. But perhaps they don't see the symmetry.

I think you might find, perhaps, an Aristotelian or Thomistic perspective on values and preferences more congenial. But I doubt that it would reconcile the people you describe to your views or your approach to discussion.

At 10:09 AM, September 21, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They let anyone on the internet these days.

At 2:40 PM, September 21, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Part of what I wonder is whether I am observing a change over time, along the lines of people being taught to be "sensitive" and not say anything that might offend anyone else, or a change in who I am interacting with, with the Facebook population less filtered than other sets of people I have had exchanges with.

At 5:20 AM, September 22, 2013, Anonymous Kid said...

My theory is that people behave this way whenever you have a discussion on something that affects someone's self-image or feeling of identity.

You can have a reasonable discussing on the merits of this car vs that car, until one of the participants has bought one of the cars in question, at which point the discussion will not be totally honest any more.

When someone's self-image or identity is called into question by new arguments or information, that person will feel uncomfortable unless they come to terms with a 'new identity' that incorporates the new ideas.

When you have a discussion on how to behave or how to conduct your life, that's very likely to enter 'self-image' or 'identity' territory, and consequently, people will feel motivated to dismiss new ideas in order to get rid of the very unpleasant feeling of incongruity. "It's all just a matter of opinion" is a socially acceptable way of doing so.

This does not mean that the person believes there is no point in discussing anything or that all truth is relative, it simply means that the person wants to avoid the threat to their identity.

If this theory is true, then 'avoiding to offend anyone' might actually be the most practical way to convert people to new ideas. The less and argument feels threatening to someone's identity, the easier a person will find himself inclined to agree with it, regardless of its intellectual merits.

Although it may feel intellectually dishonest, it may be practical to intentionally weaken or rephrase your arguments a bit to make them feel less threatening.

At 8:45 AM, September 22, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...


I don't think David is bothered that his arguments may offend people as much as the fact that, once offended, people no longer wish to argue back. Along those lines, his goal may also be more to have a good argument in which people are exposed to new ideas and respond thoughtfully to them than to simply win converts to his political views.

At 9:12 AM, September 22, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

In my own experience, the "good argument" is hard to find. Many person-to-person arguments degenerate into bad temper, and very few of them persuade anyone to change his original views.

It's easier to persuade by means of a book (if you can persuade people to read it!), because (a) you can write a book more calmly and carefully and persuasively, and (b) reading a book, even one you don't agree with, doesn't feel like a personal attack; so the reader can read it more calmly.

At 5:13 PM, September 22, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think people who want to debate are likely to use facebook, on account of that any unpopular views (even accidental ones) can effect someone's professional or social standing. It's easier to jump into an anonymous debate on /pol/.

At 9:29 PM, September 22, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

Anonymous: I have encountered a number of people on Facebook who relentlessly push their own political views and are willing to do without any friends who object to them.

In my own experience, such people usually seem to be American right-wingers or British left-wingers. American left-wingers and British right-wingers also exist, but tend to be less outspoken.

I make no secret of my own libertarianism, but I don't post daily about it because (a) I don't really feel the urge, and (b) many of my friends would find it tiresome.

At 5:02 AM, September 23, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One factor you might be overlooking is that Cariodoc of the Bow is considered to be a Very Big Deal in the SCA. When you post on SCA boards, it's "OMG, Cariodoc Says...."

Some Guy In A Llama Tabard isn't going to get nearly the reaction.

It appears that people are interpreting your posts as LAW descending from atop Mount Sinai engraved on tablets of Stone by the hand of...if not The God, at least a reasonable facsimile within the SCA.

I've seen a similar reaction in-person to a certain multiple Duke with whom I'm personally acquainted.

C. Krug

At 10:26 AM, September 23, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


It's an interesting point, but I don't think the pattern I've observed is limited to people responding to posts by me.

At 11:20 AM, September 23, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

I can't be sure, but perhaps the point that Anonymous was trying to make is that you get extra respect in an SCA context; whereas, in most Facebook contexts, people may treat you as they treat anyone else.

At 11:39 PM, September 24, 2013, Anonymous Thora said...

Dof and I run into this problem all the time: any time we advocate for a pro-authenticity stance in an SCA context, there is a subset of people who will respond negatively. Those responders seem to be assuming that because I enjoy doing things a certain way I expect that they should be exactly like me. They mistake my enthusiasm for my perspective as a veiled expectation, and they respond as if they've been overtly called down.

I think the problem relates more to the community you're engaging with than to generational differences. Bigger and less homogenous crowd, greater chance of someone in the crowd reacting like this.

At 12:53 AM, September 25, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

It seems as though a fair number of people react like that.

I put up an FB post asking whether authenticity police were mythical. Responses included a reasonable number of first hand accounts of interactions that fit the authenticity police stereotype, as well as a fair number of people who, like me, had been in the SCA for a long time without ever observing such interactions.

One conclusion is that such interactions do happen, usually done by people with not much expertise, often enough people whose authenticity claim is wrong. Think of it as a rather clumsy way of claiming status.

Another conclusion, which I did not state in the thread, is that some people use the authenticity police meme as a way of blocking what they see as the claims to superior status of those more into historical authenticity than they are. "Think you are so fine, do you? You are the sort of rude S.O.B.'s who go up to an innocent newbie to tell her that her hairdo is a different century from her garb and besides the clothing should have all been hand stitched."

That was in part based on observing the number of people who reacted with self-righteous anger to attacks that had not occurred--purely imaginary ones that they were saying how they would respond to.

A different way of looking at the problem, which I did mention, is that people are using binary categories--authentic/not authentic, good/bad, rather than continuous categories. Saying that A is more authentic than B in some regard and should be praised for it doesn't imply that B is a bad person, since being authentic is admirable but, above a very low level, not required.

I may do another blog post on this.

At 9:16 AM, October 10, 2013, Anonymous Charles Anthony said...

Facebook is a popularity contest and LOTS of people post stuff so that they can impress their "friends" who are reading their responses.

My guess is that neither you (nor your argument/question per se) were the primary targets of the responses you elicited. They are only trying to save face among other people who probably do not agree/understand what you posted anyway.

My second guess is that we are missing something that may not be obvious: Maybe this is how "stupid" people respond when faced with reason their mind can not understand.

At 10:14 AM, October 10, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

Charles: I don't regard Facebook as a popularity contest. It's just a convenient way of chatting with my friends. I'm not particularly interested in amassing a large circle of friends; quality is more important than quantity. I sometimes defriend people if we don't seem to be getting along with each other.


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