Mind the Gap: Navigating Between Rules and Reality

Bureaucracy is stupid, David Graeber writes in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.  As the premise for a book, it’s more fertile than it sounds.

At their bare bones, bureaucracies are systems of impersonal rules.  This is my definition, not Graeber’s – he never specifies what he means when he uses the term, although he does trace its history, detailing all the things it could mean.  He also seems to believe that all bureaucracies (whatever they are) are dysfunctional.  While he admits that impersonal rules systems can be appealing, and even that they may be the best option when, for instance, coordinating organ donation, he spends most of his time elaborating bureaucratic “stupidities”.

Below, I will repurpose his critiques as descriptions of unhealthy systems, which can give us guidance for how to construct healthy ones.

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies blame all failures on individuals

Every system is imperfect.  There’s always a gap between rules and reality.  An unhealthy bureaucracy blames this gap on reality:

Bureaucracies public and private appear – for whatever historical reasons – to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected.  It’s in this sense that I’ve said one can fairly say that bureaucracies are utopian forms of organization.  After all, is this now what we always say of utopians: that they have a naive faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are?  Which is, are we not also told, what leads them to set impossible standards and then blame the individuals for not living up to them?  But in fact all bureaucracies do this, insofar as they set demands they insist are reasonable, and then, on discovering that they are not reasonable (since a significant number of people will always be unable to perform as expected), conclude that the problem is not with the demands themselves but with the individual inadequacy of each particular human being who fails to live up to them.”  (p. 48-49)

Failures may be caused by the individual, or they may be caused by the bureaucracy itself, or by the complex interaction of both.  They may be unanticipated consequences or they may be known bugs.  (Voltaire famously said that it was better two guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer.  The presence of guilty but free men in a society governed by Voltaire’s rules would be a ‘known bug’.)

A healthy bureaucracy is capable of dealing with these failures accordingly: by acknowledging problems with their own rules systems, fixing those they can fix, apologizing for known deficiencies, and sanctioning individuals when it is truly necessary.

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies rely on the threat of personal force

Violence is central to Graeber’s conception of bureaucracy:

The bureaucratization of daily life means the imposition of impersonal rules and regulations; impersonal rules and regulations, in turn, can only operate if they are backed up by the threat of force.  And, indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating, and ultimately deploying physical violence, appear just about anywhere – even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.”  (p. 32-33)

A system which always blames the individual for failing to obey its rules will not last very long if it depends on the voluntary cooperation of individuals.  If, on the other hand, it can respond to disagreement with violence, it has no need to avoid disagreement via self-reflection or compromise.

I agree with Graeber that violence underlies most bureaucracies, but I think he’d agree with me that bureaucracies can be more or less violent, and that the more violent they are, the less functional they are.  He cites a study of 19th century South Africa that shows as much: “Comparative analysis suggests that there is a direct relation however between the level of violence employed in a bureaucratic system, and the level of absurdity and ignorance it is seen to produce.”  (p. 65)

A healthy bureaucracy therefore almost never resorts to violence, even if the exclusive use of force is where it draws its foundational legitimacy from, as is the case of the state.  This includes not just acts of violence but both explicit and implicit threats of violence because, as Graeber rightly notes, the tendency to overlook implicit violence allows it to spread in ways that explicit violence can’t:

It is curious how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about [structural violence], or how instinctively we try to discount its importance.  That is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on the fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required.  It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.”  (p. 58)

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies create a culture of complicity

Graeber writes:

In theory [bureaucracies] are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways. Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone’s cousin, and everybody knows it. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit, and not even based necessarily on being someone’s cousin; above all, it’s based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true.  Or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when, in fact, they are often deployed as a means for entirely arbitrary personal power.”  (p. 27)

A dysfunctional bureaucracy blames all failures on individuals and responds to them with threats or use of force.  It also creates a culture of complicity within the system such that even internal change is stymied.

This culture of complicity is not inevitable.  A bureaucracy which recognizes its own inherent imperfections, and which sees its primary goal as identifying and addressing those imperfections, will not tend to reward those who claim no imperfections exist.  But this is a difficult culture to develop, and so few bureaucracies have it.

These three critiques revolve around a central flaw: the inability of unhealthy bureaucracies to self-correct.  To get at this from another angle, I want to discuss another concept from Graeber’s book: interpretive labor.

Interpretation and Imagination

Graeber borrows from feminist theory and critical race studies the term “interpretive labor”, which he defines at first as “trying to decipher others’ motives and perceptions” (p. 67).  Because violence often obviates the need for interpretive labor – you don’t need to understand someone’s perceptions if you can just threaten or hurt them – systems of structural violence tend to produce structural inequalities of interpretive labor as well:

Jim Cooper, a former LAPD officer turned sociologist has observed that the overwhelming majority of those who end up getting beaten or otherwise brutalized by police turn out to be innocent of any crime. “Cops don’t beat up burglars,” he writes. The reason, he explained, is simple: the one thing most guaranteed to provoke a violent reaction from police is a challenge to their right to, as he puts it, “define the situation.” That is, to say “no, this isn’t a possible crime situation, this is a citizen-who-pays-your-salary-walking-his-dog situation, so shove off,”  let  alone  the invariably disastrous, “wait, why are you handcuffing that guy? He didn’t do anything!” It’s “talking back” above all that inspires beat-downs, and that means challenging whatever administrative rubric (an orderly or a disorderly crowd? A properly or improperly registered vehicle?) has been applied by the officer’s discretionary judgment. The police truncheon is precisely the point where the state’s bureaucratic imperative for imposing simple administrative schema and its monopoly on coercive force come together. It only makes sense then that bureaucratic violence should consist first and foremost of attacks on those who insist on alternative schemas or interpretations.”  (p. 80)

Graeber goes on to discuss imagination, using the terms “interpretive labor”, “imaginative labor”, “interpretation” and “imagination” interchangeably.

I would prefer to define imagination and interpretation as two distinct concepts.  Imagination is the act of creating what-ifs: alternative ways of living, alternative ways of relating, alternative rules systems.  Interpretation is the act of matching up someone else’s what-ifs to your reality.  In some ways, these concepts are not just distinct but opposite: interpretation fills the gaps that imagination leaves.  And, in systems of structural violence, the labor is performed by different groups of people.  The powerful imagine, while the powerless are forced to interpret.

Graeber’s conflation of interpretation and imagination make it difficult for him to critique Marx’s use of the same terms:

One can already see the tension in Marx. There is a strange paradox in his approach to revolution. As I’ve noted, Marx insists that what makes us human is that rather than relying on unconscious instinct like spiders and bees, we first raise structures in our imagination, and then try to bring those visions into being. […] Yet  when Marx speaks of  social creativity, his key example—the only kind of social creativity he ever talks about actually—is always revolution, and when he does that, he suddenly changes gears completely. In fact he reverses himself. The revolutionary should never proceed like the architect; he should never begin by drawing up a plan for an ideal society, then think about how to bring it into being. That would be utopianism. And for utopianism, Marx had nothing but withering contempt. Instead, revolution is the actual immanent practice of the proletariat, which will ultimately bear fruit in ways that we cannot possibly imagine from our current vantage point.

Why the discrepancy? The most generous explanation, I would suggest, is that Marx did understand, at least on some intuitive level, that the imagination worked differently in the domain of material production than it did in social relations; but also, that he lacked an adequate theory as to why. Perhaps, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, long before the rise of feminism, he simply lacked the intellectual tools.  Given the considerations already outlined in this essay, I think we can confirm that this is indeed the case. To put it in Marx’s own terms: in both domains one can speak of alienation. But in each, alienation works in profoundly different ways.

To recall the argument so far: structural inequalities always create what I’ve called “lopsided structures of imagination,” that is, divisions between one class of people who end up doing most of the imaginative labor, and others who do not. However, the sphere of factory production that Marx concerned himself with is rather unusual in this respect. It is one of the few contexts where it is the dominant class who end up doing more imaginative labor, not less.”  (p. 93-94)

I’ve never read Marx, so I won’t assert what he “really” meant.  But I think distinguishing between imagination and interpretation makes for a clearer argument than the one Graeber provides.

By my definitions, the dominant class performs more imaginative labor, while those who are subservient perform more interpretive labor.  That is, the dominant design the system – whether that’s a social system, or a material tool – and everyone else is forced, under threat of violence, to perform the interpretive labor that will allow them to exist within the system.

Note that neither imaginative labor nor interpretive labor are bad things.  Both are required for any community to function and to grow.  What’s ‘bad’ is that the labor is performed unequally, the inequities sustained under threat of violence.

These definitions justify Marx’s disdain for utopianism.  Utopianism is imagination without connection to reality.  A utopian performs imaginative labor without bothering with interpretation – they leave that hard work to someone else, often people less powerful than themselves.  When Marx via Graeber calls revolution “the actual immanent practice of the proletariat” (p. 93) he is tying imagination to reality through interpretation, and demanding that the proletariat, already skilled in interpretation, have the right to imagination as well.

Another way for bureaucracies to grow unhealthy, then, is to separate out the labor of imagination and the labor of interpretation.  When the interpreters who bridge the gaps between system and reality are prevented from imagining changes in the system, we cut off any chance for the system to self-correct.  The system grows sick.  The bureaucracy grows stupid.

Final Thoughts

This post is not a review so much as some musings directly provoked by the book.  I do recommend it, even though it’s difficult at times to grasp what Graeber’s really asserting.  He wanders through a lot of interesting content that I didn’t have time to cover here, ending with a sociological critique of Batman.  If nothing else, it’s a fun read.

Identity fragments

In an essay at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova sketches out a conception of identity as a collection of fragments which is, paradoxically, being repressed and sanded down by identity politics:

Paradoxically, in our golden age of identity politics and trigger-ready outrage, this repression of our inner wildness and fracturing of our wholeness has taken on an inverted form, inclining toward a parody of itself. Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others.

[…]

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

I found myself nodding along until I reached this line:

The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless.

I am a big fan of sensitivity readers.  Let me try to articulate why.

If our identities are full of fragments – irregular, unpredictable, jagged – then it’s inevitable that we’re going to hurt each other occasionally as we reach out to connect and touch.  We can’t prevent it.  This leaves us with three options:

We can stop trying to connect to each other.  This is the saddest of all possible options, and I reject it entirely.

We can try to remove the fragments that seem most different and most dangerous.  This is the self-repression that Popova is speaking out against, and I agree that it’s not ideal.

Which leaves us with a third and final option: we can communicate with each other to try and warn about our various jagged edges and to help nourish and heal when we accidentally stab each other.

This, to me, is what sensitivity readers do.  They begin the conversation about accidental harm early on in the process, before much damage is done, and give the author a chance to change course – not to sand down their edges, but to find a better place for them, a way of connecting without harming.

Note here that it’s not the jagged edges that are a problem.  It’s the pain those edges cause when they connect with others.  Similarly, it’s not my white skin or my cisgendered body that’s a problem.  It’s the way my skin and my body influence my interactions with others.  I feel no need to be ashamed of my skin or body, but I have a responsibility to act thoughtfully so as not to hurt others with them.

I have always been an instinctual individualist.  For a long time, my knee-jerk response to anyone asking me to change myself was a stubborn ‘hell no‘.  And I remain wary of being pressured to conform for no good reason or worse, being coerced to.  But when you see your place in the world, and the ways you can adapt yourself to make life brighter and richer for everyone, then “changing the way you act in order to fit in” can be a profoundly beautiful and individualist act.

Feeling good vs doing good

Back in college, I based my Division III (senior thesis) research on a set of empathy studies by Nancy Eisenberg.  Eisenberg’s line of research hinges on a distinction between two different kinds of empathy: empathic concern, the ability to recognize and care about the hurt others feel, and personal distress, the experiencing of the other person’s hurt yourself.  Counterintuitively, personal distress is not positively associated with helping behavior.  In fact, it may even decrease the likelihood of helping, if there’s an easy escape route away from the empathy-provoking situation.

There’s a related line of research by June Tangney into the difference between shame and guilt.  As Tangney and Jessica Tracey summarize:

Shame is an acutely painful emotion that is typically accompanied by a sense of shrinking or “being small,” and by a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness. Shamed people also feel exposed. Although shame does not necessarily involve an actual observing audience to witness one’s shortcomings, there is often the imagery of how one’s defective self would appear to others. […]
Guilt, in contrast, is typically a less painful, devastating experience because the object of condemnation is a specific behavior, not the person as a whole. One’s core identity or self concept is less at stake. Rather than feeling a need to defend a vulnerable self-image under attack, people experiencing guilt are focused on the offense and its consequences, feeling tension, remorse, and regret over the “bad thing done.”

Just as empathy-induced personal distress may get in the way of helping behavior, shame-induced distress may play a causal role in antisocial behavior.  Research has found that a tendency towards shame responses rather than guilty responses predicts recidivism.

Some people advocate for emotion-free, ‘rational’ decision-making.  Others refuse to repress their emotions, and draw strength from their anger, their fear, their hope, their pride.  For me, the distinction between personal distress and empathic concern, and between shame and guilt, provides a way of reconciling these two approaches.

I embrace my emotions, but try to see them as separate from my identity: what I feel doesn’t change who I am.  This distance helps me to respond to my emotions more appropriately.  When I get angry, I ask myself: “Why am I angry?  What is provoking this anger?  Will taking action X address the problem that is provoking the anger, or will it just be cathartic?”  This helps me to make choices that I’m less likely to regret.

The yin and yang of questions and answers

In a previous post, I wrote that asking questions is harder than answering them, although I qualified that in a big way with “answering [questions] involves going back over and over again and updating our hypotheses, which makes answering questions feel hard”.  I want to revisit this claim.

Some of you may be familiar with the “reproducibility crisis” happening in the sciences, where many popular and well-known results have failed to replicate.  But what does failure to replicate mean?

Maybe it means that there was something wrong with the original study.   Maybe it means that there was something wrong with the replication.  But those aren’t the only options.  As nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahnamen wrote in an open letter to the scientific community:

In the myth of perfect science, the method section of a research report always includes enough detail to permit a direct replication. Unfortunately, this seemingly reasonable demand is rarely satisfied in psychology, because behavior is easily affected by seemingly irrelevant factors.

Note that underspecification of methods is an issue in all sciences.  Psychology just has a particularly rough time of it because psychology itself, like other soft sciences, is so underspecified.  Behavior is affected by seemingly irrelevant factors which are actually relevant previously unspecified factors.

In a better world, replication would be a collegial and common process involving many back-and-forths between originators and replicators.  Each replication could help identify new factors that turn out to be surprisingly relevant.  Eventually the hypothesis and methodology would be specified enough to permit consistent replication, at which point we’d have both our question and our answer.

This example makes clear that asking and answering questions are not two separate activities.  They are intertwined, at least when the questions and answers are new.  So it makes no sense to say, “Asking questions is harder than answering them” or vice versa, because you can’t do one meaningfully without also doing the other.

FYI: to read more about replication, try this article I wrote back in 2014 on the Open Science Collaboration blog: What we talk about when we talk about replication.

 

Hard and soft sciences

Back when I was a research scientist, I straddled the boundary between “hard” and “soft” sciences.  I did social psychology, which is a pretty soft science as sciences go, but I paired it with biology and physiology in general and endocrinology in particular, which meant getting a taste for some of the harder stuff.

I have never particularly liked the terms “hard” and “soft”, though, because it’s too easy to conflate them with “hard” and “easy”.  There’s a saying that goes: the soft sciences are easy to do poorly and hard to do well.  They are easier to do poorly than the hard sciences, and harder to do well than the hard sciences.  Here, have a chart:

What’s going on here?  The hard sciences are better developed than the soft sciences, so it’s clearer when someone’s making obvious mistakes, cutting corners, or making under-supported claims.  That makes it difficult to do poor work.  It’s also difficult to good work, of course.  The easiest thing to do in the hard sciences is to meet a minimum level of competency and do solid but uninspiring work.

Meanwhile in the soft sciences there’s questions even about the field’s basics.  There’s still a minimum level of competency, but it’s much less stringent than in the hard sciences.  So sloppy researchers tend to end up in the soft sciences.

Here’s another way to approach the hard/soft distinction. What’s easier, formulating questions or answering them?  It’s almost always easier to do the latter, provided you’ve very clearly and specifically formulated your question.  Of course we seldom do get our questions right on the first try, and so answering them involves going back over and over again and updating our hypotheses, which makes answering questions feel hard.  But the hardest parts of answering questions are really secretly still about asking them.

In the hard sciences, it’s easier to clearly and specifically formulate questions because so much knowledge has already been established.  Isaac Newton famously said (paraphrased) ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.’  The hard sciences are full of giants, with shoulders for modern researchers to stand on.  The soft sciences are by and large still on the ground.

For this reason, I prefer the terms “developed” vs “undeveloped” sciences.  I think it comes closer to the essential difference.

Note: this post has an update/correction post.

Shades of gray

What shade of gray would you say this is?

Considered in isolation, and without the help of a photo manipulation platform to tell you the precise CMYK values, it’s hard to say.  We reach naturally for points of comparison.  It’s lighter than a slate gray, we might say, but darker than a gainsboro gray.  Cooler than warm gray but warmer than cool gray.  Is it lighter than light gray?

Maybe?  Probably?  Let’s take a closer look:

That’s our custom gray on the left, and light gray on the right.  So it’s just a smidge lighter than light gray, but we can only tell when we put them right up close.  Put it up against a different gray, and it looks darker rather than lighter:

This is of course a metaphor.

When it came out last week that Al Franken had sexually harassed and assaulted Leeann Tweeden, people naturally reached for the most obvious point of comparison: the other Senator/Senate candidate recently accused of sexual assault, Roy Moore.

Some people have claimed that Moore and Franken are similar.  They both have used their power to violate the boundaries and consent of women.  Others have claimed that they’re dissimilar: that when you put Franken’s behavior up against Moore’s systematic stalking and molestation of girls as young as fourteen years old, he might as well be a saint.

But is Moore a useful point of comparison?  It’s not like Franken’s running against Moore.  And “the ideal public servant” is not all that useful either.  After all, no public servant is perfect.

So what is a useful comparison for Franken’s behavior?  Given that the question on everyone’s lips is whether Franken should resign, I submit the following point for comparison: the minimum acceptable standard for a US Senator.

Only 15 Senators have ever been expelled from Congress, the majority for making war against the United States by supporting the confederacy.  A larger number have resigned rather than face expulsion. Most of these cases were about bribery and corruption, but some were due to sexual misconduct.  Take for example Bob Packwood of Oregon, who resigned when the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously recommended his expulsion for gross sexual misconduct.  The chair of that committee, none other than Mitch McConnell, spoke about it four years later during the Clinton impeachment:

During the Packwood debate, we made the tough choice. And, I have to say, that decision was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my career in public service. To recommend expelling from the United States Senate a colleague, a member of my own party, and most importantly, a friend with whom I had served in the Senate for over a decade.

We sent a clear message to the nation that no man is above the law. That no man is so important to the well-being of our strong and prosperous nation that we have to compromise the fundamental, founding principles of truth and justice. We chose to rise above, not sink below. Rather than change our standards, we changed our Senator.

Let me also make a political point, here. We Republicans were aware during the Packwood debate that we would likely lose that Senate seat if Senator Packwood was removed from office. So, we had a choice: Retain the Senate seat or retain our honor. We chose honor, and never looked back.

I think that the United States Senate has a clear choice today. Do we want to retain President Clinton in office, or do we want to retain our honor, our principle, and our moral authority?

For me, and for many members in my impeachment-fatigued party, I choose honor.

What happened?  Twenty years later, McConnell has chosen dishonor over and over again, not least by supporting the leader of his party, Donald Trump, who has been accused of assault and harassment by 15 different women and has been caught bragging about harassing women on tape.  Perhaps if you asked McConnell, he’d say that Democrats started the moral race to the bottom by refusing to hold Clinton to the same standard as Packwood.  But what is the “standard” to which Packwood was held?  One could likely articulate a standard for behavior that Clinton passed while Packwood fell short of.

Packwood and Clinton and Moore and Franken are all different people who committed different types of wrongs. The same is true of Trump, and Dennis Hastert, and Anthony Weiner, and the many other elected officials who have been accused or convicted of harassment, assault, or abuse.  The question is not how they compare with each other but how they measure up to our standards for public officials, and whether we are strong enough to enforce our standards when people fall short.

I believe that our elected officials should be held to high standards.  Specifically, I believe that any type of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment should be disqualifying.  I am open to the idea that those who have done these things in the past and have made reparations should be able to hold office, though I’m not aware of any official or candidate who meets that description. I’m also open to the idea that those accused deserve an impartial investigation, although the strength of the evidence against both Moore and Franken make that point moot.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying I think Franken should resign, but I think it’s worthwhile to sketch out the framework through which I came to that conclusion, so that I can hold myself to it in the future.

Compromise and its discontents

It’s easy to complain about “purity politics”.  It’s easy to complain about “neoliberals” and “sellouts”.  But we live in hard times, and the easy route’s not going to get us anywhere.

Here are two things that are both generally true: you need to compromise sometimes and sometimes you need to stick to your principles.  This question is, which times are which?

I thought about this recently when I read, back to back, two stories.  The first was about Cyrus Vance, the corrupt Manhattan DA who recently ran unopposed as a Democrat.  “Get him out of office!” I thought, angrily.  “Even if he gets replaced by a Republican!”  Then, I read about the DFA withdrawing their endorsement of Ralph Northam because he came out against sanctuary cities.  “That’s terrible,” I thought, about both Northam and the DFA.  “I disagree with him on this issue but we’ve still got to get him elected.”

Whenever a Democrat does something wrong (or a Republican does something right) you will find people on the left arguing over whether or not we should support them.  There’s always someone saying we need to take our allies where we can get them, and someone saying that this or that is a bridge too far.

This dynamic is especially heated right now, thanks to the Republican party.  They’re fueling both groups.  The compromisers say, “Look, look at the other option.  We need to do all we can to resist these hateful, violent, reckless people.”  And the principle-stickers say, “Look, look at what happened to Republicans when they embraced that mindset.”

So how can we figure out when to compromise, and when to stick to principle?  We need to get better at articulating the specific context that’s driving our arguments, rather than falling back on statements like “We can’t sacrifice our principles!” or “We need to compromise sometimes!”  Not only are those statements obviously true, they read like an attack.  No one wants to be told they’re unprincipled or impractical.  No one needs to be told that, either.

In that spirit, here is just a starter list of things to consider when making a specific judgment call:

  1. What good/bad things will happen if we don’t compromise?  What good/bad things will happen if we do?
  2. Of the things that might happen, how much of them will affect us personally?  If most of them will affect other people, what do those people say about the dilemma we’re in?
  3. How set-in-stone is this decision?  Are we electing someone for a one year term or a six year term?  How hard will it be to roll back this legislation?
  4. Will our actions change the fundamental structure within which we act?  If we support someone who is corrupt, or who won’t enforce constitutional checks and freedoms, will we have the institutional tools to take them down if we change our minds, or is now our best or only chance?

A perfect circle

Chalk Corridor by fdecomite 6/25/2013 CC BY 2.0

Objective truth exists in the way that a perfect circle exists.  They’re both useful constructs, helpful for comparison and for motivation, but we must be careful in how we apply them.

Statements about truth that are unhelpful:

  • “What I’m saying is objectively true.”  (“What I’m drawing is perfectly circular.”)
  • “What you’re saying is not objectively true.”  (“What you’re drawing is not entirely perfect.”)
  • “Nothing is ever entirely objectively true, so we might as well give up caring about truth.”  (“No circle will ever be perfect, so we might as well give up trying to make circles.”)

Statements about truth that are helpful:

  • “This statement is as close to objectively true as I can get it.”  (“This circle is as perfect as I can draw it.”)
  • “Your statement would be closer to objective truth if you X.”  (“Your circle would be rounder if you fixed X.”)
  • “This statement is more true than that statement.”  (“This circle is more round than that circle.”)
  • “That’s not even trying to be true, that’s a damn lie.”  (“That’s… not a circle.  That’s a square, I think.”)

Go forth and draw, my friends.

 

A flight out sideways

This is a short and subtle piece by Diana Senechal about sexual harassment claims and our response to them.  I by and large agree with it, but I like it mostly for the poem (or, well, stanza of a poem) it introduced me to, Robert Frost’s The Wood Pile:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

 

A precedent of subjectivity

Mike Montiero recently posted an essay to Medium “One person’s history of Twitter, from beginning to end“. It’s a good piece, but what really struck me was this referenced Tweet from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone:

Tweet by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, reading: 'Mike, this is the hardest time to stick to principles. The easy way out would be to ban. That sets a precedence of subjectivity.'

This is one of the saddest tweets I’ve ever read.

Stone talks about setting “a precedent of subjectivity” as though subjectivity is something that can possibly be avoided. Everything is subjective; the relevant questions are how much and in what way.

Usually I give people a pass for over-simplifying things on Twitter, but if Stone has trouble expressing himself in 140 characters he has only himself to blame. More seriously, this over-simplification is the source of so many problems that sites like Twitter, Google, and Facebook have been having. They want to be content-neutral, a platform rather than a publisher, a (non-regulated!) utility – in other words, objective.

They know their platforms aren’t actually neutral or objective, not entirely. They know that their abuse teams are staffed by subjective humans and their algorithms are steered by subjective humans and learn from subjective, human-created data. It is impossible to design an open platform that does any kind of data filtering or prioritization without having to make judgment calls. Stone knows. They all know.

So why deny it? My guess is that it’s an avoidance mechanism. As long as we’re debating ‘Should social media sites make subjective decisions about content?’ we’re not getting to ‘What kinds of subjective decisions should social media sites make?’ and ‘To what degree should social media sites be subjective?’ And so the sites can continue to make their subjective decisions in private, without formal or informal oversight.

I want to be clear: there’s real value in the way Google and Facebook and Twitter have prioritized objectivity. I’m pretty sure platforms which didn’t even try for objectivity would be even more alienating and frustrating to use. But ‘better than terrible’ is not enough.  When your sites are changing the course of history you have a moral obligation to tackle the really hard stuff, and to do so openly and accountably.

The precedent of subjectivity was set a very long time ago. It’s about time we got into the details.