Beware of Forced Binaries

One of the most annoying types of arguments to come across (for me, anyway) is the one involving forced binaries. A complex issue gets reduced to two possibilities – like nature or nurture, or the question of whether rape is about sex or power – and these two possibilities get treated as if they’re mutually exclusive. Pick one, and make your stand.

Whether you’re having a classroom discussion or arguing with someone online, here are three steps to take when you’re confronted by a forced binary:

Ask yourself what each choice really means. In the context of the discussion, how are people defining ‘power,’ ‘nature,’ or any other word? Sometimes, you get a disagreement because people are thinking about the same concept in fairly different ways. If you clarify definitions, you may discover a greater degree of agreement than you expected.

Ask yourself if these choices are really mutually exclusive. Just start with, “Why not both?” and think about it from there. The two possibilities you’re forced to choose between may be interacting with each other in interesting ways.

Ask yourself if there are other factors at play. Forced binaries are simpler and tidier. They’re also a great way to create two clear sides and pit people against each other. But the issues you’re discussing often have more complexity.

Good luck!

Recommended Reading: The Tyranny of Opinion

I recently read a book that would have been relevant before widespread Internet use and the advent of social media, but makes for even more urgent reading now.

TyrannyofOpinion

The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford discusses threats to freedom of speech beyond government censorship. Blackford focuses on coercion and conformity imposed by other powerful institutions and forces in society, including online mobs that foment outrage against offending individuals, often with abuse, slander, harassment, and serious threats, such as loss of employment.

I appreciate the book’s thoughtful discussion of free speech, including the question of what constitutes harmful expression, and how people have different ideas of what’s harmful. For example, most would agree that issuing death threats or inciting a mob to attack shouldn’t be counted as free speech. However, people may want to suppress speech that appears to undermine a set of beliefs they hold dear. Harm as a concept can get stretched from the threat of literal violence to feelings of upset, anger, or offense. How do we best determine the standards of harm for our society?

The book serves as a reminder of what free speech is meant to protect and why it’s important to uphold it as a general principle (and not limit it to a question of what the government permits). Are the following important to you?

  • The ability to engage in free inquiry, including questioning ideas and conducting investigations into different topics.
  • The ability to discuss various issues, including the pros and cons of public policies.
  • The ability to write, paint, and create other art. (Of course there have been controversies, including questions about whether a piece has artistic merit or is mere obscenity. But do you generally prefer to critique an artistic work, or do you lean more towards bans, threats, and harassment of authors and artists?)

There are challenges to upholding free speech, not least because people have a strong tendency to be tribal about it. (Even people who consider themselves free speech proponents are prone to tribalism; they’ll gladly defend one of their own, but not a political opponent.)

People are also prone to exercising coercion, imposing certain types of thought and speech on anyone who doesn’t conform. The book provides multiple examples of the way “offenders” are met not with well-reasoned critiques but with exaggeration, dishonesty, displays of moral outrage, and threats against livelihood, reputation, and physical safety. With social media, it’s easy to instantly whip up large numbers of people from all over to descend on an offending individual, and no facts or well-developed arguments are necessary.

Instead of reasoned arguments, people often rely on personal attacks and ascribe all kinds of evil intentions to someone who steps out of bounds. Discussing a 1994 article by Glenn Loury, Blackford writes:

Within a milieu of political conformity, anyone who speaks out on a particular topic in a particular manner will be judged personally. Meaning will be read into her manner of expression, and her arguments may never be examined on their merits. Questions about her data and her reasoning may well be set aside, and instead she will be assessed as someone who was willing to speak in that way, at that time, on that topic. This may reveal her as an apostate from her group, especially if its true believers are hiding whatever misgivings they have about the local orthodoxy. A likely consequence is that a group’s moderates and internal dissenters will be driven out of conversations, or at least be forced to keep silent about their moderate and dissenting opinions.

What happens when people are afraid to speak, express doubt, or question a group in any way? Along with festering resentment, stagnation sets in. Far fewer original thoughts, interesting proposals, or important questions get introduced. People’s capacity for critical thinking weakens, and they struggle more with how to construct a strong argument or evaluate evidence. (What need is there for critical thinking when you can engage in knee-jerk outrage?) There’s also more dishonesty, distortions, and misconceptions. For example, when non-conforming thoughts are severely curbed in a particular environment (such as a university), people might assume that the established, acceptable opinion on a certain topic is more widely held than it actually is, because no one is speaking out in disagreement or calling for greater nuance.

Towards the end of the book, Blackford offers suggestions for how to combat forced conformity and promote well-reasoned discussions and inquiry. Examples include recognizing propaganda techniques, resisting the knee-jerk impulse to join social media mobs, assessing other people’s words and intentions in as fair-minded a way as possible, pushing for changes in various organizations in terms of their speech codes or the reasons for which they fire someone, and facing down an outrage-fueled mob without caving in to irrational demands or abuse.

Another book I read recently, The Coddling of the American Mind, overlaps in some of its topics with The Tyranny of Opinion and also offers suggestions at the end for “wiser kids,” “wiser universities,” and “wiser societies,” including ways to protect physical safety and dignity while engaging in more robust discussions, self-reflection, and a principled stand against mobs.

I want to be optimistic, and I do see more people sharing concerns about conformity and the suppression of free speech and inquiry in ways that don’t involve government censorship. But what are the incentives for greater numbers of people to more consistently resist suppression, conformity, and an overly broad definition of harm?

Outrage and tribalism are powerful and attractive. The self-righteous thrill, the malicious glee, or the power trip of fomenting or joining a mob appeals to many. Engaging in more critical thinking and self-reflection is difficult, and the rewards aren’t usually immediate. Evaluating evidence, waiting for more evidence, withholding a knee-jerk opinion, making the effort to truly understand someone with a different political point-of-view, and conveying another person’s point-of-view honestly – all of that takes mental effort and a commitment of character.

You can say that one of the rewards is a strengthening of your integrity and self-respect. But to what extent do people care enough or even associate those qualities with the ability to sustain a civil, honest discussion? It’s also much less risky to keep your head down, especially if you aren’t wealthy, well-connected, or powerful. A major pushback against mob mentality and excessive restrictions on speech will need to come from thoughtful, influential individuals and from large numbers of people who support them – people who don’t agree with each other on all topics or share all of the same beliefs.

Here’s another excerpt from the book. It can serve as a call to action, pushing for a return to traditionally liberal values, which are necessary to maintain a certain kind of society. (If this kind of society is sufficiently important to us, we’ll try to keep those values alive.)

… principles such as secular government, free inquiry and discussion, and the rule of law; values such as individuality, spontaneity, and original thinking – have wider cultural resonance if only we take the trouble to explain and advocate them. When we override these principles and values with supercharged anxieties about identity and offence, we throw away what made liberalism attractive in the first place.”

Three Parenting Styles to Avoid

I was recently talking to someone about “modern parenting,” and they were telling me how the main problem with parenting nowadays is that it’s too lenient. Lenient in the sense that kids get away with too much, run wild, fail to stay off people’s lawn, that kind of thing.

I don’t agree. I mean, there are definitely parents who are too permissive (and I’ll bring them up in the post). But based on what I’ve observed over the years, permissiveness isn’t the sole problem, or even one of the most important problems. A lot of dysfunctional parenting involves parents controlling their kids in unhealthy ways or placing expectations on them that aren’t realistic (like, “You will never fail, you will always be happy, you will always be my friend, you will be the answer to all my problems” etc.).

The three dysfunctional parenting styles I’m bringing up in this post are:

The Helicopter Parent

Helicopter parents hover over their kid in a stifling, unrelenting sort of way that’s inappropriate for the kid’s age and abilities. They micromanage many or all aspects of their kid’s life and keep the kid from confronting reasonable challenges.

Helicopter parents create a situation where their kids can’t function independently. They then say, “Because my kids can’t do things on their own, I need to swoop in and save them.” They thwart independence and exacerbate dependence.

These kids have a difficult time learning how to do things on their own, deal with setbacks, and work out interpersonal problems. They’re more likely to feel helpless and think of themselves as ineffective across different situations. Problems like anxiety and depression can easily take root in them.

The Buddy Parent

There’s nothing wrong with parents and kids being friendly with each other or having fun together. But there are parents who act as if they’re friends with their kids the way a classmate or sibling would be.

They don’t tend to set rules, define boundaries, or act as a reasonable authority figure or guide. (Far from consistently, anyway.) They want to be liked at all times. Some of them talk to their kids as they would to an adult friend and share their personal problems inappropriately. (They might in some ways wish to be kids themselves.)

In reference to the issue mentioned at the start of the post, this kind of parent is generally too lenient. (However, wanting to be your kid’s best buddy isn’t the only reason parents become overly permissive. Sometimes, parents aren’t particularly interested in their kids, and their permissiveness comes from being detached or neglectful.)

The Sculptor Parent

To these parents, the kid isn’t a person but a project. The kid can be shaped into a trophy, something the parent will be proud to display in-person and on social media posts. The kid can be crammed into the mold of an athlete, straight-A student, artist, scientist, beauty pageant contestant, or whatever else the parent needs them to be.

Parents who get competitive with each other, who strongly need approval from other people, or who want to live out various dreams and hopes through their child are all susceptible to becoming sculptors. Another scenario is when parents can’t stand certain qualities in the child – usually qualities that the parents hate in themselves. They lack the self-awareness to deal with their emotions in a mature way, so instead they apply the chisel to the marble or squeeze and squeeze the clay, as if their kid can be made into anything.

This parenting style hampers the child’s ability to explore and develop their own personality and interests in healthy ways. It teaches kids that they aren’t loved for themselves but for how they perform to expectations. Kids raised like this can wind up suffering burnout, depression, and an intense fear of failure, a sense that if they aren’t successful or given approval, they won’t be worth anything.

What Does Dysfunctional Parenting Typically Boil Down To?

There are other dysfunctional (and abusive) patterns of behavior that I haven’t covered here. But a key characteristic of dysfunctional parenting, regardless of the form it takes, is the parent’s inability to genuinely see their own child and treat the child as a distinct individual.

Parents wind up using the child to serve some psychological need. They might need the child to be a scapegoat, a vessel for the parent’s dreams, the parent v2.0 with certain bugs fixed, a clingy dependent who’ll never walk away, a best friend who’ll always like them, an uncomplaining servant, or whatever else.

Parents will often be controlled by the psychological need. They won’t be aware of it, at least not fully, and they’ll resist thinking deeply about their own actions, because the need is painful, powerful, and rooted in them. Parents usually find ways of rationalizing their behavior (“I’m keeping them safe, I want them to succeed”). But these parenting styles aren’t about safety, success, or happiness. They serve the parent psychologically while undermining the kid.

What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It’s Not Just Intelligence)

In day-to-day life, the quality of your thinking depends so much on character. The company you keep is also important.

It’s not that intelligence doesn’t play a role. It’s just insufficient by itself. People who are mentally quick don’t necessarily think with depth, either generally or in response to certain topics. There’s no guarantee they’ll ever investigate their own opinions or question their own assumptions with any seriousness.

They can use their mental agility to dodge or immediately deflect any ideas or substantive pieces of evidence that don’t fit with their view of “how things are.” (Sometimes, these kinds of deflections help people get through the day without getting bogged down; it’s impossible to spend every moment re-evaluating what you think. But there are situations where deflections and dodges are harmful, shutting down an important line of inquiry or preventing a discussion about a proposed law. The quality and timing of these deflections, and the reasons behind them, are affected by your character – what you value, for instance, and your integrity.)

They may be clever at crafting rationalizations or arguments that seem well-structured. They may feel no need to examine whether they’re behaving with integrity; it’s enough that other “right-minded” people are expressing the same thoughts. They may prioritize “owning” someone in an argument over learning anything. Or they use their intelligence mostly for snark and viciousness.

An intelligent mind can still be a lazy mind. It can still be a narrow mind or a mind given to exceptional dishonesty. (Context matters too. An individual can display in-depth thinking in one area of life while remaining superficial or dishonest in other areas – and either not recognizing the superficiality or not being troubled by it, because it doesn’t cost them social approval.)

Continue reading →

Rediscovering What I Value

While cleaning my desk, I found a notebook from a few years ago where I’d listed 10 qualities or human capabilities I admire.

They came from a site that displays dozens of these words and asks you to pick a smaller subset that represents what you value most. (Something like that – I don’t remember the site or the specific instructions.)

It’s interesting to consider what I chose as most reflective of my values.

Continue reading →

“You only know what you know ’til you know…”

YouTube recommendations sometimes are wonderful. I go on YouTube mostly for music, and this song by Mozella (an artist I was unfamiliar with), hit me with its lyrics, which have some good insights about change and development.

“You only know what you know ‘til you know.”

People, myself included, sometimes wish so badly that they could know everything they need to know at the outset of some great venture or new stage in life – to have the knowledge, complete and whole, at their command, to keep them from missteps, embarrassing mistakes, and painfully wrongheaded decisions.

But there’s no such complete knowledge. At any given point, you know what you know, that’s it. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a mentor or another trusted person to guide you, you still have to live out the process of learning for yourself, and one way or another, you won’t always get things right. The key is to keep learning, to grow in wisdom.

“So many things mattered to you that really meant nothing but you needed them to find the truth.”

Yes, some of the things that once interested you may seem unimportant now, but they’re still a part of you. They helped you become who you are now. You’ve still learned something from them.

“You can’t sleep it off or drink it away, trick it with frivolities, fortune, or fame.”

There’s a temptation to ignore pain, which is a symptom of an underlying difficulty, something in you that needs to be addressed. The strategies for avoidance and denial are varied and often involve an addiction or compulsion of some kind; maybe you drink frequently or spend hours on mindless Internet browsing. But the problems don’t go away. The call for change and growth persists, even when it goes unanswered. How long can you avoid change or pretend that everything can stay the way it is?

When Children Become Branding Tools

A few months ago I came across an article about a young Instagram star, only 9 years old, whose posts were suddenly deleted after evidence came out that her older brother might be feeding her lines in a video.

At the article, you can find a quote from a family spokesperson about how the child is currently undergoing “rebranding.”

Her old brand had her swearing and getting into feuds with other social media celebrities for the amusement of millions of people who don’t know her or care about her.

What does the new brand of 9-year-old look like? I didn’t check, because kids shouldn’t be undergoing “rebranding.”

Recently, an Instagram “mommy blogger” posted a picture of one of her children and lamented how he doesn’t get as many likes or comments as her other children. It was his birthday, so she urged her followers to send him “alllllll the likes,” and she sadly wondered if, when he’s older, his self-worth will suffer once he lays eyes on his Instagram stats. (Why would he be looking at these stats, though? Why should a child have to worry about this…? Why?)

On the Internet, every part of a child’s life can become part of their public persona. The camera follows these kids into all corners of their lives – as much as their parents permit, and some parents don’t seem to care at all how much gets revealed.

It’s not that child exploitation is a new thing, only that the Internet allows it to become even more pervasive and invasive. Imagine you’re a kid sitting down to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. Without your understanding and consent, your cereal eating becomes public fodder. Strangers stare at the images and judge you, liking or withholding likes, and commenting of course (Cute hair! Aww, looks sleepy! Don’t mean to be rude, but that haircut is not flattering! Why isn’t he eating something more nutritious? Why does this kid look so grumpy?! Smile a little, come on! Awww, cute smile!)

And it doesn’t stop with cereal eating. It can be anything at any time – brushing teeth, playing on a swing set, picking clothes to wear to school, having a meltdown at a supermarket (with the right branding, the meltdown can be spun as funny).

Parents who subject their kids to this onslaught of attention may argue that they don’t actually value their kids based on likes and other social media stats. However, they’re still focused on making their family brand look as good as possible, at all times, to as many strangers as possible. The kid picks up on this, even before they understand Instagram algorithms. The mom whose son needs more birthday love (from strangers?) is troubled by her kid’s Instagram performance, even if she publicly blames herself rather than him. “My insufficiency caused this statistical deficit,” she wrote.

What she meant by ‘insufficiency’ is unclear. Did she use the wrong filters for her son’s photos? Did she fail to capture him at the best angles? Is her son going to wind up feeling guilty and inadequate as his mother sighs about social media insufficiencies?

(Oh, that dear boy. It can’t be him. It’s me! And yet… my other children perform well, so… but no, he’s a dear boy, even if he can’t keep up with the others. But what makes him less likeable?)

Moving right along… how about this dad and stepmom who received five years of probation for child neglect after posting YouTube videos of their “pranks” on their kids. Anything for likes, clicks, and subscribes, right?

A while ago I read reports of a “social credit system” China is developing to rank citizens publicly by the value they have, as measured across dimensions that include wealth and social connections. Much as we shake our heads about how dystopian it all is, hopefully something we’ll never see in the US, we’re already priming ourselves and our kids psychologically to more easily accept a society where: a) you’re monitored a lot, maybe round-the-clock b) any behavior is up for scrutiny and judgment c) records of your images, words, thoughts, and deeds, are archived and can be dug up at any time, even decades later, and d) your value is indeed measured by ‘likes.’ Here we might think of it as personal branding rather than good citizenship, but it’s a mindset where you can find no worth outside of being seen and judged favorably by other people. And it’s a mindset inculcated in people from a young age. Even when parents don’t actively push it, the culture is still steeped in these values.