The Potential & Danger of Taboos

The Potential & Danger of Taboos

In the United States, there are many things that have been taboo throughout our country’s history. Today, saying that something is retarded is taboo, a positive development to reduce the stigma around cognitive disabilities by preventing people from using the word as an insult. However, in our not too distant past interracial marriages were taboo. Black men could be jailed and worse for entering into a consenting relationship with a white woman. Maintaining social order with taboos can push us in positive directions, but it can also push us in very negative directions. Steven Pinker writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature,
 
 
“The mentality of taboo, like the mentality of morality of which it is part, also can pull in either direction. It can turn religious or sexual nonconformity into an outrage that calls for ghastly punishment, but it can also prevent the mind from sliding into dangerous territory such as wars of conquest, the use of chemical and nuclear weapons, dehumanizing racial stereotypes, casual allusions to rape, and the taking of identifiable human lives.”
 
 
It is hard, even in a world where our digital footprint leaves a trail of everything we do, to police everyone all the time. It is hard to create rules that everyone can follow and obey to help society reach desired outcomes. Taboos are not set in stone and can’t be controlled the way laws can, but they generally do a better job of shaping behavior and desired outcomes than our laws. They don’t require constant policing, but instead rely on feedback that individuals receive when they step close to a taboo or cross the line.
 
 
The problem is that taboos can arise and disappear without us fully understanding where they came from and why they disappeared. A law is clearly visible and its destruction or elimination marks a clear turning point. Taboos are harder to control and shape. This is an important thing for us to think about and consider as we engage in society. Do we want to accept politicians who make fun of people with disabilities, even if they are our preferred candidate, or do we want to “cancel” them because they have violated a taboo? Do we want to allow violence in some cases but not others, or do we want to enforce an all-out taboo against violence? These are real questions we face today. Framing them in terms of absolute taboos may or may not be appropriate, but it does change the parameters of the debates and decisions. Taboos have great potential, but also great danger.
Unravelling Norms

Unravelling Norms

A worrying lesson for many people of the Trump Presidency was that much of the order and process for politics in the United States is based on norms with little to no actual legal backing or consequence. Norms help set boundaries for decorum, help us learn how to navigate relationships and spaces, and in nearly all US presidential elections of the past, have helped us manage the transition of power from one president to the next.
 
 
Trump demonstrated that norms can be bulldozed by those who are either immune from the consequences of violating norms or by those who simply don’t care about the consequences. We also saw that when norms unravel, people get worried, something Steven Pinker writes about in the context of nuclear weapons in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He writes, “a norm that rests only on mutual recognition of that norm is, of course, vulnerable to a sudden unraveling. One might worry … that nuclear nations outside the club of great powers … might not be party to the common understanding that the use of nuclear weapons is unthinkable.”
 
 
Norms are key parts of our institutional systems, even our international institutions as Pinker demonstrates. We rely on norms because writing down how every law should apply in every situation is not possible. There will always be important exceptions to rules and laws no matter how well we write the laws.  Norms guide us and allow us to navigate spaces and situations without having explicit and direct rules and laws for every possible scenario. But norms also become invisible until someone is suddenly violating them.
 
 
Tump was dangerous because he disregarded many political norms. Any news he disliked he dismissed as fake news. Even for the 2016 election, which he won, he never accepted the legitimacy of the electoral system. He refused to concede power after losing an election until enough outrage built following the storming of the Capitol. The outcomes were awful, but somewhat limited due to Trump’s laziness and incompetence.
 
 
As Pinker notes, norms also govern how most countries think about nuclear weapons. But there is no reason someone couldn’t disregard the norms around nuclear weapons the way that Trump disregarded American political norms. Pinker highlights the danger of a rogue actor or terrorist with a nuclear weapon. He writes about the danger of states like North Korea which may not adhere to our norms. If norms are all that bind the prohibition on the use and testing of nuclear weapons, then there is little that would prevent someone as rash as Trump or the North Korean leader from disregarding the norms and making a decision that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
 
 
Norms are often invisible until they begin to unravel. When they do, it can happen suddenly and be very dangerous, especially when those norms surround major transitions of power or the use of nuclear weapons.
Sharks, The Navy, & The Availability Heuristic

Sharks, The Navy, And the Availability Heuristic

In the book Grunt, Mary Roach investigates what Navies across the globe do to keep their sailors, pilots, and personnel safe from shark attacks. To some extent, Roach’s findings can be summed up by describing the availability heuristic. Our minds make predictable cognitive errors, and our fear of sharks, and Roach’s subsequent curiosity about how navies protect their personnel from sharks, is in more ways inspired by cognitive error rather than real threat and danger.
In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman writes, “We defined the availability heuristic as the process of judging frequency by the ease with which instances come to mind.” That is to say that we don’t actually have a good mental database of shark attack frequencies relative to other nautical maladies. Neither do we have a great mental database of times when we were successful on the job, the number of electric vehicles on the road, or how many Asian-American actors have been in major motion pictures. We rely on availability. The easier it is for us to think of instances of a shark attack, instances of us doing something good at work, times we saw Teslas in the neighborhood, or whether we just saw Shang-Chi, the more we will think that each of these things occurs with high frequency.
Naval Special Warfare Command communications specialist Joe Kane is quoted as saying the following in Grunt, “You’re coming at this the wrong way. The Question is not do Navy SEALs need shark repellant? The question is, Do sharks need Navy SEAL repellent?”
Shark attacks are sensationalized and make headlines around the world.  Its easy to think of times when we have seen a shark bite victim on the news or when we can remember seeing a news headline about a shark attack. These stories are highly available, so we think they are more common than they really are, and we think they are more dangerous than they really are. After all, a shark encounter that ended with a shark being scared away without trying to bit anyone doesn’t make the news to become available to our minds. Roach writes, “a floating sailor could dispatch a curious shark by hitting it churning the water with his legs. (Baldridge [a researcher Roach spoke with] observed that even a kick to a shark’s nose from the rear leg of a swimming rat was enough to cause a startled response and rapid departure from the vicinity.)”
It is probably still a good idea for naval personnel to think about sharks and how to best train personnel to respond to sharks. However, our fear of sharks is overblown, a consequence of the availability heuristic. Sharks should only be considered to a certain extent, and beyond that, navies will face diminishing marginal returns and unnecessary expenses to try to keep their personnel safe from a minimal threat. It is the availability heuristic they may have to worry about more than sharks.
Ever Present Perils

Ever Present Perils

We live in a very dangerous world, but we don’t always recognize it. Most of the time we move about our lives without feeling too much threat to our own personal safety and to our lives, but sudden events can remind us of how close death can be. We see terrible car crashes, are forced away from other people due to a global pandemic, or reminded of health risks when a relative dies of cancer. These sudden shocks of mortality can shake us out of a routine and rhythm, and leave us feeling fearful for what evil might befall us. But the reality is that we do live with ever present perils – the dangers are not just there when a pandemic strikes or when we see a traffic accident.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils.”

 

For Seneca it is important to recognize how fragile life can be and how we are always living with risk. It is interesting to see is how far back in human history these risks have been with us, how they have persisted, and how we have thought (or failed to think) about the perils we face. It is not only today in the age of the automobile that we can be suddenly reminded of the ever present perils of death and destruction. It is not only in a time of changing demographics and social relationships that people may be afraid of cancel culture – exile has been a threat to humans for a long time. And grief over the loss of a loved one is also nothing new.

 

The reality of ever present perils isn’t new, but we all come to the realization of how fragile and risky life can be at our own pace, at different moments, and it seems to be a realization that we all must reach on our own to truly appreciate. It is important that we pause and reflect periodically on our mortality, to ensure that we are focusing our lives in a meaningful direction, and to ensure that we are using our life, our physical body, and our mental faculties in a way that is worthwhile and valuable. We shouldn’t be shocked into remembering our mortality by sudden events, we should be calm and collected as we reflect on the perils around us, confident that we have used our life in a meaningful way, so that when such evils do occur, we are prepared.

Be Calm Ahead of Your Obstacle

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Our minds work really hard to keep us safe, keep us in important positions, and keep us connected so that we can succeed and so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy a high status life. Our minds are trying to help us navigate an uncertain future, but sometimes our minds go too far and we become paralyzed with a fear that is worse than the outcome we want to avoid.

 

Seneca continues, “What I advice you to do is not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not come yet.”

 

We can live our lives worrying about what will go wrong five minutes from now, five days from now, or five years from now, but we never truly know what is around the corner. Sometimes we set artificial deadlines on ourselves and sometimes those deadlines are forced upon us, but that doesn’t mean we need to live every moment of our lives up to that deadline in fear of what will happen if we don’t achieve what we intended by that date. The fear that we feel can be useful in pushing us to get stuff done and avoid procrastination, but when we notice that we can’t sleep at night because we are worried of the negative consequences of what may happen if that bad thing we fear occurs, then it is time for us to step back and refocus on our present moment. I find that it is helpful for me to look at the fears that I have and recognize that in the present moment I am fine, and to recognize that the status quo will most likely continue if I miss the deadline or if the bad thing does happen. There are plenty of things to fear, and we should build a capacity to see that we will still be able to move on with life even if some of our worst fears come true.

 

Ultimately, we know we are going to have obstacles and setbacks in our lives, but that does not mean we need to live every moment in fear of what bad thing is around the corner. We can live conservatively and save money and resources to confidently weather such challenges, but we do not need to allow negative things in our lives to cause us trauma before they have occurred. Preparing ourselves ahead of time will help mitigate the fear, but learning to accept that bad things will happen and learning to enjoy the present moment are the only ways we can truly escape from the fear of what lies ahead.

Unsure

In my last post, I wrote about how the brain handles danger. When we sense danger, we become less creative, more prone to seeing the world as black and white, and we don’t engage our conscious brain as thoroughly as we should. Our brains evolved this way in small groups over thousands of years because it helped us survive in a dangerous and unpredictable world. Today, however, technology and society have changed the human experience and the danger we face is no longer the same. But nevertheless, our brain still holds on to its evolved danger response.

 

In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are biased toward danger thinking. Our brain approaches new situations with our danger sensors turned up. As Bungay Stanier writes, “In other words, if you’re not sure about a situation, you’ll default to reading it as unsafe. And start backing away.”

 

As in the last post, I don’t want to focus for what this means for ourselves directly. I would rather look at how recognizing this should change the way we with those whom we work with, live with, and encounter on a daily basis. In any given situation that is slightly unfamiliar, we are going to default to danger thinking. By focusing on others and understanding the danger that everyone has evolved to feel when taking new steps and taking risks, we can work to better support them and help create an environment that is less dangerous.

 

Within companies, our efforts to boost our egos and dominate a space to be the smartest, most capable, and most important member of the organization cause other people to feel danger. We increase the threat that they may feel and as a consequence, people begin backing away and stop thinking creatively. If instead, we focus on the best outcomes for the team and the company, and we try to minimize the danger and risk that other people experience, we can get more conscious and courageous thinking from the people around us, and ultimately we can have a better and more diverse organization that thinks in new and innovate ways. We can still create environments where competition helps push people to be their best and put forward their best ideas, but the space in which they take risks and put themselves forward needs to be safe to allow diverse views and opinions to be discussed and experimented with. Ultimately, we must take some ownership ourselves for the danger responses in other people, we cannot simply criticize another for feeling threatened and backing away. After all, our brains evolved for this to be our default. To be strong leaders and coaches, we must understand how the brain works and reacts to the world, and we must do our part daily to reduce the danger and threat that others feel and that we push out into the world.

Danger

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are more creative when we are in safe spaces and we are less creative when we feel stressed and threatened. He explains that our brain is constantly examining the where we are, scanning the environment, and determining whether we are in a safe space or a dangerous space. Safe spaces allow us to open up and become more detail and nuance oriented. Dangerous spaces seem to have the opposite effect on us. Regarding dangerous spaces and our reactions, Bungay Stanier writes,

 

“When the brain senses danger, there’s a very different response. here it moves into the familiar flight-or-fight response, what some call the ‘amygdala hijack.’ Things get black and white. Your assumption is that ‘they’ are against you, not with you. You’re less able to engage your conscious brain, and you’re metaphorically, and most likely literally, backing away.”

 

This response to danger probably served us very well as members of hunter-gatherer tribes. When we were in an environment where a dangerous animal may have been threatening us, or when we were pushing too far out onto ice in search of a hole to fish from, or when we got too close to a cliff to get some berries, our brain’s fear center would kick in and pull us back and take away any nuance from the dangerous situation. Something was bad and our brains evolved to keep away from the bad thing.

 

In the 21st century where our greatest physical danger on a typical day is the threat of spilling coffee on our pants (if you work in a typical office setting — construction workers and iron smelters may have some more serious dangers to watch out for), this danger warning system is probably a little overboard and can hinder our performance and ability.

 

What I want to write about given this phenomenon, is not how we can think more clearly and face our dangers to perform better, but to think about the spaces we create for others and how we contribute to those spaces. While we certainly can overcome our danger mode of thinking, we should also think about how we contribute to a given environment and if we make the environment feel safe or threatening for others. If we know that dangerous environments make people back away and perform worse, then we should be trying to create more inviting spaces where people can better engage their conscious brain, feel more relaxed, and produce better and more creative work. Whether we are purchasing tickets at a movie, driving down the road, talking to someone at a basketball game, or chatting in our work environment, we can think about how we are treating other people and whether we are making the space we are in feel more like a safe space or a dangerous space. If we are trying to always “win” with our presence and be the most powerful and intimidating figure in a room, then we will drive people back and suppress their conscious brains. We may feel successful, get a lot of material rewards, and even be admired by many, but at what cost to other human beings who we can assume have the full range of emotions within themselves as we have within ourselves? And now that we know the way the brain’s fear center works, is it truly reasonable for us to attack that weakness in others? I think we can all, on the margins, improve ourselves in any given situation and take steps to make the environment we are in a little safer for all those involved. This will open new avenues of thinking and perceiving the world for those we interact with, and hopefully, the rising tide of human consciousness and creativity can raise all boats and improve everyone’s well being. This is not to say that we should not still challenge ourselves and others, but we should not exploit danger for our own gain at the expense of others.

How Close Together Success and Failure Can Be

Ta-Nihisi Coats, author of Between the World and Me, reflects on his childhood and how close he was at many points in his life to stumbling down the wrong path. Coats grew up in a rough part of Baltimore and had to make daily decisions that could push his life in the wrong direction or help him stay afloat. As a young black man Coats remembers the challenge of making these daily decisions and describes how these decisions physically manifested in his life. Making the right decision was not always clear, and making the wrong decision (or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) often resulted in physical harm. The challenge for Coats was that the right and wrong decisions were never clear. Many times the wrong decision led to physical harm and pain, but oftentimes, so did the right decision.

“What was hiding behind the smoke screen of streets and schools?” Coats asked. “And what did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me?”

Coats described the importance of being tough and understanding how to navigate the streets where he grew up. Even well intentioned children could unintentionally cross the wrong child or the wrong person on the street corner, and even worse, if their parents had issues with dangerous people in the neighborhood, then so did the children. Not shaking hands the right way with the right people and not being able to give the right head nod to the right guys could place ones life at risk, no matter how well one did in school. With such an imminent threat of danger in the streets, the world of number 2 pencils, abstract education principles, and distant payoffs from education were too hazy to be taken seriously. Survival became the main goal, and survival required a set of skills that did not align with the world of education created by the people outside the ghettos.

All of this created a world where Coats and his friends constantly had to walk a fine line between success and failure. The inability to focus in class and build the mental skill set needed to find a good job later in life put their futures in risk, but at the same time, the inability to understand the streets and protect oneself put ones current life at risk. Few could ever navigate this world by shutting out the negative of the social world around them to excel in school, but all were expected to do so, and many would go on to be criticized for not successfully navigating such treacherous terrain from elementary through high school. A wrong step, a few bad grades, an unintentional insult to the wrong person, and success (or even life) could be taken away from Coats and the children he grew up with.

Music, Fear, Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coats discussed growing up in America as a black man in his book Between the World and Me and two of the ideas he continually returned to were fear and not having control of ones body as a black man. Coats described the way that fear made its way into his daily life and manifested in the decisions he made, in the dangers of the places he went, and in the possibility of his future being taken away at any moment. By describing his understanding of the relationship between black people and police he described the possibility of other people using his body to control him. Combined, these forces shaped the culture around Coats as he grew up in ways both implicit and explicit. He never felt truly secure, and he never felt that there was anything physical that he had control over.

 

Born out of this culture, Coats explains, was music and attitudes that other people condemned. Describing his peers and their adaptations to these pressures Coats writes, “I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew,  the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrision and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.”

 

The rap music so frequently reviled by people outside of the black community, when put in context, becomes more than just music with violent and explicit lyrics. It becomes a response to a world that pushes black people to live in fear and to live without control of even their most basic possession, their body. When police go out of their way to stop black people, search their person and property for drugs, and beat or use deadly force at the slightest sign of danger the boastfulness and power inducing feeling of rap music and gangster culture becomes more understandable. We live in a world where very few people are outwardly racist and where most people understand the danger in racist thinking, but nevertheless, racism continues with us thanks to our tribal brain. It exists not in individuals and their actions, but in systems, processes, and policies that appear race neutral but impact different racial groups in different ways. Racism today does not express itself directly, but is supported indirectly by those advantaged groups who do not want to see the status quo change and who hold up merit and colorblindness as evidence of a lack of racism, despite clear disparate outcomes for racial and minority groups.

 

The moment we meet another person we make snap judgements about them, about who we think they are, about whether we think they are like us, and about whether we can trust them. Colin Wright in his book Considerations spends a lot of time looking at these implicit biases and encourages us to become aware of them, and to become aware of times when we are pushing others away from us or withdrawing from situations where we are surrounded by people we deem to be others. Without realizing it we have perpetuated racism through implicit bias and through stories of colorblindness. Studies show that our implicit bias is to see black people as larger and more threatening, and that we will be more likely to expect crime and violence from black people, even if we are well intentioned.

 

Seneca wrote that even the most self-sufficient man could not live without the society of man, but when that society thinks you are a criminal, threatens you, and takes control of your physical body, your existence can never be fulfilled. Coats throughout his book describes the way that black people have their future robbed from them because the society they depend on does not care about their success as much as their punishment and their restriction. None of us actively act to put black people down, to instill fear in the minds of black children, or to control the bodies of black people, but we still have organized ourselves and throughout history have disadvantaged black people in a way that limits the aid and acceptance that society provides. At the same time, we demand that we ourselves are judged on a merit basis and we view our own success as coming from entirely within. We do not see the way in which we rely on the society of man for our existence. Like someone riding a road bike, even with a wind to our back, we still feel wind in our face, making it seem as though we are being pushed back, despite the fact that a strong wind propels us forward. Recognizing and understanding our dependence on society and how our society pushes back against black people can help us understand the culture and attitudes of black people in America today.