Standard Stories Continued

Standard Stories Continued

“Is there anything wrong with standard stories?” asks Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind. “That depends,” he continues, “on one’s view of their two most striking theoretical commitments, individualism and their psychologism: they focus on a small number of individuals (‘designated actors’) and attribute the outcomes they want to explain to the psychology of these individuals.”
In almost any movie we see (I am particularly thinking about Disney movies here) there is a pretty small cast of characters. There are a handful of main characters who interact and drive the story forward, and then a few surrounding characters like co-workers, cousins, or fellow train passengers who are just in the background and don’t really contribute to the story. Standard stories flatten the world, and relying on them too much to understand our own worlds isn’t realistic because we have so many more people who play prominent roles in our lives, or who play important roles at different times, but are not consistently a main character in the story.
Cassam continues, “standard stories are, in this sense, personal and they have plots like those of a novel or a play. According to structuralism that is the fundamental problem. Because of their focus on individuals and their idiosyncratic psychologies standard stories forget that individuals only exist within complex social structures.” The narratives we create in our own minds and the stories we create for movies and television ignore the complex social structures (or at least fail to directly consider them) that drive a lot of our behavior and psychology. We attribute a great amount of influence and power to individual level decision-making. Specific character traits are elevated, describing and defining everything we need to know about an individual, and the correct set of thoughts and traits is all a character in a standard story needs in order to succeed and reach happily-ever-after. Again, this flattens our reality. The real world has complex social structures, institutions, and systems that are not always transparent, hard to navigate, and can limit many of the decisions in our lives.
Finally, Cassam writes, “what that means is that in many cases it isn’t individuals’ psychologies that explain their actions but the constraints imposed by the structures within which they operate.” Standard stories work well in our Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic  (WEIRD) culture in the United States. It highlights the power and possibility of the individual, elevating our decision-making, our hard-working ethos, and our beliefs that our thoughts and actions are what determine our success or failure in all that we do. Unfortunately, the world is more complex than what we see in standard stories. We become over-reliant on explanations for the world based on individuals and their psychologies, and don’t spend enough time thinking deeply about the structures and systems within which we live. Success in a standard story is incredibly rewarding, after all, it is all about you. However failure in such a story is crushing, because it doesn’t acknowledge the factors that limited your ability and decision-making. Standard stories place any failure entirely within the individual. they are simplified ways to understand the world, but are also inaccurate and leave us with a flattened understanding of what our existence is truly like.
Situationists

Situationists

“Situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors,” writes Quassim Cassam to quote John Doris from his 2002 book on character. Cassam argues in his book that the adoption of epistemic vices and the development of epistemic virtues are important factors for humanity and that they can shape how people behave. Cassam’s argument runs against the quote from Doris.
To present his argument, Cassam lays out arguments from situationists writing, “one would think that curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are intellectual virtues, yet studies suggest that people are more likely to reason creatively, flexibly, and curiously when their moods have been elevated by such seemingly trivial and epistemically irrelevant situational influences as candy, success at anagrams, and comedy films.The argument is that our minds are flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. We might be disciplined, open-minded, and patient when we are sitting in front of our computer at 9 a.m. for work, but when we are in a hurry and someone spills something in front of us at the grocery store, those traits no longer matter. If something as simple as a plant in our office, the smell of cleaning solutions, and the number of a building can change our mood, how well we tidy up, and whether judges assess large or small fines on a business, then we are not really in control as much as we think. Situations control us more than we recognize.
Cassam takes the argument to its conclusion by writing, “Situationists conclude that people don’t have robust character traits like compassion and courage, and that how they behave is often better explained by other factors.” But for Cassam, this conclusion is overreaching. People really do behave differently based on individual character traits. Epistemic vices and their study demonstrate that people who are more open-minded make consistently better decisions than people who are closed-minded. Similarly, people who are gullible, arrogant, and prejudiced will systematically behave in ways that are more detrimental to themselves and society than people who do not display those character traits. Situationists, Cassam argues, give to much weight to the environment and not enough weight to individuals, agency, and the power of the human mind to be considerate and self-reflective.
Personally, I find myself to lean more toward the situationists than toward Cassam. I agree that laboratory studies involving confederates and environmental studies demonstrating that trivial factors which influence behavior are limited. They don’t truly capture reality, just a brief and normally unusual snapshot of our lives. However, I think in our general daily thinking we error too far in assuming that individuals truly control their lives. It is a useful fiction, but I think we would do well to recognize the power of our environments and be more considerate in shaping the structures, institutions, and situations which guide our lives. We can learn lessons from the impacts of seemingly trivial factors that influence our behaviors. We can see that we have the capacity to change dramatic traits about ourselves from situation to situation and better structure how we interact with the world around us to produce more virtuous behaviors. Assuming that humans are consistent and that virtues or vices are more a matter of control than a matter of situational context ignores the reality that we live within institutions that shape how our minds work.
Money Priming

Money Priming

An idea I have been a little obsessed with for the last several months is the importance of community in the lives of human beings. We are social creatures, and we depend on social structures for support, connection, joy, and meaning. During the Pandemic, we have had to face an absence of community, pulling back even more from the social groups and settings of our lives. America was already isolated in many ways, and I am worried for the long-term consequences of what we will lose in terms of community from this Pandemic.

 

One reason why the United States has dealt with diminishing senses of community may be related to our pursuit of wealth. Our culture values money and success so much that we elected a man with no political experience, with a history of bankruptcy, but with extraordinary bravado around his personal wealth to be our president. We elected President Trump because many of us wanted to feel a sense of greater wealth, or at least a possibility of greater financial success, and liked the ways in which he represented those ideas.

 

(I will pause for a minute to note that I think the president is reprehensible and I am glad I did not and never will vote for him. I also want to recognize that I am viewing supporters of the president in the general sense, applying a more positive lens toward them than others might. I recognize and understand that many of his supporters have dangerous and disgusting racial views that should be abhorred, but I also recognize that many of his supporters generally don’t think about politics much and like the presentation of wealth and the possibility of wealth that he presents.)

 

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents information about how money priming impacts our brains. Factors related to money seem to trigger specific responses and behaviors in people. As he writes, “The general theme of these findings is that the idea of money primes individualism: a reluctance to be involved with others, to depend on others, or to accept demands from others.” Money, in other words, works against community.

 

Individualism itself is not terrible. I don’t know where the balance should lie between community and individualism, and I feel myself pulled in separate directions regarding both. However, I believe it is our connections to each other and our shared goals and purposes that will help us feel a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Living in suburban homes (as I do), parking in our garages, and withdrawing into our homes to stream shows (also guilty!) is individualistic and exclusionary. It doesn’t help us have meaningful relationships with our friends, families, neighbors, and fellow citizens. It doesn’t help us work toward shared goals, doesn’t help us develop sustainable futures, and doesn’t help us better understand each other.

 

We need more community in our lives to tackle major problems in our society. Unfortunately, America is committed to ideas of wealth creation to an extent that limits our ability to build the community we need. Money priming influences how we behave in relation to each other, and it is not helping rebuild the communities that we have allowed to atrophy over the decades.
Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall Poppy Syndrome

“There is unevenness, you know, when some objects rise conspicuous above others,” Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic.

 

I’m pretty fascinated with a concept that is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome and is often strongly expressed in Australia and New Zealand (so I understand – I haven’t been there myself to experience the culture fist hand). The idea is this:

 

A tall poppy that rises higher than the rest, that stand out above the others, is more likely to be decapitated than any other poppy. The poppy that is taller than the rest is not an admirable and praiseworthy poppy, it is risking itself and is likely to become a target. It is the first to be cut down because it is the most visible and easiest to see. An average poppy among a sea of poppies is likely to be left untouched and unbothered while the towering poppy next door is likely to have its top chopped off.

 

The idea is a warning against our ego and an argument in support of modesty. It is a polar opposite of current conceptions of the American Dream. Rather than standing out, boasting successful achievements, and always trying to have more, Tall Poppy Syndrome sends a message that it is better to do well, but not to do too well. As Seneca says, when some objects conspicuously rise above others, they create unevenness.

 

The potential of unevenness, or inequality, is an argument in favor of Tall Poppy Syndrome. The United States has never embraced a Tall Poppy Syndrome mindset, and instead we have developed a culture that tells us it is best to standout in all that we do. Have bright, fashionable clothing. Drive a fancy sports car. Own a big home to show your wealth and success. Inequality is a feature, not a bug, within the American system.

 

Today that inequality is reaching boiling points. Racial inequality (particularly within in policing and opportunity for advancement) is fueling protests. Increases in economic inequality has heightened tensions in the United States since the 2008 financial crisis. And as long as I can remember, social cohesion has clashed with our desire to stand out and be ourselves, producing visible and difficult cultural conflicts over gay marriage, free speech, and whether it is acceptable to wear baggie jeans.

 

There may be times where Tall Poppy Syndrome is limiting and reduces innovation and GDP growth. But its absence, and an all out push to stand out as an individual, can have its own consequences. Donald Trump doesn’t become president in a society that strongly discourages status seeking behavior via Tall Poppy Syndrome. In a culture that is all about economic success, bragging about attention and popularity, and ostentatious wealth, Trump and everything he represents, can rise to the top without fear of being cut down and outcast.

 

I don’t think Tall Poppy Syndrome is a perfect solution to the challenges America faces today, but I do think we need to limit the extent to which we worship the eccentric, ego driven entrepreneurs who have developed some of our best tools and technologies, and who to this point have represented the pinnacle of American success. Encouraging more settling at a certain point, more efforts to create a rising tide to lift all boats, rather than encouraging the tall poppy, might be necessary for our country to move forward on more even footing.

A Glitch in Voting With Our Feet

In the United States, we hold on to terrific myths about the power of the individual. We celebrate (mostly) entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who bring us new technologies and cool cars, and we have magazines focused entirely on major business leaders whose insight and innovation power our most successful companies. We believe that individuals hold the power to change the world, and we believe that giving people freedom will lead to rational decisions on the part of individuals to find the best outcome for our country.

 

An idea that pops out of this myth is the idea of voting with our feet. The term refers to people making a decision to go someplace else, to chose something else, and to literally move ourselves with our feet to a different option. We might vote with our feet when we move from one city to another, or when we leave one store to shop at another, or quite literally in some state caucuses when we walk from one side of a room to another to support a different political candidate. We believe that our individual choices and where we chose to shop and how we chose to vote will really make a difference in the world.

 

This is only partially true, and only sometimes has the positive outcomes we hope for. In many instances, our individual choices are just not enough to overcome structural factors which entrench the status quo. Sometimes we vote with our feet, but really move from one option provided by a company to another, without really making a difference in the bottom line of the company we are voting for or against with our feet (think of moving from Facebook to Instagram, which is still owned by Facebook). Voting with our feet can also have very negative consequences, such as entrenching segregation without having anyone who is clearly to blame.

 

In The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen writes about the ways in which our society is becoming more segregated through the use of voting with our feet. Across the country we see people move into “nicer” neighborhoods which creates a level of economic, racial, and political segregation that should (I would argue) raise moral concerns. About the issue Cowen writes, “The self-selection process is running its course, and how people are voting with their feet often differs from which is coming out of their mouths.”

 

Many people who believe that schools and communities should be more diverse are moving to areas with less diversity. They are not consciously choosing to live in more or less segregated areas, but they are voting with their feet to leave areas of worse economic condition but greater diversity in favor of more economically sound and culturally homogeneous regions.

 

This works because we empower the individual in our society and don’t want to do anything to limit the power of the individual’s choice. Segregation is a result of the power to vote with our feet, but it is also the dismantlement of the myth of the individual. The rational individual is not making individual choices that make the world a better place. Instead, the individual is working on feelings that lead to a desire for greater similarity between themselves and their neighbors, ultimately creating a worsening system of segregation. They are following cultural and structural factors which push us to want ever larger houses in ever more expensive neighborhoods, recreating segregation that often created pockets of towns that are so different economically and culturally. We should learn from this example that our individual choices are both not sufficient to bring about the best outcomes for our society and planet, and that simultaneously our individual choices can have a serious power to shape the world for better or worse. We must think first about the systems that structure our decisions, and then think about how we can make the most of our choices for positive, rather than negative outcomes.

Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.

 

This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.

 

This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”

 

In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.

 

The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

Colorblindness and Individualism

Americans celebrate individualism. We love feeling that we are special, and we love feeling that we have value based on our accomplishments and achievements. We even love when we have support from those around us to give us nudges toward our goals and help us with both the small and the large daunting steps along our journey. What we don’t love, however, is acknowledging how much we truly rely on others and on luck for our success. We are often quick to find excuses for mistakes and failures, pushing the negative off to someone else, but when it comes to the good things, we have no problem claiming personal responsibility and demonstrating our individual achievement.

 

This spirit of individualism that hypes up our personal responsibility for success and downplays our role in our failures is dangerous. it stems from and further builds an ego inflation that puts us at the center of the universe, and denies our true relationships to society and those around us. This individualism and ego inflation shifts the way we see the world, as Ryan Holiday put it in his book Ego is the Enemy, “It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Its when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

 

When we talk about personal responsibility in society we must be careful, because our individualism places incredible value on who we areas a single person and misses our role within the collective society. We begin to forget how much we need other people for our success, how much other people depend on us to maintain their lifestyle, and how connected all of us are.

 

An area where we see individualism as particularly damaging within society is criminal justice. Colorblindness is the overwhelming doctrine of criminal justice and race in the United States, but the problem is that colorblindness is an individual approach to the society, and it is subject to the dangers of ego that Ryan Holiday explained above. Our sense of ourselves is inaccurate, and our unrealistically positive view of who we are changes the way we interpret and understand the world and our place in it. When we begin to focus purely on individuals in criminal justice policy, we don’t recognize the structural realities that shape the world for so many, and we act purely in our own self interest.

 

Michelle Alexander describes what happens when we allow colorblindness to take over and are guided by a sense of individualism and ego in her book The New Jim Crow, “For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves.” This view of race and individual responsibility is distorted. It is consistent with a view that places the individual at the center of the universe, but it is inconsistent with the reality that we depend on each other and need to engage with others to succeed. Individualism is easily hijacked by ego, and colorblindness is a defense mechanism to prop up our ego and highlight our individual advantages.