Where the Narrative Stops

Back in February, I talked about the scripts and narratives that guide our life, with a specific focus on the cognitive dissonance that happens when we try and “disobey” them. Today instead I’m going to talk about the way in which I believe those narratives are getting weaker and less meaningful. It’s also probably going to borrow a bunch from my series on Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (1, 2, 3, 4), because shared scripts and narratives are clearly a core component of Haidt’s “moral capital”.

In fact the more I draft this post, the more I realize I should throw in one more previous essay reference: Nostalgia For Ye Olde Days also talks around this issue a little bit. In hindsight though I think that post committed exactly the sin I want to talk about today, of focusing too much on things in common (look at the examples I used, of yoga, and veganism, and video games) instead of narratives in common.

My thesis is this: people today (and particularly younger people) have increasingly uncertain and unclear visions of where and what and how they want their life to be, due largely to the erosion of binding social narratives and the equivalent moral capital. This is leading to an increase in chronic existential unhappiness, and various other issues.

In middle-class post-war America, there was a single, nearly universal narrative that existed in the cultural zeitgeist: you grew up, got a career (as distinct from just a job, and only if you were male), got married, had kids, raised your kids. Rinse, repeat. People who grew up with this narrative could rest assured that if they followed it, they were “living a good life”, or something along those lines. Every life is different, and some people who followed this path were genuinely terrible, but at some sort of existential level the promise was that you would be alright. It was just How Things Are.

Of course this narrative is very restrictive if it’s not quite what you want for yourself. The “free love” and hippie rebellion of the following generation were largely reactions against this narrative, even though in practice most of the rebels eventually settled down and lived just that life. And it’s also true that this narrative still exists in pockets today; the Mormons, for example, seem to have it pretty down pat at this point. It’s just not nearly as pervasive.

But if that narrative is increasingly dying out in the general population, what narrative is replacing it? It’s easy to point to specific examples (social activism comes to mind) but for a lot of people I would argue there isn’t anything replacing it. We grow up, finish high school, (potentially) finish university, and then… the narrative stops. We want to give people the freedom to pursue their life’s passion, to not get stuck in the “rat race”, to love who they love, and build the world they want to see. But in giving too much freedom we also give an overwhelming selection of choices. If you know the “next step” in your life is to get a career, then suddenly you have something to work toward. It doesn’t matter if your career has some ultimate fulfilling purpose; it’s just What You Do.

Today, it’s really easy to spend a lot of your twenties (and soon, your thirties) just kinda wandering around. Working, usually, because you need money to pay the bills, but working jobs, not careers. Looking, waiting, for something that you can do that will give you that purpose, that sense of fulfillment. And even if you see it, even if you know deep down “that thing over there is what I want to do with my life”, it’s too easy to dismiss it as too hard, unachievable, and end up settling for nothing at all. Purpose is what we make of it, and I’ll settle for somebody else’s narrative any day over no purpose at all.

It would be nice if there was some way to create a good “default” cultural narrative for people to fall back on without restricting their personal freedom at all. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work that way; a key part of Haidt’s definition of moral capital is that it does constrain individualism in favour of cooperation. I’m going to think more on this.

Spontaneity, Stress, and Emotional Legitimacy

Spontaneity plays an oddly crucial role in our ability to feel legitimate positive emotions.

Consider children. Forcing them to play and telling them that they have to have fun is one of the surest ways of ensuring that they have no fun at all, even if the activity they’re doing is one they’d normally enjoy. Teenagers are the champions of this. Thanks to their drive for a unique personal identity, they absolutely refuse to enjoy anything that seems to be forced upon them. Even in adults it’s much the same, though usually self-inflicted. Trying a new activity while putting pressure on yourself to enjoy it is an easy path to a miserable time.

Insomnia is a bit outside the realm of what we normally consider our emotional life, but falling asleep is another example of a similar pattern in a different form. The more desperately you want to fall asleep, the farther away it seems to be. It’s become practically common wisdom that the least effective way to calm somebody down is to tell them to “just relax”.

The explanation for all this is fairly mundane. Stress in moderation is something which increases our physical and mental responses, and generally improves our performance at most tasks; it’s an evolutionary response which tends to help. But of course it becomes rapidly counter-productive when the “task” we’re stressing ourselves to accomplish is “not being stressed”. Falling asleep and being happy are both fairly dependent on a state of at least moderate relaxation, so when we worry too much about achieving them, nobody wins.

I opened this essay with a claim about legitimacy, so let’s circle back in that direction. In a post a couple of years ago I discussed the concept of preference legitimacy, and the question of what role social conditioning can or should play. We can see a version of this question also arise from the spontaneity/stress issue. If somebody desperately wants to feel a particular emotion for a particular reason, then obviously the stress could impair their ability to reach that emotional state. But even if they do manage it, is that emotion legitimate? Or has the person effectively given themselves Stockholm Syndrome, forcing themselves into an emotional state that is somehow unearned?

The answer seems to depend on one other factor. Just because you want an emotional association, that doesn’t make it impossible to achieve legitimately. Equally however, it is distinctly possible to use various psychological tricks (for example, misattribution of arousal) to trick yourself into “false” emotional states. Now, these emotions aren’t false in and of themselves. But by attributing them incorrectly we are committing the sin of intellectual dishonesty; the goal is not just the emotional response itself but the association with a particular stimulus. Our brain’s notion of causality is flexible enough that we can trick it, but deep down we still know the truth. (In my mind, this is oddly analogous to the Gettier problem in epistemology. Even when all the relevant factors are present, if there is some causal disconnect the criteria fail).

The weirdest and most concerning application of this line of argument is dating. By this logic, going on a date with any desire to further develop feelings for the person you’re dating (which is a pretty normal desire) is in itself sufficient to make that task difficult, and the result potentially illegitimate. In fact the fairly standard dating advice (to do something you’d find new and exciting regardless of the person you’re dating) operates by exploiting exactly this flaw via misattribution of arousal.

It’s relatively easy to rescue dating in itself; treat it as an opportunity to explore and develop your feelings, rather than as a completable task with the end goal of falling in love. Or, as a rather wiser friend of mine called it recently: “emotional horticulture”. This is something I need to remember more often. But even with dating rescued, it does seem to be the case that as a society we’re just… going about it the wrong way. Perhaps we should be giving the opposite dating advice: don’t do anything but sit, and talk. If there’s still an emotional connection, then maybe you’re in business?

Narrative Dissonance

In my previous post, I mentioned something I was trying to get better at:

I grew up with a lot of specific cultural narratives about how a lot of parts of life were supposed to work. This has left me with some weird subconscious expectations that don’t really materialize except as cognitive dissonance when they aren’t being met. Noticing these is extremely difficult, but weeding them out tends to be rewarding.

I want to expand on some of the stuff in there.

Scripts

A huge portion of our regular social interactions run on scripts without meaningful deviation. In North America, “How’s it going?” as a greeting is universally answered with “Fine”, “Good”, or maybe “Not too bad”. When you run into an acquaintance on the street, there are rules for that conversation depending on exactly what kind of acquaintance they are. Even within closer, more intimate relationships we often build up our own little set of custom scripts: habits, in-jokes, little snippets of call-and-response.

While a lot of these scripts are developed through practical experience and explicit teaching, they are also woven through our culture. Recall your parents teaching you to say “Please” and “Thank you”, and then realize that you also had that behaviour modelled for you in books and television, by neighbours, by teachers, and by random strangers in the grocery store. This is how children are socialized.

While “Please” and “Thank you” form a simple, consistent script that is relatively easy to apply, many scripts are much more complicated. Perhaps they’re simply more complex, and are used less often. Perhaps there is disagreement on how the script should go, depending on which segment of society you ask.  Perhaps we are even socialized into the script before we are given the opportunity to practice it.

Narratives

Everything that applies to scripts also applies to narratives: the stories we tell about ourselves and others that help us make sense of the world. Whether you believe conscious will is simply post-hoc justification or not, everyone narrates their life in some sense. “Everyone is the hero of their own story”.

As children we are presented with various narratives we can adopt for our lives. Broadly painted examples of these could be an academic narrative, an athletic narrative, a religious narrative. Every person tells their story differently, piecing together parts of the socially “standard” narratives and shaping these around their actual experiences in order to create a unique whole.

We may make the choice of our narrative, but our narrative then dictates the rest of our choices to us. While many people probably believe that they’ve thought long and hard about all of their major life choices, the truth is somewhat more mundane. As Sartre pointed out, humans have a rather radical form of freedom (assuming you believe in free will at all). Consider making a wild and unexpected major life change: quitting your job/education in favour of a radically different field, going to live on the other side of the world, or whatever it may be for you. The reason you aren’t making that change today is probably something about consequences and risk and how the life you have isn’t so bad. But you could do it. Whether you do it or not, you probably hadn’t even considered the option until you read this paragraph. In practice nobody actually evaluates all their options on a regular basis; there’s just too many of them. Instead, we only evaluate the things that fit in our narrative. In this way our chosen narrative guides our life much more concretely than we might believe.

Dissonance

All that said, sometimes life calls for extreme measures. Maybe you’re one of the few people who reached a breaking point today with their life and are actually considering making a major change to their narrative. Of course it seems scary.

It’s also hard. Forcing yourself to do things counter to your current narrative produces all kinds of crazy cognitive dissonance. You’re actively threatening your own identity, and the fact that clearly part of you wants to make that change ends up setting you at war with yourself. Unless you’ve fully bought into a new narrative at an emotional level, this can be extremely destabilizing both mentally and emotionally. (Tangentially, this is the fundamental flaw in stoicism for me – our minds have very limited control over our emotional buy-in to our own narrative).

This isn’t to say it’s impossible. People definitely do sometimes have epiphany moments where their whole outlook on life shifts at a fundamental emotional level. But it’s not nearly as simple as declaring it will be so. If you’re clever, and patient, you can make big changes slowly. A river can change its course dramatically and gradually, one pebble at a time. But if you get impatient and try to throw a big boulder in your river? You’ll just end up wet.

Gender and Brainwashing

One of the most common and confusing exchanges I hear when discussing issues of gender and feminism goes something like this:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Those preferences are socially conditioned. Women grow up in an environment where they are constantly exposed to strict feminine gender roles and the associated preferences.

You’ll note that the above isn’t really an argument but more of an argument-fragment, as it depends pretty heavily on the context of what point A is trying to defend. I note this in particular because the two claims are not mutually exclusive. It is possible and reasonable to believe that both are true, for many values of X.

The problems happen because the context of the argument usually indicates some subtextual moral claims going on which can get rather confused. For example, my previous post on The Dilemma of the Modern Romantic got several responses from people who objected along these lines to my claim that many people prefer traditional, gendered relationships. In order to respond properly, I’m going to unpack some of this subtext.

The underlying ethical argument is usually around the question of whether or not it’s right for preferences to be the result of social conditioning. Can a preference be considered legitimate, if the only reason it’s present is because societal context has hammered it home at every opportunity? This is the point I think B is raising; if the preferences are somehow illegitimate, then the fact they exist at all (which is usually harder to dispute) is less relevant.

It’s a fairly intuitive and defensible argument. The wording calls to mind Pavlovian experiments and the destruction of our free will, both with negative associations. It’s also well-supported in the way people talk about other issues: Stockholm Syndrome is a prime example of a case where people’s real, expressed preferences are widely considered illegitimate due to the nature of the situation. Nobody wants to be brain-washed.

This discussion lets us rephrase B’s objection in significantly stronger, clearer terms, hopefully without changing the nature of the argument:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Women are brainwashed by cultural gender roles which include those preferences. Therefore those preferences are illegitimate. Also, we should probably stop brainwashing women.

I consider this re-phrasing helpful, because it offers up a bullet I intend to bite: I agree that women (and everyone else too) are brainwashed by cultural gender roles. What I disagree with are the subsequent claims that those preferences are therefore illegitimate, and that we should necessarily stop.

One way to see this is to substitute any other culturally-shared value in place of “gender roles”. Women are brainwashed by our shared values against murder, therefore that preference is illegitimate? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Perhaps more tellingly, consider how we raise our children.

Children learn from their parents, both explicitly by using language to convey facts and opinions, and implicitly via observation and mimicry. This process of growth and learning indelibly shapes who the child will become and what preferences they will have. It is a natural part of childhood that your parents and your society impart their values and preferences to you, teaching you right from wrong and good from bad. Without this process, you don’t end up with some sort of tabula rasa child capable of pure and perfect free expression of their own preferences. You end up with the kids from Lord of the Flies.

There has been a recent trend of parents eschewing traditional gender roles for their kids. I have nothing against this practice. What I disagree with are the claims that it is imperative to give children “the freedom to develop their full potential without preconceptions about what girls or boys should do or how they should behave”. Children need to be taught, and whether you impart the values of traditional gender roles or the values of social-constructionist feminism, you are still teaching. You can argue that we should be teaching different preferences and values, but it is absurd to claim that we shouldn’t be teaching any at all.

In the end, I suppose what I’m arguing against is the idea that gender roles and gendered preferences are prima facie to be avoided just because they permeate our culture. I am open to arguments that we should replace them with a different set of values, and I grant that this is the argument a number of academic feminists are actually making. But as is usual, something has gotten lost in translation between academia and the Daily Mail.

Freedom, the Self, and Free Will

After last week’s talk about speculation and metaphysics, this week we’re going to tackle the subject of free will. Free will is a weird problem, with a hundred subtle variations of the initial problem statement and equally many solutions depending on how you define various words. The fact that so much depends on precise word definitions is usually a hint.

First, lets start with some positions we can easily reject: although my posts on systems theory may lead you to believe otherwise, I am not a determinist; I made a point of permitting the definition of a system to include non-determinism. As such I find the whole question of whether or not free will is compatible with determinism to be irrelevant at best.

But let’s go back to that thing about definitions I mentioned in the first paragraph: if we want to talk about free will (and whether it’s possible, or whether we have it) we should pin down what it is exactly we’re talking about. A layman’s definition of free will tends to be something like “the ability of a person to freely make a decision” which does very little to actually clarify the issue. What does it mean to make a decision? What does it mean to do so freely?

There are a number of ways to unpack these questions further, but I find most of those unconvincing. At the root, to seriously ask the question of free will in the first place, I find that you have to include a dualist assumption in your worldview. The concept of free will only makes sense in a universe where the actual self and the physical self are different entities and so the observable self could conceivably behave differently than the actual self ends up willing. In a physicalist view (or in other weird unified-self views), those are in effect a single thing, and it is incoherent to talk of that thing behaving differently than it behaves or willing differently than it wills.

Since I am, in short, a physicalist, I follow this path to its natural conclusion and end up rejecting the question: free will has a hidden dualist premise which I reject.