You’re such an essentialist!

My latest video blog is about essentialism, and why it’s damaging to your rationality — and your happiness.

Why this Meme Exploded

[cross-posted on Friendly Atheist]

Somehow, it went viral. In just 24 hours, the Secular Student Alliance (my organization)’s Facebook page exploded from 6,500 supporters’ “likes” to 18,000. I found myself thinking, “How the hell did that happen?” And then thinking, “Hmm… how can we do it again?”

The whole thing started with Kenny Flagg, one of our group leaders with the Freethinkers of UND. After noticing that the SSA’s Facebook presence was much smaller than Campus Crusade for Christ’s, he wanted to make a difference. He “grabbed both profile pictures for the groups, added the stats from each page, and threw in a quick meme for good measure.” Then he posted it on Reddit. That was it. Take a look – would you would expect it to inspire a frenzy of activity?


Yes, this is the image that launched a thousand clicks. Well, several thousand, actually.

I had to figure out why a simple picture like this inspired such a big reaction. The more I thought about it, the more psychology and rhetorical communication techniques I saw present. Kenny:

  1. Demonstrated insider status
  2. Invoked tribal/patriotic feelings, and
  3. Gave people direction.

Well look at that. In classic style, he hit the three branches of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

Kenny’s Insider Status (Ethos)

Kenny was a perfect person for the task. If my coworkers or I had been the ones to post, we would seem self-serving. Kenny, not being an SSA employee, comes across as a more objective voice. Do you trust the used car salesman or the blue book to tell you a car’s value? We tend to trust people more if they share our interest – and we trust them less if we suspect they’re looking out for themselves.

A great way to gain people’s trust is by proving that you’re a member of their community. Sharing group identity acts as a proxy for sharing values. The “Challenge accepted” meme accomplished that beautifully. It’s like using slang – it reinforces your status as an insider. Redditors heard the message: “I’m one of you.” He put that to good use.

Our Tribal Emotions (Pathos)

After establishing his credibility as an insider, Kenny appealed to an incredibly powerful emotion to get them to act: group loyalty. When groups of people get compared to their rivals, it creates an us-versus-them mentality. The competition angle rallied atheists on Reddit into a stronger, more unified group.

And the more atheist redditors rallied together, the stronger the social proof dynamic became. When we’re in a group, we tend to watch other people for cues about how to behave. As redditors saw other people commenting, upvoting the post, and liking the SSA’s page, it influenced their behavior. People got the impression: “This is what it atheists on Reddit are doing.” As part of that group, they felt moved to behave the same way.

Kenny’s post inspired group pride, anger at cultural opponents, and the desire to fit in – emotions that motivate us to act. But that motivation needed direction.

Giving a Direction (Logos)

Have you ever felt that you wanted to make a difference, but just didn’t know how to do it? Without direction, all that energy just sputters out. Telling people to “eat healthier” is overwhelming and vague, but saying “switch to 1% milk” is specific and helpful.

Kenny gave everyone a simple, concrete task: go click “like” on the Secular Student Alliance’s page. He had everyone share his big vision: to get the Secular Student Alliance as many “likes” as the Campus Crusade for Christ page. He even provided a link to the SSA’s Facebook page. The direction was clear.

It all fit together.

Can we do this again?

We never know for sure whether a meme will explode.

But we’ll be more likely to go viral if we pay attention to what works. If you’re interested, I recommend Chip and Dan Heath’s books Made to Stick and Switch. Kenny managed to use psychology techniques without meaning to, but we can be more deliberate with our efforts. (Be careful fostering us-versus-them feelings. Competition is all well and good, but actual hostility is dangerous.)

There might seem like a lot of it boils down to luck. But as Richard Wiseman found, capitalizing on “luck” is really a skill. The Secular Student Alliance prepared by generating student leaders who were enthusiastic to help us out. When we spotted the opportunity we posted like madmen, and even  hosted an “Ask Us Anything” to interact with the community. And yes, Kenny did a fantastic job.

For such a quick image, it had a lot going for it. It’s not exactly Cicero orating in the Roman Senate, but it was damn good rhetoric in its own way. Forget a thousand words, that picture was worth 12,000 Facebook fans.

What is “objectification,” and what’s wrong with it?

I was pleased to discover that one of my favorite bloggers, Luke Muehlhauser, had recently tackled a topic that’s been on my mind too: what do people mean when they talk about men “objectifying” women, and why exactly is it a bad thing? As per usual with Luke’s posts, it’s a clear-headed and thoughtful analysis, and it’s obvious that he isn’t trying to attack anyone — just genuinely trying to parse the concept and determine the degree to which it makes sense.

Luke lists several typical ways people define “objectification,” most of which center around the idea of treating another person as a means to an end, without being conscious of their feelings and goals and preferences. I’ve always felt this is an odd definition for two reasons, both of which Luke raises: First, it seems like an incomplete definition, in that there are many cases that match that definition perfectly but which no one would call instances of objectification (Luke has a clever photographic example).

And second, if objectification is “using someone as a means to an end,” it isn’t clear why objectification is inherently bad, even though the word typically carries a strong connotation of condemnation. After all, we all use each other as means to an end all the time! When I buy a cup of coffee, I’m treating the barista as a means to the end of getting a cup of coffee. I’m not really thinking about his feelings or goals — and I don’t think he expects or particularly wants me to be.

Of course, if not-thinking about someone’s feelings means that you harm him (like if I were rude to the barista) then it’s easy to see why that’s bad. But the proper conclusion from that fact is “harming people is bad,” not “objectification is bad.” It’s certainly possible to use someone as a means to an end without harming him, and so it’s still not clear why objectification per se is bad.

At least, that’s the form my argument typically took until yesterday. I thought about it a bit more after reading Luke’s analysis, and concluded that I had been missing part of the picture. So to the extent that I’m now sympathetic to arguments against objectification, it’s for this reason:

Objectification’s not necessarily a problem at the individual level. When Person A uses Person B as a means to an end, as long as B’s not being harmed, then it’s ethically unproblematic (at least for us utilitarian-minded folks). The tricky thing is that when you have a lot of A’s systematically treating a lot of B’s as a means to an end in the same kind of way, it can start to become a problem. Because at that scale, it can affect the way A’s and B’s think about each other — people’s attitudes are influenced by the way the people around them think and act. So it can have this self-reinforcing ripple effect that ends up stifling other kinds of interactions and relationships that many A’s and B’s would’ve found fulfilling.

So, that’s my current theory. It’s the best I can do at reconciling the facts that (1) I’m not at all bothered by the idea of a particular man being interested in a particular woman only for sex, and (2) I hate the idea of a society in which most men are only interested in women for sex (and I think such a society would be seriously sub-optimal for both men and women).*

I think this is a very under-appreciated aspect of the objectification debate. I also think it poses interesting problems for utilitarian ethics; how do you assign blame in situations where any single person doing X is harmless, but many people doing X is harmful? It’s somewhat akin to problems like pollution, where each individual actor can truthfully argue, “Given that everyone else is polluting, it’s not going to make any difference if I do it too.”

And with objectification, not only do you have the fact that no single person’s actions are going to measurably change the overall culture, you also have the fact that the overall culture is partly to blame for each individual’s actions. And all of the individuals’ actions, in turn, are to blame for the overall culture. The circularity makes it especially tricky to figure out the degree to which any individual actor deserves blame for his actions.

*Of course, men objectifying women isn’t the only kind of objectification; you could fill in any gender in place of either “men” or “women.” I just used that pairing because it’s the typical one in these discussions, but my argument isn’t actually gender-dependent.

Overcoming The Curse of Knowledge

[crossposted at LessWrong]

What is the Curse of Knowledge, and how does it apply to science education, persuasion, and communication? No, it’s not a reference to the Garden of Eden story. I’m referring to a particular psychological phenomenon that can make our messages backfire if we’re not careful.

Communication isn’t a solo activity; it involves both you and the audience. Writing a diary entry is a great way to sort out thoughts, but if you want to be informative and persuasive to others, you need to figure out what they’ll understand and be persuaded by. A common habit is to use ourselves as a mental model – assuming that everyone else will laugh at what we find funny, agree with what we find convincing, and interpret words the way we use them. The model works to an extent – especially with people similar to us – but other times our efforts fall flat. You can present the best argument you’ve ever heard, only to have it fall on dumb – sorry, deaf – ears.

That’s not necessarily your fault – maybe they’re just dense! Maybe the argument is brilliant! But if we want to communicate successfully, pointing fingers and assigning blame is irrelevant. What matters is getting our point across, and we can’t do it if we’re stuck in our head, unable to see things from our audience’s perspective. We need to figure out what words will work.

Unfortunately, that’s where the Curse of Knowledge comes in. In 1990, Elizabeth Newton did a fascinating psychology experiment: She paired participants into teams of two: one tapper and one listener. The tappers picked one of 25 well-known songs and would tap out the rhythm on a table. Their partner – the designated listener – was asked to guess the song. How do you think they did?

Not well. Of the 120 songs tapped out on the table, the listeners only guessed 3 of them correctly – a measly 2.5 percent. But get this: before the listeners gave their answer, the tappers were asked to predict how likely their partner was to get it right. Their guess? Tappers thought their partners would get the song 50 percent of the time. You know, only overconfident by a factor of 20. What made the tappers so far off?

They lost perspective because they were “cursed” with the additional knowledge of the song title. Chip and Dan Heath use the story in their book Made to Stick to introduce the term:

“The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult or us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

So it goes with communicating complex information. Because we have all the background knowledge and understanding, we’re overconfident that what we’re saying is clear to everyone else. WE know what we mean! Why don’t they get it? It’s tough to remember that other people won’t make the same inferences, have the same word-meaning connections, or share our associations.

It’s particularly important in science education. The more time a person spends in a field, the more the field’s obscure language becomes second nature. Without special attention, audiences might not understand the words being used – or worse yet, they might get the wrong impression.

Over at the American Geophysical Union blog, Callan Bentley gives a fantastic list of Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public.

What great examples! Even though the scientific terms are technically correct in context, they’re obviously the wrong ones to use when talking to the public about climate change. An inattentive scientist could know all the material but leave the audience walking away with the wrong message.

We need to spend the effort to phrase ideas in a way the audience will understand. Is that the same as “dumbing down” a message? After all, complicated ideas require complicated words and nuanced answers, right? Well, no. A real expert on a topic can give a simple distillation of material, identifying the core of the issue. Bentley did an outstanding job rephrasing technical, scientific terms in a way that conveys the intended message to the public.

That’s not dumbing things down, it’s showing a mastery of the concepts. And he was able to do it by overcoming the “curse of knowledge,” seeing the issue from other people’s perspective. Kudos to him – it’s an essential part of science education, and something I really admire.

Being a Dick is not Binary

(crossposted at Friendly Atheist)

“Should we be offensive?” is a common question in the secular movement. It’s also the wrong question.

The title of this post comes from Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” talk at TAM 8, which sparked conversation about the wisdom of offending people in the cause of critical thinking. Though it generated the most attention, it’s not the first time we’ve asked these questions: Should we condemn people for opposing LGBT rights? Mock people for believing in creationism? Call religion a delusion? Sometimes it seems like everything we do offends people – even the simple act of advertising our existence offended Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

In the face of that, it’s almost liberating, isn’t it? If everything we do is offensive, it doesn’t matter anymore – we can stop worrying about it. In fact, I used to argue that myself! When confronted with accusations that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was offensive, I’d point to the bus ads and billboards and say, “People get offended at the most mundane things. We can’t let that hold us back.”

But offensiveness not a simple yes-or-no issue. Like Julia wrote a few months ago, it’s tempting to treat belief as a black and white matter. It’s not – we can hold beliefs with differing degrees of confidence, and if we treat it otherwise we lose a lot of power to make distinctions, see nuance, and chart the best course of action. It’s the same with asking whether or not to be offensive. We need to add nuance.

At the first level, it’s probably more helpful to phrase the question “How many people are my actions likely to offend?” Not all offensive statements are equal. Sure, saying “People can be good without god” offends people, but not as many people as “Religion is a myth.”

We can go further. Asking how many people we expect to offend still treats the issue as a binary: they’re either offended or they’re not. A better phrasing would be “How offended will people be?” Billboards reading “Religion is a myth” and “Jesus was a bastard” would both upset a lot of people – but not to the same extent.

But even this isn’t what we want to be asking. To take the final step, we need to dissolve the question away into what we actually want to know. Each time we ask “Should we be a dick in this situation?” we’re really wondering a lot of things, like:

  • Do we like the short-term and long-term reactions this will elicit?
  • Would it attract attention for our message?
  • Would it reduce the chance of persuading the target?
  • Would it help push the boundaries of the national conversation?
  • Would it damage a helpful relationship?

There isn’t an inherent property “being offensive” or “being a dick” – that’s just a heuristic, and it’s not very precise. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say just a heuristic – labeling a message as ‘offensive’ is a helpful way to talk about expected reactions. But we need to be able to step back and refocus our attention when the heuristic causes confusion.

And the heuristic IS causing confusion. Treating it as a single, inherent property leads people to miss the strategic benefits – and drawbacks – of getting people upset in different ways and contexts. Treating it as a binary question leads people to wield anger indiscriminately rather than tactically.

What we should be asking ourselves, when choosing a message, is this: “How offended do we want people to be, and offended how?”

For example, I still stand behind my support of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day – it did cause a lot of offense, but it offended people in the right way: by intentionally disregarding the Islamic demand that we respect their prophet. That was the goal – shocking people into paying more attention to a dogma which wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t support using mockery in a one-on-one conversation with a creationist. When we’re trying to educate someone, a small amount of offense is useful to catch their attention – say, by openly disagreeing. But mockery is a different kind of offense, one that reduces our chances of convincing them.

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about whether or not to offend people.  But we can be so much more precise thinking about it in terms of anger, surprise, disrespect, disagreement.

They say the devil’s in the details – so we should feel right at home.

Loaded words

It’s striking how much more unreasonable you can make someone sound, simply by quoting them in a certain tone of voice. I’ve noticed this when I’m listening to someone describe a fight or other incident in which he felt that someone was being rude to him — he’ll relate a comment that the person made (e.g, “And then she was like, ‘Sure, whatever…’”) And when he quotes the person, he uses a sarcastic or cutting tone of voice, so of course I think, “Wow, that person was being obnoxious!”

But then I wonder: Can I really be confident that he’s accurately representing the tone of her comment? It’s pretty easy for someone to, intentionally or not, distort the tone of a comment they’re recounting, while still accurately quoting the person’s official words. Especially if they’re already annoyed at that person. So to be fair, I try to replay the comment in my head in a more neutral tone to see if that makes it seem less obnoxious. (“Sure, whatever” could be said in a detached, I-don’t-have-a-strong-opinion-about-this way, just as easily as it could be said in a sarcastic or dismissive way.)

And there’s an analogy to this phenomenon in print. Journalists and bloggers can cast a totally different light on someone’s quote just through the word choice they use when they refer to the quote. Compare, for example, “Hillary objected that…” to “Hillary complained that…” The former makes her sound controlled and rational; the latter makes her sound whiny. The writer can exert an impressive amount of influence over your reaction to the quote, without ever being accused of misrepresenting what Hillary said.

One insidious example of a loaded word that I’ve found to be quite common is “admitted.” It’s loaded because it implies that whatever content follows reflects poorly on the speaker, and that he would have preferred to conceal it if he could. Take these recent examples:

“In his blog, Volokh admitted that his argument ‘was a joke’” (Wikipedia)
“Bill O’Reilly Admits That His TV Persona Is Just An Act” (Inquisitr)
“Paul Krugman admitted that the zero bound was not actually a bound” (Free Exchange)
Kennedy admitted that ‘the end result’ under his standard ‘may be the same as that suggested by the dissent…’” (Basman Rose Law)

I investigated the original quotes from the people whom these sentences allude to, and as far as I can tell, they gave no sense that they thought what they were saying was shameful or unflattering. The word “admitted” could just as easily have been replaced by something else. For example:

“In his blog, Volokh clarified that his argument ‘was a joke.’”
“Bill O’Reilly Says That His TV Persona Is Just An Act”
“Paul Krugman explained that the zero bound was not actually a bound”
“Kennedy acknowledged that ‘the end result’ under his standard ‘may be the same as that suggested by the dissent…’”

Suddenly all the speakers sound stronger and more confident, right? This isn’t to say that the word “admitted” is never appropriate. Sometimes it clearly fits, such as when someone is agreeing that some particular point does, in fact, weaken the argument she is trying to advance. But in most cases, reading that someone “admitted” some point can subtly make you think more poorly of him without reason. That’s why I advise being on the lookout for this and other loaded words, and when you notice them, try mentally replacing them with something more neutral so that you can focus on the point itself without your judgment being inadvertently skewed.

A crab canon for Douglas Hofstadter

(published at 3 Quarks Daily)

Since it first came out in 1979, Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” has widened the eyes of multiple generations of nerdy kids, and I was certainly no exception. The book draws all sorts of parallels between music, art, math, and computer science, ultimately shaping them into a bold thesis about how consciousness arises from self-reference and recursion. It’s also a very playful book, full of puzzles, puns, and imagined dialogues between Achilles and a tortoise which weave in and out of the main chapters, illustrating the concepts therein.

One of those dialogues, titled “Crab Canon,” seems puzzling when you begin reading it – sprinkled with seeming non-sequitors, the word choice a bit awkward and off-kilter. Then shortly after the halfway point, when you start to see recent lines repeated, in reverse order, you realize: the whole dialogue is a line-level palindrome. The first line is the same as the last, the second line is the same as the second-to-last, and so on. But because Hofstadter chooses his sentences carefully, they often have different meanings when they reoccur in the reverse order. So, for example, the following bit of dialogue in the first half…

Tortoise: Tell me, what’s it like to be your age? Is it true that one has no worries at all?
Achilles: To be precise, one has no frets.
Tortoise: Oh, well, it’s all the same to me.
Achilles: Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.
Tortoise: Say, don’t you play the guitar?

… becomes this bit of dialogue in the second half:

Achilles: Say, don’t you play the guitar?
Tortoise: Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.
Achilles: Oh, well, it’s all the same to me.
Tortoise: To be precise, one has no frets.
Achilles: Tell me, what’s it like to be your age? Is it true that one has no worries at all?

Hofstadter does “cheat” a bit, by allowing himself to vary punctuation (for example, “He often plays, the fool” reoccurs later in a new context as “He often plays the fool”). Nevertheless, it’s an impressive execution of a clever conceit.

Thumbing through Gödel, Escher, Bach again recently, I came across the Crab Canon and was struck with the desire to attempt a similar feat myself: a line-level palindrome that tells a linear story, that is, a story in which a series of non-repeating events occur.

It’s maddeningly difficult trying to come up with lines that make sense, that in fact make a different sense, in both directions. And because all of the lines interlock — each relying simultaneously on the line preceding it, the line following it, and its mirror-image line — changing any one line in the poem tends to set off a ripple effect of necessary changes to all the other lines as well.

I eventually figured out a few crucial tricks, like relying on ambiguous pronouns (“they,” “their”) and using images that carry a different meaning depending on what’s already happened. Below is the final result – my own canon, in homage to the book that dazzled my teenaged self years ago:

SEASIDE CANON, for Douglas Hofstadter

by Julia Galef

~
The ocean was still.
In an empty sky, two gulls turned lazy arcs, and
their keening cries echoed
off the cliff and disappeared into the sea.
When the child, scrambling up the rocks, slipped
out of her parents’ reach,
they called to her. She was already
so high, but those distant peaks above –
they called to her.  She was already
out of her parents’ reach
when the child, scrambling up the rocks, slipped
off the cliff and disappeared into the sea.
Their keening cries echoed
in an empty sky. Two gulls turned lazy arcs, and
the ocean was still.

~

All Wikipedia Roads Were Forced to Philosophy

Does everything boil down to philosophy? A case could be made that it’s really all about math and science. Or perhaps breasts. In the alt-text of Wednesday’s XKCD comic, a specific challenge was made: “Wikipedia trivia: if you take any article, click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and then repeat, you will eventually end up at ‘Philosophy’.”

Game on. I already had a tab open to the Wikipedia page for “Where Mathematics Comes From” and decided to see how long it took:

Where Mathematics Comes From

  1. George Lakoff
  2. Cognitive linguistics
  3. Linguistics
  4. Human
  5. Taxonomy
  6. Science
  7. Knowledge
  8. Fact
  9. Information
  10. Sequence
  11. Mathematics
  12. Quantity
  13. Property (Philosophy)
  14. Modern Philosophy
  15. Philosophy

Ok, maybe that one was too easy. Let’s use my go-to example: Waffles:

Waffle

  1. Batter (cooking)
  2. Flour
  3. Powder
  4. Solid
  5. State of matter
  6. Phase (matter)
  7. Outline of physical science
  8. Natural science
  9. Science
  10. Knowledge
  11. Fact
  12. Information
  13. Sequence
  14. Mathematics
  15. Quantity
  16. Property (Philosophy)
  17. Modern Philosophy
  18. Philosophy

Well son of a gun. I’ve tried it with ‘Mongoose’ (11 clicks), Baltimore Ravens football player ‘Ed Reed’ (16 clicks), and ‘Lord of the Rings’ (22 clicks). All led back to Philosophy.

Well, we don’t END at philosophy – we could keep going. It turns out that (as of writing this) there’s a 19-step loop including philosophy, science, mathematics, and mammory gland.

We could just as easily say that all paths lead to science! Or math! Or breasts!

However, before you get too excited, it turns out there’s some mischief afoot.

First, it’s been two days since the XKCD comic went up, and considering how malleable Wikipedia is, some things have been changed. I was suspicious that Quantity’s first link went to Property (Philosophy) so I checked the history page:

# (cur | prev) 09:54, 25 May 2011 99.186.253.32 (talk) (14,042 bytes) (Edited for xkcd)

# (cur | prev) 09:28, 25 May 2011 146.162.240.242 (talk) (14,004 bytes) (Undid revision 430815864 by Antony-22 (talk) see today’s xkcd, without the “property” link, it breaks the “all pages eventually end up at philosophy ” game. The link should be there)

I actually found a small loop that Male leads to Gender, which leads back to Male. I expect the Male one will be “fixed” at some point (a phrase you don’t hear outside the veterinarian very often).

The philosophy topic has been in the XKCD forums last Sunday, and the idea was around for longer than that. Tricky editing has been going on toward this goal for a while.

I’d heard that philosophy leads to reason, which leads to rationality, which leads back to philosophy. That’s been changed since Wednesday, and I wonder if a deliberate effort moved the path from rationality to breasts.

Yes, it’s true that the first link on an article is likely to be broad and trend toward science/philosophy, but this isn’t unguided evolution. This is intelligently designed.

How to argue on the internet

At least a dozen people have sent this XKCD cartoon to me over the years.

It’s plenty hard enough to get someone to listen to your arguments in a debate, given how attached people are naturally to their own ideas and ways of thinking. But it becomes even harder when you trigger someone’s emotional side, by making them feel like you’re attacking them and putting them automatically into “defend myself” mode (or worse, “lash out” mode), rather than “listen reasonably” mode.

Unfortunately, online debates are full of emotional tripwires, partly because tone isn’t always easy to detect in the written word, and even comments intended neutrally can come off as snide or snippy… and also because not having to say something to someone’s face seems to bring out the immature child inside grown adults.

But on the plus side, debating online at least has the benefit that you can take the time to think about your wording before you comment or email someone. Below, I walk you through my process of revising my wording to reduce the risk of making someone angry and defensive, and increase my chances that they’ll genuinely consider what I have to say.

DRAFT 1 (My first impulse is to say): “You idiot, you’re ignoring…”

Duh. Get rid of the insult.

DRAFT 2: “You’re ignoring…”

I should make it clear I’m attacking an idea, not a person.

DRAFT 3: “Your argument is ignoring…”

This can still be depersonalized. By using the word “your,” I’m encouraging the person to identify the argument with himself, which can still trigger a defensive reaction when I attack the argument. That’s the exact opposite of what I want to do.

DRAFT 4: “That argument is ignoring…”

Almost perfect. The only remaining room for improvement is the word “ignoring,” which implies an intentional disregard, and sounds like an accusation. Better to use something neutral instead:

DRAFT 5: “That argument isn’t taking into account…”

Done.  Of course, chances are I still won’t persuade them, but at least I’ve given myself the best chance possible… and done my part to help keep the Internet civilized. Or at least a tiny bit less savage! 

When Literal Honesty Goes Awry

When is it NOT appropriate to bluntly speak the truth? We’ve all heard someone be insulting and resort to the defense of “Well, it’s true!” Even boring, inoffensive facts can become offensive if brought up inartfully. I think this is a perfect example, illustrated by the hilarious comedy team of David Mitchell and Robert Webb:

I mean, technically it’s true. The literal fact that “anyone we know is unlikely to be the most attractive person on earth” shouldn’t hurt feelings. Nobody should think that much of themselves!

…And yet, it’s rude to say. Why?

I think that’s because nobody took Robert’s original statement “this is the most beautiful woman in the world” at its face value. It violated the maxim of quality – the literal meaning was clearly false so people look for alternative interpretations (“She’s beautiful and I love her” or “She’s very attractive in a combination of ways”).

Since nobody took it seriously at face value, challenges to the claim are perceived as challenging the alternate interpretations rather than the literal meaning. The very decision to call attention to it makes a statement. Why would David be so motivated to discuss her beauty unless he strenuously disagreed with her beauty? So, in essence, he’s saying “No, she’s not very beautiful.”

Yes, David’s literal content is true: she’s not the most beautiful person in the world. But so much of our reaction to a statement is is really a reaction to its implied meaning, and it’s tough to get around that. Initial gut reactions can be powerful.

But it’s possible to do it right. I love having the opportunity to share the awesome and incredible Tim Minchin song If I Didn’t Have You:

Somehow, when Tim does it, the honest approach works better. People often claim that they DO have a soul mate, so it isn’t automatically interpreted as a figure of speech for something more casual.

But it’s particularly important the way he addresses the literal meanings. Compare “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but not off the charts” with “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but you fall within a bell-curve.” It’s a strange enough statement to make people think about it harder and realize he’s not being snide.

I found myself thinking of something Steven Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought:

The incongruity in a fresh literary metaphor is another ingredient that gives it its pungency. The listener resolves the incongruity soon enough by spotting the underlying similarity, but the initial double take and subsequent brainwork conveys something in addition. It implies that the similarity is not apparent in the humdrum course of everyday life, and that the author is presenting real news in forcing it upon the listener’s attention.

Pinker was writing about using new metaphors to emphasize non-literal meaning, but it works the other way as well. Fresh phrasings – in this case gloriously nerdy ones – make listeners pay more attention to parsing the intended meaning, metaphorical or literal.

If you’re worried about being misinterpreted, try a creative way of expressing the same thought. Protesting “But I was telling the truth!” won’t always be enough.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 487 other followers

%d bloggers like this: