In Defense of Punch Bug
Heads up: this one is nearly 14000 words; it’s more of a sequence of mini essays than a single straightforward point. I think every one of those 14000 words is important, but if you’re the kind of person who finds it hard to draw value out of a piece that long, consider reading just one or two parts and coming back for more later?
Part 0: Preamble
Part 1: Background models
Part 2: Vignettes
Part 3: Micro
Part 4: Reification and ramifications
Part 5: In which I attempt to summarize a strategy I don’t personally endorse, and then complain about it
Part 6: Punch bug as rallying cry
Punch bug (or “slug bug”) is a game frequently played in elementary and middle schools in America and elsewhere (in Britain people play a similar game called “yellow car”). There’s some regional variation in rulesets, but at its core the game is simple: if you see a Volkswagen beetle, you get to punch the person next to you, and they can’t punch you back.
I’ve played this game nonstop since grade school. I’m currently a 32-year-old man living in a liberal coastal city, and when, out of sheer reflex, I gently tap a friend on the arm and say “blue punch bug, no punch back,” the response I often get back is moral outrage.
Not just “eh, that’s immature.” Not just “oh, right, that game—uh, I prefer not to be punched, even gently.” Not even “hey, screw you, asshole, don’t touch me,” but rather actual moral outrage that reaches far beyond the immediate interaction and into deep, fundamental values. I hear sentences like “yeah, so—the whole point of that game is violence and violating other people’s personal sovereignty and it’s coercive and vaguely rapey and a symbol of everything that’s fucked up about our culture and I wish it didn’t exist.”
This doesn’t happen all the time. But it does happen maybe twenty to forty percent of the time. If I try to play punch bug with ten new people this month (or even just raise the possibility), I can expect three real, actual human beings to have a reaction that’s approximately that strong.
And sure, one response might be to dismiss that as a symptom of over-the-top coastal liberalism and just chalk it up to social justice culture, or whatever.
But the thing is, those three-or-four-out-of-ten people are smart. More than that, they’re good. These are, generally, people whose deep character I admire a lot, who are trying to make the world a better place and who usually think pretty carefully as they do so. They’re people who routinely have insights that surprise me and lead me to update my view of the world and change my own behavior. They are not a group I am able or willing to dismiss.
That being said, I think that their stance on punch bug is Actually, Importantly Incorrect, and I separately think that their overall strategy for making our society better is taking them dangerously close to a cliff, and I think I see a link between these two phenomena that leads me to believe that I can use one as a metaphor to talk about the other. In this essay, I’d like to try to convince those people that, far from being evil, the game of punch bug brings something critical to our society—something that the liberal zeitgeist (at least) has been losing track of, to the detriment of ourselves and our society.
You know those three-dimensional plastic puzzles, where you have to hold ten or twenty (or a hundred) little pieces in exactly the right orientation as you squeeze the last, keystone piece into place? To me, this feels a lot like that—there are a whole bunch of sub-concepts and premises and hypotheses that don’t necessarily hold water on their own, but which I find make a pretty reasonable web once they all fall into place next to one another. Some of them act as explicit premises in an argument, while others just feel important as part of the background even though they don’t visibly tie in.
So the request is something like “bear with me” as I throw a bunch of balls in the air, some of which may at first seem under-justified or utterly unrelated to one another. This piece is much more conversational and stream-of-thought than most, because I’m trying to download an entire context rather than a single point. And that means I need a little more charity than usual—I don’t want you to ignore your doubts or confusions or disagreements as they arise, but I would ask you to deliberately hold them in abeyance until the end and not give up on the whole piece the first time some part of it pisses you off or seems obviously wrong. By the end, I predict that some of those disagreements will still be live, and some of those fights will still be worth having, but some of them will be zombies staggering around out of habit or reflex or momentum with no remaining life of their own.
This one’s long because I’m trying to be careful, and I’m trying to be clear.
Part 1: Background models
Model 1 (of 4): Burden of Proof
There’s this interesting dynamic whereby big important disagreements often contain a hidden meta disagreement around how the question at hand should even be settled. It turns out that people who strongly disagree on the object level also often strongly disagree on what even counts as “evidence” or “reasoning,” or which sacred principles should trump which other sacred principles. For instance, the religion-versus-atheism debate often gets derailed before it even starts because one side thinks you’re allowed to believe anything until there’s specific reason not to (and that faith-without-proof is a virtue), and the other side thinks you can’t believe anything unless there’s specific reason to (and that faith-without-proof is a sin), and that underlying disagreement rarely gets hashed out first, or even acknowledged. Neither side will ever convince the other because neither side agrees on what constitutes validity. They’re talking past each other, not having the same conversation.
As a second example, take the debate over corporal punishment of children. One side generally argues a sort of history-based, evolved-equilibrium stance in which spankings are how children have been disciplined for millennia, and anyone proposing an alternative system bears the burden of proof for demonstrating that that alternative system is both better for kids and doesn’t contain any critical failure modes that the traditional system has covered (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”).
At the same time, though, the other side of the debate typically starts from a position that goes something like, personal sovereignty is good, violence is bad, and human societies get things wrong all the time; the right way to make decisions is not by assuming that our older, crueler, less-enlightened ancestors got it right but rather by starting from first principles and carefully thinking things through. Therefore, anyone arguing in favor of spankings bears the burden of proof for demonstrating that the benefits outweigh the obvious cost of violating some very fundamental principles of nonviolence and respect for the personal sovereignty of other people.
This means that both sides will fail to meet the “bar” of the other, because there’s no clear, common-knowledge understanding of who bears the burden of proof. Both sides think they’re playing the easier game of defense—they each think of themselves as the default, and expect the other side to create an airtight, compelling argument for why we should make an extraordinary effort to restructure what they see as current social norms, and so they both walk home justifiably smug at how the other side failed to come even close to proving their case.
Model 2: Pendulums
One of my favorite quick-and-dirty models of social change is the mental image of a pendulum swinging back and forth around a central resting point.
Imagine that the pendulum is “stuck” at some point (say, that marriages are viewed as essentially inviolable, and divorce is tantamount to social suicide). Eventually, people realize that there’s something bad about that (e.g. people stuck forever in loveless marriages that they entered into with very little information when they were dumb teenagers), and they agitate to “push” the pendulum to a new set point.
Generally speaking, that new point is better than the original one—it’s less distant from the ideal. It contains less total badness overall (or at least we hope so). But that new stuck point comes with its own problems. For instance, maybe we’ve traded “lots of people trapped in marriages that are net-negative” for “lots of people who never reap the benefits of what would have been strongly net-positive relationships, because they were implicitly encouraged to bail early on when they hit the first obstacle or stumbling block.”
The latter problem is clearly smaller, and is probably a better problem to have as an individual, but it’s nevertheless clear (to me, anyway) that the loosening of the absoluteness of marriage had negative effects in addition to the positive ones. And it seems to me that this is nearly always the case.
(Caveat: don’t let the simplicity of the model obscure the complexities of real life … in reality, the “pendulum” isn’t just swinging back and forth, or even around in spirals, but on a whole bunch of different dimensions all at once. It’s not just “this one thing got better, but meanwhile this other thing got worse” or “this one problem got solved, but meanwhile this new problem got created.” There are usually many ways in which a given shift is better, and many ways in which it’s still bad or newly problematic. For instance, the changes in marriage norms over the past eighty or so years also had ripple effects on religion, economics, psychology, social mobility, depression, female empowerment and gender inequality, the nature of child-rearing and the broadening of the standard family model, etc.)
One conclusion that I draw out of the pendulum model, though, is that you probably don’t want the people who got the initial push started to be the ones who decide when it stops. If you buy the premise that the pendulum tends to swing right on past the ideal point and into new territory, then it also stands to reason that the ones who first got it moving are unlikely to be the ones who are best equipped to recognize when we’ve gone far enough.
The people who push for significant social change are the ones who most clearly see the ways in which the old equilibrium is bad; they’re the ones most aware of and afraid of its negative properties, and the ones most strongly motivated to change things however because anything’s better than this.
But that also makes them unusually likely to underweight or ignore the problems arising from the new equilibrium, or to see a cost-minimizing compromise as a betrayal of the core mission. It’s sort of like how we don’t put the grieving parents of abducted children in charge of selecting the punishments for criminals—we understand that those who are most hurt by something are also rarely capable of saying “enough is enough” at the appropriate moment.
Model 3: Different Worlds
Scott Alexander, a well-respected essayist, writes:
According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.
And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2¹⁵⁰ = 1/1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000.
About forty percent of Americans want to ban gay marriage. I think if I really stretch it, maybe ten of my top hundred fifty friends might fall into this group. This is less astronomically unlikely; the odds are a mere 1/100000000000000000000.
People like to talk about social bubbles, but that doesn’t even begin to cover one hundred quintillion. I live in a Republican congressional district in a state with a Republican governor. The conservatives are definitely out there. They drive on the same roads as I do, live in the same neighborhoods. But they might as well be made of dark matter. I never meet them.
Elsewhere, Scott points out:
A few years ago I had lunch with another psychiatrist-in-training and realized we had totally different experiences with psychotherapy.
We both got the same types of cases. We were both practicing the same kinds of therapy. We were both in the same training program, studying under the same teachers. But our experiences were totally different. In particular, all her patients had dramatic emotional meltdowns, and all my patients gave calm and considered analyses of their problems.
I’m not bragging here. I wish I could get my patients to have dramatic emotional meltdowns. As per the textbooks, there should be a climactic moment where the patient identifies me with their father, then screams at me that I ruined their childhood, then breaks down crying and realizes that she loved her father all along, then ???, and then their depression is cured. I never got that. I tried, I even dropped some hints, like “Maybe this reminds you of your father?” or “Maybe you feel like screaming at me right now?” but they never took the bait. So I figured the textbooks were misleading, or that this was some kind of super-advanced technique…and then I had lunch with my friend, and she was like “It’s so stressful when all of your patients identify you with their parents and break down crying, isn’t it? Don’t you wish you could just go one day without that happening?”
I’ve always believed psychodynamic therapies are mostly ineffective, and cognitive-behavioral therapies very effective, because all my patients seem to defy the psychodynamic mode of having having weird but emotionally dramatic reactions to things in their past, but conform effortlessly to the cognitive-behavioral mode of being able to understand and rationally discuss their problems. And the more I examine this, the more I realize that my results are pretty atypical for psychiatrists. There’s something I’m doing — totally by accident — to produce those results. This is worrying not just as a psychiatrist, but as someone who wants to know anything about other people at all.
Later in the same piece:
Sometimes I write about discrimination, and people send me emails about their own experiences. Many sound like this real one (quoted here with permission) from a woman who studied computer science at MIT and now works in the tech industry:
>>“In my life, I have never been catcalled, inappropriately hit on, body-shamed, unwantedly touched in a sexual way, discouraged from a male-dominated field, told I couldn’t do something because it was a boy thing, or suffered from many other experiences that have traditionally served as examples as ways that women are less privileged. I have also never been shamed for not following gender norms (e.g. doing a bunch of math/science/CS stuff); instead I get encouraged and told that I’m a role model. I’ve never had problems going around wearing no make-up, a t-shirt, and cargo pants; but on the rare occasion that I do wear make-up / wear a dress, that’s completely socially acceptable…Hopefully my thoughts/experiences are helpful for your future social justice based discussions.”
Other times [the emails I get] sound like the opposite. I don’t have anyone in this category who’s given me permission to quote their email verbatim (consider ways this might not be a coincidence), but they’re pretty much what you’d expect — a litany of constantly being put down, discriminated against, harassed, et cetera, across multiple jobs, at multiple companies, to the point where they complain it’s “endemic” (I guess I can quote one word) and that we need to reject a narrative of “a few bad apples” because really it’s a problem with all men to one degree or another.
These dueling categories of emails have always confused me. At the risk of being exactly the sort of creepy person the second set of writers complain about, I hunted down some of these people’s Facebook profiles to see if one group was consistently more attractive than the other. They weren’t. Nor is there any clear pattern in what industries or companies they work at, what position they’re in, or anything else like that. There isn’t even a consistent pattern in their politics. The woman I quote above mentions that she’s a feminist who believes discrimination is a major problem — which has only made it extra confusing to her that she never experiences any of it personally.
These people don’t just show up in my inbox. Some of them write articles on Slate, Medium, even The New Yorker, discussing not just how they’ve never experienced discrimination, but how much anger and backlash they’ve received when they try to explain this to everyone else. And all of them acknowledge that they know other people whose experiences seem to be the direct opposite.
I used to think this was pretty much just luck of the draw — some people will end up with nice people at great companies, other people will end up with bigots at terrible companies. I no longer think this explains everybody. Take that New Yorker article, by a black person who grew up in the South and says she was never discriminated against even once. I assume in her childhood she met thousands of different white Southerners; that’s a pretty big lucky streak for none of them at all to be racists, especially when you consider all the people who report daily or near-daily harassment. Likewise, when you study computer science in college and then work in half a dozen tech companies over the space of decades and never encounter one sexist, that’s quite the record. Surely something else must be going on here.
And elsewhere elsewhere:
I remember when I was younger, I used to want to meet my friends from the Internet, and my parents were horrified, and had all of these objections like “What if they’re pedophiles who befriended you so they could molest you?” or “What if they’re kidnappers who befriended you so they could kidnap you?” or less lurid possibilities like “What if they’re creepy drug people and they insist on bringing you along to their creepy drug abuse sessions and won’t let you say no?”
And I never developed a good plan that countered their concerns, like “I will bring pepper spray so I can defend myself.” It was more about rolling my eyes and telling them that never happened in real life, it was more in the realm of terrorism (the kind of stuff you hear about on the news) than the realm of car accidents (the stuff that happens to real people and that you must be guarding yourself against at every moment). I’ve now met hundreds of Internet friends, and I was absolutely right—it’s never happened, and any effort I put into developing a plan would have been effort wasted.
This is also how I think of people turning out to be abusers. It’s possible that anyone I date could turn out to be an abuser, just like it’s possible I could be killed by a terrorist, but it’s not something likely enough that I’m going to take strong precautions against it. This is obviously a function of my personal situations, but it’s a real function of my personal situation, which like my Internet-friend-meeting has consistently been confirmed over a bunch of different situations.
One interesting thing about Tumblr and the SJsphere in particular is that because its members come disproportionately from marginalized communities, it has this sort of natural prior of “people often turn out to be abusers, every situation has to be made abuser-proof or else it will be a catastrophe.” I once dated someone I knew on Tumblr who did a weird test on me where (sorry, won’t give more details) they deliberately put me in a situation where I could have abused them to see what I would do. When they told me about this months later, I was pretty offended—did I really seem so potentially abusive that I had to be specifically cleared by some procedure? And people explained to me that there’s this whole other culture where somebody being an abuser is, if not the norm, at least high enough to worry about with everyone.
I’m not sure what percent of the population is more like me vs. more like my date. But I think there’s a failure mode where someone from a high-trust culture starts what they think is a perfectly reasonable institution, and someone from a low-trust culture says “that’s awful, you didn’t make any effort to guard against abusers!” And then the person from the high-trust culture gets angry, because they’re being accused of being a potential abuser, which to them sounds as silly as being accused of being a potential terrorist (if you told your Muslim friend you wouldn’t hang out with him without some safeguards in case he turned out to be a terrorist, my guess is he’d get pretty upset). And then the person from the low-trust culture gets angry, because the person has just dismissed out of hand (or even gotten angry about) a commonsense attempt to avoid abuse, and who but an abuser would do something like that?
What I take away from Scott’s arguments above (which I find compelling):
Most people from Western middle-class-or-higher backgrounds know the general principle “my personal experience doesn’t erase or invalidate your personal experience.” But we don’t really get, on a deep intuitive level, just how wildly different people’s personal experiences will be. One person really truly actually encounters racism every single day, in ways that wear away their soul; another person in the same neighborhood who looks exactly like them has really truly never been directly affected by racism ever.
It boggles the mind. We immediately want to start forming excuses that bring everything back into coherence (or at least I do; maybe other people do something totally different!). For instance, if you experience a world where racism is problematic but not rampant, then you’re vulnerable to a kind of process where you’ll start unconsciously labeling that first person as hypervigilant or oversensitive or hair-trigger, and that second person as thick-skinned or somewhat oblivious, or you’ll start gravitating toward the idea that one of these people must be smart/right/perceptive/good/honest, and the other some combination of bad/wrong/dumb/lying/manipulative.
But a truer answer is, different people are actually just different. Like, actually. All the way down. They’re not lying. That really is what life is like for them. No, really. To the point that some people are openly shocked when, as adults, they discover that an instruction like “visualize a kite flying in the sky” isn’t meant to be taken metaphorically, that people have actually been producing visual images in their heads all along—
(and meanwhile other people are shocked to discover that wait, WHAT, are you telling me that some people literally don’t experience visual imagery, how is that even possible—)
I want to say something like “the typical mind fallacy is everywhere,” except, y’know, that might just … not be true.
But ultimately, if one of the blind men describes touching something hard and flat, and another blind man describes touching something thick and ropy, and a third describes touching something light and leathery, the answer isn’t usually that two of them are lying, nor that the truth is some weird average of their beliefs that’s “in the middle” somewhere. The truth is, each of them is having an experience that’s just very different from the experiences the others are having, and none of their perspectives should be scrapped.
Model 4: The Broken “We”
I once stumbled across a comment thread that had originated in the BDSM community and ended up posted on Facebook and Reddit. In it, a commenter made a compelling point that went something like:
One of the biggest problems in negotiating a complex sexual scene is that Person A will often think of the agreement as a promise of a good experience, while Person B will think of the agreement as a promise of a specific experience. That means that when things go south, Person A and Person B have very different reactions. Person A feels violated or betrayed, even if they’d technically agreed to everything up front, and Person B feels accused and attacked, even though they kept to both the letter and the spirit of what was negotiated.
I read this comment as pointing at the distinction between fault and fault analysis. Fault is a synonym for blame—something bad happened, and we’re going to find out who’s responsible. Fault analysis, on the other hand, is dispassionate, clinical, nuts-and-bolts—something went wrong here, and we should figure out what it was and how it happened. Fault belongs to people; fault analysis is about objects and events (although sometimes those objects are things like people or words or emotional responses).
In the dynamic described above, there’s no “we” once the sexual experience goes awry or causes distress. Instead, there’s a sudden need to locate responsibility, presumably as part of a meaning-making process in service of digestion and healing. Person A finds themselves telling the story of how this happened because of Person B, often with a hidden assumption that there was some sort of personal defection (malice, selfishness, callousness, manipulation, reckless ignorance or inattention). Even in cases where Person A thinks the responsibility is shared, it’s still framed as “you made these mistakes, and I made those mistakes.”
The fault analysis framework is subtly but importantly different, because it preserves the “we.” After the experience, if one partner is in distress, both people come together in validation of that distress and in support of each other. They investigate what went wrong together, as partners, each of whom is assumed to be equally dismayed at the unexpected suffering, equally invested in making future experiences go better, and equally possessed of important perspective and information. The problem, rather than being framed as something that someone did, is instead treated as something that happened, with the causality centered more in actions and interactions than in emotions and intent.
I don’t know which comes first, in the quoted dynamic—whether the sense of “we” is broken by the experience, and then blame comes afterward, or whether the act of laying blame is what causes the “we” to vanish. I suspect the real answer is both—for Person A, the “we” is broken at the moment they decide that they’ve been violated or betrayed, and for Person B, it vanishes at the moment they are accused of defection.
But regardless, the dynamic is toxic, and I claim it’s also pervasive. I’ve seen the Broken We in romance, in friendship, in team sports, in school projects, in workplace dynamics, in legal disputes—pretty much everywhere. And I claim that, in addition to creating new pain for both parties, it also leads to worse outcomes on a practical level, because the true causes of the bad experiences are never found and addressed. They get lost in an emotional back-and-forth that rarely accurately diagnoses the intent or internal experiences of either person.
Part 2: Vignettes
All right. So those are my background models and assumptions, which I will rely on as reasonably-likely-to-be-true for arguments and claims later in this piece. To recap:
- The two sides of a debate often fail to agree on the meta level as to which side bears the burden of proof, and more generally as to what constitutes a valid claim or inference. Practically speaking, if you expect to make progress on a thorny argument or a values clash, this layer of the disagreement needs to be addressed first.
- Most social change can be modeled as a pendulum swing, in which we get away from one bad equilibrium to a new, less-bad-but-still-not-perfect equilibrium. Practically speaking, if one is witnessing a shift in the social paradigm, one can generally predict that it’s going to go too far at first, until new/other problems rise to the surface.
- Similar people often have lives and experiences that are truly and startlingly different, due to things like filter bubbles and communication styles and the compounded effect of many small choices or experiences. Practically speaking, this means that you often can’t really predict what another person’s life is like, or what’s going on in their heads—you have to ask, and you have to accept answers that will often seem bizarre or even impossible if you actually want the truth.
- There’s a difference between laying blame and seeking causal understanding, and the former breaks the sense of partnership that exists between people. Practically speaking, this points toward a) learning to recognize when you’re expecting someone to keep an impossible promise, à la guaranteeing that a sexual experiment will be pleasant for you, and b) in general pumping against the desire to ascribe fundamental ill intent (or other negative characteristics) to people who contributed to Something Going Wrong.
Why these particular phenomena? Because (I claim) the disagreement between me and the anti-punch-bug crowd emerges from the fact that our society is right smack in the middle of a pendulum swing—one that’s taking place without settling the burden-of-proof question, and one in which advocates on both sides are failing to recognize just how little they understand the experiences of those who disagree with them, and instead throwing around blame bombs.
What I’d like to do next is start pointing more directly at the meat of that disagreement. The following is a series of representative vignettes, each of which is (I claim) a variation on the same theme, a different expression of the same dispute. The common thread between them is the dynamic I’m trying to understand and repair.
(And, just as a heads-up for the final section, all of these people either are or strongly resemble people who’ve made very strong objections to the game of punch bug. Note that all of these vignettes are real, plus or minus name changes and my own personal bias in selecting and retelling them.)
Vignette 1: Frames
Alexis and Blake have been having a long conversation that’s mostly made up of Alexis asking curious, probing questions. For the third or fourth time, Alexis says something along the lines of:
Alexis: “I want to give you an affordance to end this conversation—I’m not trying to be pushy or intrusive if you’d rather be doing something else.”
Blake: “I notice that you’ve said that like four times, but you haven’t yet asked me ‘hey, is this conversation what you want to be doing right now?’”
Alexis: “I really don’t like being that direct with that sort of question; it always feels like I’m forcing them into a dichotomy of want-to or don’t-want-to and maybe things are more complex than that.”
Blake: “Oh, I usually solve that by just baking in an ‘escape hatch’ to the whole dichotomy. Like, I’ll ask ‘do you want to stop and do something else, or keep going, or, like, some other different thing that I haven’t thought of?’ Usually something like ‘option A, option not-A, or did I miss you completely?’ is enough.”
Alexis: “Yeah, no. In my experience, that’s very nearly just as confining and doesn’t really help give people the ideal freedom of movement.”
Vignette 2: Fish and Facebook
Cameron recently went fishing with a group of friends, and posted a photo of a fish that they caught on Facebook. Dallas, who lives in the same house as Cameron, left a comment along the lines of “ugh, dead animals on my FB feed.” Later, Cameron and Dallas were having dinner with the rest of their roommates.
Cameron: “Yeah, so, I definitely didn’t anticipate that that picture would upset anybody. I’m changing the way I think about posts on Facebook now, and I’ll probably just avoid photos like that altogether.”
Dallas: “Wh—what? What the heck?”
Cameron: “I mean, it bothered you, so…”
Dallas: “Yeah, it bothered me, so I left a grumpy comment. I wasn’t trying to get you to change the whole way that you post to Facebook. Like, what? I just wanted to complain a little…please don’t rewire your whole social media process…geez…”
Vignette 3: Parks
Elliott and Finley were hanging out together at a well-populated park by a lake on a bright spring afternoon. As the day wore on, Finley decided to go shirtless.
Elliott: “Uh…you should…um…put your shirt back on.”
Elliott: “Put your shirt back on, please.”
Finley: “Why? It’s spring, it’s hot out, we’re in a park…”
Elliott: “You’re making other people uncomfortable.”
Elliott: “You’re…um…it’s imposing…ah…a cost? On other people? Like, you’re meaningfully taking away from their enjoyment of the park right now.”
Vignette 4: Teddy Bear
Gale, Harley, and Ira were three friends with a long and intimate history, sitting together having a deep, intense conversation. At some point, Gale decided to pop an inflated plastic bag, making a sudden, startling sound. Harley jumped and screamed. Ira, who was sitting a little further away, picked up a teddy bear and tossed it to the ground next to Harley.
Harley: “You’re not helping.”
Harley: “You. Throwing that teddy bear. You’re not helping.”
Harley: “You didn’t care about whether or not I wanted that bear. You didn’t ask. Throwing it was about you, not about me. You were just trying to make yourself feel better—”
Ira: “Uh. No. That’s not true.”
Harley: “—and then once you’d thrown it, I was on the hook to deal with your emotions. I had to either take it even though I didn’t want it or you’d make some sad face because I rejected your gesture or whatever. There wasn’t any place in there for my preferences. Screw that whole trap.”
(I should note, for my readers in less sensitive and explicit cultures: I think that the fact that Harley was able to surface and articulate these beliefs is a good thing, on balance. I anticipate some readers thinking this is just way over-the-top and not at all socially acceptable; I predict that those readers live in cultures where people think and feel things every bit as subtle and meaningful and they just don’t notice them consciously or say them out loud.)
Ira: “Uh, no. I mean, I only had like a split second, so it’s not like all of this went through my head consciously, but…basically, I figured you’d do one of three things—you’d either take the bear and hit Gale with it, or you’d take the bear and hug it and get some comfort out of it, or you’d leave it right there on the floor where I threw it because you didn’t want it. I wasn’t trying to make you do or feel anything, I was just trying to give you more…more options, more levers to pull.”
Vignette 5: Autism and Autonomy
Jordan was recounting an article about a mother who had dragged her five-year-old autistic son, kicking and screaming, into the audience of a live Sesame Street show. The mother had been terrified that if she didn’t take drastic action to start pushing past some of her son’s tics and phobias, he would grow up to be socially and emotionally crippled, entrapped by his own fears and lack of experience. Kelly, who had experience working with autistic children, objected strenuously, criticizing the mother for a backwards approach.
Kelly: “An autistic person melting down isn’t just throwing a temper tantrum; they’re communicating as best they know how in an extremely overwhelming situation. That kid was communicating to his mother that going into that show was a bad idea, and her response was to push him, literally, into doing something he didn’t want to do, completely disregarding his autonomy. That’s not good parenting, that’s abuse—or close to it.”
Part 3: Micro
If I had to put a name to the common thread between each of the above vignettes, it would be something like attention to micro.
By “micro,” what I mean is the same sort of thing that’s at the root of the words microexpression and microaggression. In this case, the micro that’s being attended to is the fluctuation in emotion and internal experience in response to the actions of others. If I slap you in the face or insult you with a racial slur, that’s likely to have a macro impact on your current state; if I accidentally bump you on the subway, it’s more likely to have a micro effect.
Note that, just as with pendulums, I’m waaaay oversimplifying by drawing this as if there’s only one axis. Emotions and experiences aren’t simply good or bad; the line above squiggles along a dozen different axes all the time.
But as a simplified model, we can think of our state as being something like a graph of the value of the dollar: there are large-scale trends that have us “up” or “down” for months or years at a time, as well as microscopic fluctuations on the order of fractions of a second, and everything in between. And while it’s not literally always true, the micro tends to be not only quicker, but also correspondingly smaller—the fluctuations you’ll experience in the average minute are smaller than the ones you’ll experience in the average day, which are smaller than the ones you’ll experience in the average month, and so forth.
What’s going on in the vignettes (I claim) is that each side disagrees with the other on the question of how to handle the micro. In particular, one side is doing something like naming/narrativizing/dignifying/validating/weighting relatively small shifts in personal state, while the other side is not:
- Alexis imagines the experience of being trapped within an ill-fitting narrative frame to be bad enough that they have a hard time making straightforward asks (which might cause that experience in someone else) even when their conversational partner would clearly prefer it. Meanwhile, Blake has recognized the same problem, applied a quick-and-dirty conversational patch, and called it a day—any remaining sense of confinement is “not their problem.”
- Cameron imagines the experience of seeing a picture one finds unpleasant on Facebook to be bad enough that they’re willing to change their entire posting strategy to avoid causing Dallas (or other Dallas-like friends) similar pain in the future. Meanwhile, Dallas figured that a verbal downvote would be noticed, but not meaningfully acted upon—that it would create its own micro effect, not a macro one.
- Elliott imagines the experience of having an unattractive person near you with their shirt off to be bad enough that Finley has something of a social obligation to put their shirt back on. Finley, on the other hand, implicitly figured that even if people minded, it wasn’t that big of a problem.
- Harley imagines that Ira’s emotional state will be meaningfully affected if Harley doesn’t pick up the stuffed animal—that by offering it in the first place, Ira essentially gave Harley a choice between “take this whether you want it or not, or deal with my post-rejection sadness.” Ira disagrees, with the implication being that if Ira did end up sad at having the gesture rejected, that wouldn’t be Harley’s responsibility.
- Kelly uses the phrase “completely disregarding his autonomy,” implying that they’re less concerned with the object-level unpleasantness of the Sesame Street show and more worried about the policy of ignoring the child’s personal preferences. Kelly imagines that doing so is tantamount to abuse, and strongly implies that they prefer parenting policies in which the tantrum (or better yet, a verbal objection expressed prior to the moment of meltdown) is decisive, and the child doesn’t have to go to the show.
(While the last vignette is borderline, and might well be considered macro, all five are smaller than what I claim is usual, given current Western social norms, to consider a transgression, or even an event—though it may ultimately prove to be a mistake, today’s parents routinely violate the sovereignty of their five-year-old children for (ostensibly) those five-year-olds’ own good.)
What’s unusual is that Alexis, Cameron, Elliott, Harley, and Kelly are giving the micro weight. They’re noticing it, analyzing it, narrativizing it, and articulating it. They’re taking clear (and often costly) steps to micromanage, seeking to enact policies which will prevent such downswings (in other people!) from occurring again in the future. They clearly believe that the micro is real enough and important enough to incur social (or even moral) obligation—that, once you’ve noticed the potential for harm on a micro scale, it’s your duty to adjust your behavior accordingly.
Meanwhile, Blake, Dallas, Finley, and Ira are either implicitly or explicitly arguing against such a norm.
It’s not that they’re unaware of the micro—Blake has already noticed the problem Alexis is pointing out, and has made a low-cost shift to their conversational style to ameliorate it. Dallas was aware of what was probably a fleeting, micro amount of displeasure at Cameron’s Facebook photo. Elliott was attending to their own pleasure on the micro level when they took their shirt off. Ira was caring for Harley’s micro when they threw the stuffed animal.
But while Blake, Dallas, Finley, and Ira are capable of noticing the same dynamics as Alexis, Cameron, Elliott, Harley, and Kelly, they don’t translate that noticing into obligation. Their response, far from being a deliberate shift in policy, is much more of a slightly-confused shrug. From their perspective, these things don’t really count as events, let alone as transgressions. They’re too small to worry about. If we model the rises and falls of an hour with a squiggly line, Blake et al have got something like a smoothing algorithm running, discounting all but the largest swings:
Where Alexis would view this hour as containing something like a dozen notable/nameable emotional events, Blake would count maybe three. Those small experiences still contributed to Blake’s overall aggregate sense of the hour, but from Blake’s perspective they’re not the sort of thing you’d bother to “put your finger on.”
Part 4: Reification and ramifications
There’s an old joke that goes something like:
Leigh: “You’re being brainwashed!”
Morgan: “No, I’m not.”
Leigh: “You’re being brainwashed!”
Morgan: “Maybe I’m being brainwashed…”
Leigh: “You’re being brainwashed!”
Morgan: “Oh my god, I’m being brainwashed!”
“Reification” is the process of making something real, bringing something into being, giving something a clear identity, making something concrete.
Often, this takes place through the process of naming things. Take the history of the word “genocide”, for example—in 1941, Winston Churchill gave a radio address about the atrocities he had witnessed in Europe in the first two years of World War II.
Awful and horrible things I have seen in these days…The most deadly instruments of war science have been joined to the extreme refinements of treachery and the most brutal exhibitions of ruthlessness…literally scores of thousands of executions in cold blood are being perpetrated by the German police troops…Since the Mongol invasions of Europe in the sixteenth century there has never been methodical, merciless butchery on such a scale or approaching such a scale, and this is but the beginning. We are in the presence of a crime without a name.
The crime’s namelessness wasn’t trivial, either. Earlier, Adolf Hitler had reassured his advisors that his proposed Final Solution would provoke no great outcry, asking rhetorically “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians [at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I]?”
It’s human nature to attend more closely to stuff that has thing-nature—that is reified, with clear boundaries, clear outlines, clear handles. In 1941, neither the Armenian massacre nor the atrocities of Europe had thing-nature for most people. There wasn’t a conceptual bucket for it, and so the memory of it threatened to leak out of the collective consciousness, too large and too alien to grasp.
It’s like the term witch hunt—now that we have it as a concept in common knowledge, we can see it when it’s happening. We can point at it, and others will notice the same thing that we notice, and as a result, it goes unchallenged less often than it used to. You no longer have to win an argument just to get people to even notice that the dynamic of a witch hunt might be bad—instead, you simply access the pre-existing concept, and demonstrate that it’s a sufficiently accurate label for what’s going on in front of you.
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born Holocaust refugee, understood this principle on a deep and intuitive level. In 1941, after hearing of both Churchill’s broadcast and Armenia’s tragedy, he set out to reify the concept of genocide—first by creating the word itself, and then by relentlessly campaigning for its adoption. By 1948, it had become the centerpiece of the UN treaty “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” and since then even those genocides that have not been prevented or addressed have at least been noticed and remembered.
But there are negative consequences to reification, as well. By its very nature, reification simplifies and rounds off. If we imagine the genocides of (e.g.) Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda, they will share some common features and have many non-overlapping differences:
Unfortunately, the scope and complexity of human monstrosity is large, and there are more possible atrocities than are captured by the sum of those that have already occurred:
That expansive space isn’t usually what’s evoked when people use the term “genocide,” though; human brains tend to key into patterns and overlap (and then sometimes those patterns take on a life of their own, thanks to preconceptions and biases and misinformation/misunderstanding):
…which leads to two major ways in which the reified concept fails to be a perfect match for reality:
Both of these problems are present in the vignettes above, as Alexis et al reify the micro. In each story, something happens in the world, and then something else happens in someone’s emotional makeup. The people who immediately grant those two paired events thing-nature by giving them a label are significantly changing what those events are, and what they mean internally. Most importantly, they’re making those events more real, more vivid, and more sticky—the act of reification is like a rehearsal of a particular narrative of impact.
Imagine, as a sixth vignette, that someone bumps past you on the train, muttering darkly under their breath. You can reify that as an act of casual racism, or as a sign of mental illness, or as an opportunity for empathy, or as yet another example of the decline of polite formality in modern society, or as a dominance challenge/affront to your personal honor and dignity, etc.
And with each of those possible mental movements, you will both lose and gain. You’ll lose some of the detail around the edges; things which don’t fit the neat, clean narrative that you’re imposing will fall away and be de-emphasized and in many cases literally vanish from memory. And you’ll be mixing in a bunch of assumptions about what must have been present in the other person’s intentions, or about what your social role implies or demands, or about how other people ought to respond.
Furthermore, if you tend to reify things according to a consistent set of perspectives, you’re going to open yourself up to one hell of a confirmation bias. This is one of the problems I have with diagnostic terms like “ADHD” or “microaggression”—what starts out as a meaning-making tool that can help you connect disparate experiences and locate a phenomenon can eventually become both a spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies and an excuse to ignore everything that doesn’t fit the narrative.
Bumped into on the bus? Microaggression. Caught a less-than-positive glance from a cashier? Microaggression. Someone got your name wrong for a third time running? Microaggression.
I’m willing to bet you have a stereotype of the sort of person who draws exactly these kinds of conclusions, just as you have a stereotype of the person whose ADHD diagnosis is a detail-obscuring, curiosity-killing, further-effort-forbidding explanation for every academic, professional, and social struggle that they have.
(Sanity check: under what circumstances do you reify your experiences of a real live human being into a stereotype like that? Do you reflectively endorse your own policy in this domain?)
And I’m willing to bet that you’ve had the experience of just … frustratedly wringing your hands, wishing that person could see themselves from the outside and notice that they’re digging themselves further and further into the hole, wearing themselves down with the label.
(I want to note that I’m making an argument about the existence of such a dynamic. I’m very specifically not claiming that such a dynamic explains everybody. I’m pointing at something that happens on the right side of the normalish curve, when people over-adopt or over-rely and their own personal pendulum swings too far. I am strongly in support of reifying concepts like genocide and ADHD and microaggression in general; I believe that each of them describes something real in the world and brought with them overdue and much-needed increases in awareness, clarity, and agency. I’m simply underlining that that benefit consistently comes with a cost, and that cost is predominantly paid by people who sink too deeply into the simplified narrative provided by the label. Maybe that’s the upper 1% of adopters, or maybe it’s the upper 10%, or maybe it’s the upper 30%. Maybe it’s you—don’t dismiss the possibility out of hand.)
Looping back around to the vignettes, I have a currently-under-justified but strongly held suspicion that there are personal, individual consequences to the way that Alexis et al are reifying the micro. They’re giving it weight, and meaning, which means both a) it’s going to matter more to them when it happens, and b) they’re going to observe it happening more.
(Just like genocide now matters more to the global community than it did before its reification, and just like we now notice genocide more readily and more frequently.)
And since they’re particularly alert to and intellectually interested in negative micro, this means that they’re going to be filling their attention docket with more and more instances of violence, violation, coercion, oppression, and constraint. I’m pretty sure that wears away at one’s soul.
Part 5: In which I attempt to summarize a strategy I don’t personally endorse, and then complain about it
Now comes the part where I start trying to tie it all together. This section is about clarifying just what, exactly, I think underlies the decisions and behavior of Alexis et al, and the next (and final) section is about proposing alternatives.
That makes this the most dangerous part of this essay. As I tried to acknowledge in the section title, I am fully aware that I’m about to attempt something very difficult, which is to correctly and charitably summarize a worldview that I personally think is wrongheaded (a worldview which I’m calling social ownership of the micro). Please be vigilantly on the lookout for what you think are my mistakes and biases; please hold on to some uncertainty about whether they actually are mistakes and biases.
Given all of that, here’s roughly how I think Alexis et al would describe what it is that they’re doing:
Social ownership of the micro
Greetings, person-who-wants-to-be-a-good-person. We’re glad you’re here.
There are a few things you need to know about life as a human. First off, privilege is a thing that exists, and we don’t just mean in terms of race and wealth. When you take into account stuff like neurodiversity and the wide space of disease and disability and the social contexts people grow up in and so on and so forth, there are a lot of ways that a person can be weakened or disadvantaged that other people might not notice or know about or know to validate.
Second, every life has moral weight and value. Sure, some people are better than others in a utilitarian sense. But pain is pain no matter who’s feeling it, suffering is bad for everyone, and to the greatest extent possible given tradeoffs, it’s important to watch out for and try to help everyone, not just those who are easy to help or those who seem to deserve it on the surface.
Third, there are bad things in life that are corrosive. Abuse tends to be cumulative rather than one-and-done; racism and sexism and classism and homophobia are often more like the death of a thousand cuts than like a gunshot wound; a person who’s got two jobs and three kids and forty dollars in their checking account is going to be experiencing levels of stress and anxiety that will profoundly impact their health, long term, and that’s just going to make the binds they’re stuck in worse. In general, there’s a downward spiral toward an all-is-hopeless attractor, and as a result the people who are most in need of a break are often the least likely to get one.
What this means is that, as a person-who-wants-to-be-a-good-person, there are a couple of very simple operations you can run that will help make the world around you a much better place.
First, pay attention. Notice the impact of your lifestyle and your actions on other people, and don’t assume that they’ll always just come right out and tell you. Often, you’ll have to work hard to create conditions of safety, and even then you’ll want to actively check in with people rather than thinking that silence is consent and no news is good news. You’d be surprised at how much people will bear without complaint, especially if past experience has trained them that they’ll be ignored (or punished!) if they speak up.
Second, take action. When you discover that your actions are creating negative impact on other people, don’t just brush them off with empty words. Put your money where your mouth is—especially if you have extra flexibility as a result of personal privilege. A little bit of conscious effort on your part can often prevent or ameliorate repeated and cumulative damage to someone else. As a concrete example, try dropping the “your mom” jokes, and replace them with something gender-neutral and more sensitive to family issues, like saying “just like my prom night.”
What we’re looking to create here is a culture of compassion, communication, and accommodation, and it starts with those of us who have spare resources putting forth effort commensurate with our privilege. The downtrodden among us need us to reach further than halfway—they don’t have the wiggle room to take chances, and they don’t have reason to trust, so they’re not going to reach out by default. They’ve been burned before, and they can’t afford to get burned again.
That means that if you want to help, you’ve got to live this attitude, at all times—it has to be evident, provable, and reliable. People have got to be able to see your care, your openness to feedback, and your willingness to change, which means having them front and center in your own life and unashamedly endorsing and rewarding them in your social circles. The upward spiral starts with you.
Thus, Alexis is unwilling to participate in a conversational paradigm which might be coercive to those people who are both most sensitive to that coercion and also least able to muster the courage to object.
Similarly, Cameron is eager to update their social media policy without waiting on an explicit ask that is unlikely to come from those most harmed. Elliott is advocating on behalf of strangers who are probably not going to speak up, themselves. Harley wants Ira to take seriously the possibility that Ira’s emotional needs, when combined with Harley’s own care, might add up to something like covert emotional blackmail. Kelly wants the broader culture to start caring about the personal sovereignty of autistic kids, and is taking up the mantle because autistic kids are extremely unlikely to be able to advocate for themselves.
There’s a trend here toward dignifying small experiences (because they might be cumulative or predictive). There’s a trend here toward callout culture (because those in harm’s way often can’t advocate on their own behalf, and people often don’t notice their own transgressions). There’s a trend here toward increasing personal responsibility in the form of a continuous expansion of one’s own personal rule set—what you do and don’t say, what you can and can’t do, what sorts of behavior you will and won’t allow from your peers.
And all of this is well-intentioned, and all of it paves the road to hell.
For me, the clearest example of where this goes wrong is in the second vignette—the conversation between Cameron and Dallas over the Facebook post. When I put myself in Dallas’s shoes, what I imagine saying to Cameron goes something like this:
Look. I see you trying to take some sort of responsibility for the little bit of distress that I experienced, and I appreciate the gesture. But do you see how, if we both run that program, we’re going to end up screwed? Because you’re responding as if my grumps about your picture are your fault, and in response, you’re significantly contorting your behavior to avoid causing similar distress in the future.
But if I respond to that as if it’s my fault, then I end up having a symmetrical responsibility to contort my behavior to avoid giving you similar stimuli in the future. In other words, I’m going to have to change the way that I post comments and frowny-faces on Facebook, lest one of my comments be misinterpreted as an implicit request for drastic change that you feel morally obligated to meet.
And so now your contortion of yourself has caused me to contort myself, and now we’re both spending a ton of mental resources trying to model and predict the other person, and doing a bunch of costly pre-emptive moves based on those predictions to avoid causing the other person distress. Even worse, your model of me now has to include the fact that I’m modeling you, and my model of you has to take into account your modeling of me modeling you, and so forth. Worst of all, we’re now communicating less clearly and less frequently, because we’re both gun-shy about the communication itself somehow crossing the line into violence.
This has to stop!
By pushing for social ownership of the micro, I claim that Cameron is setting up a dynamic whereby people will try to take responsibility for things they cannot possibly predict with sufficient resolution, meaning that all of the well-meaning people will inevitably tie themselves in knots and ultimately end up too paralyzed to move.
The same dynamic is present in the other vignettes. Alexis, for instance, wanted to know whether Blake wanted to end the conversation, but was too constrained by a desire not to constrain to just come out and ask.* If Blake adopted a similar stance, Blake would be too unwilling to cut Alexis off to be honest about wanting the conversation to end. As long as both people see themselves as possessed of privilege and spare resources, and therefore morally obligated (or at least encouraged) to take costs onto themselves for the other’s imagined benefit, they’re both going to be stealing agency and personhood from the very person they’re trying to help—by making unilateral decisions about what info and choices they’ll even allow the other person to be aware of. There’s a Broken We, here—an ironic one, since in trying to proactively care for Blake, Alexis has actually reduced their ability to collaborate and connect.
*There’s also guess culture vs. ask/tell culture stuff in there, but this is part of the reason why I strongly prefer and generally advocate for ask/tell culture.
Similarly, Harley is chafing under Ira’s micro; Harley either feels threatened by Ira’s potential sadness (if the teddy bear is rejected) or responsible for preventing it in the first place. If Ira adopted a similar paradigm, Ira would also have felt constrained, and would never have offered the bear in the first place, despite both a) wanting to, and b) thinking that Harley’s life would probably be improved by it. In the social ownership paradigm, “probably” is not enough—the elevated focus on avoiding the “tail risk” of negative micro reduces social safety, encourages self-doubt and anxiety, and twists ordinary decisionmaking processes toward inaction and paralysis (since “nothing” is seen as preferable to “small hurts”).
Part of the issue is that social ownership of the micro relies on something akin to equality-of-outcome rather than equality-of-treatment. Success in the social ownership paradigm is defined by whether or not other people actually avoid negative micro, and not by your own personal effort or integrity or adherence to social norms. That’s very, very different from a framework like NVC, which has similar motivations and intentions but describes a process to follow rather than a benchmark to achieve. In NVC, your locus of control as a person-who-wants-to-be-a-good-person is internal—are you doing the right things? Approaching conversations with the right mindset? When the micro is socially owned, the locus of control is external, and your sense of progress or self-worth is subject to chance and unfairness and human capriciousness and you can be drained dry via a sort of Hufflepuff trap that morally obligates you to continuously throw resources into a black hole.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s this whole other, completely separate problem that’s equally terrible, and that’s the way in which the social ownership paradigm incentivizes suffering. In a world where a significant number of people behave like Alexis et al, there is power in being either more offended or more vulnerable. If you are seen to be suffering, or even just thought to be suffering, others will take active steps to change their own behavior to accommodate you. It follows, then, that both immoral actors who are willing to manipulate and moral actors who are susceptible to economic pressures and operant conditioning—
—will find themselves experiencing pain and outrage more frequently, since the experience of pain and outrage is now an effective method for bringing about change in the behavior of the people around you. We’ve already seen glimmers of this kind of dynamic in the social justice sphere, where there is sometimes an implicit moral hierarchy with the most aggrieved and downtrodden at the top, and the most privileged at the bottom. The more legitimate one’s claim to suffering or damage, the more seriously one’s requests/demands that others change their behavior in response are taken.
Which, by the way, is not a fundamentally bad thing. It’s a marginal problem—a question of costs and benefits and when one begins to outweigh the other. I’m not arguing that our society shouldn’t prioritize its efforts according to need—not exactly. I’m trying to say something more subtle, like “hey, there’s a slippery slope here that we should be aware of.”
I’m trying to point out that there is a pendulum swing, and that although this direction has created marginal utility for a lot of people, we’re likely to go too far unless we consciously prevent ourselves from doing so.
I’m trying to gesture toward the fact that, once victimhood becomes weaponized, everyone else necessarily becomes more callous, meaning that the subset of victims who aren’t exaggerating their pain get heard and cared for less and less and less.
I’m trying to say that the people who are benefitting the most from this shift in the social dynamic should not be the ones we look to when we’re trying to decide how far is far enough.
I’m trying to say that the heuristic “care most about those who are most in need” is Goodhart-vulnerable, and that ultimately the balance that results in the greatest good for the greatest number probably leaves some people out in the cold, and that we shouldn’t be so focused on the truth of their suffering and abandonment that we drive the whole society off a cliff of codependency and moral culpability.
These are hard things to say. There are social pressures against saying things like them, and those social pressures exist for good reason—for instance, I predict at least some of the people reading this are currently thinking something along the lines of “this sounds an awful lot like a privileged person trying to justify continued systematic oppression, and not having to put forth effort to rebalance the scales.”
And the fact that a certain kind of person has that thought or says that sentence makes sense, in context. The type of person who would have that thought is exactly the type of person who’s been responsible for our moral growth in this arena so far—they’re the type of person who bothers to notice and prioritize the disenfranchised, and who creates pressure to break society’s pendulum away from its current stuck point.
And entirely separate from the question of whether or not it’s true that I’m a lazy privileged person trying to justify inaction, sentences like that have worked in the past decade. They’ve provoked change. They’ve become a useful tool—sometimes even a weapon—and of course someone On The Side Of The Downtrodden would raise that tool again in this specific case. In the grand scheme of things, it’s that person’s job to keep ringing that bell, sort of like how fiscal conservatives keep sounding the alarm over debt and deficit, or how climate scientists keep shouting about carbon emissions.
But that perspective—the perspective that unconditionally prioritizes the marginalized—needs to be part of the calculus, not all of it. It’s data, not a conclusion. That’s how these sorts of conversations work—it’s understandable that people on a given side of the disagreement might want their own narrative frame to become the narrative frame, but that doesn’t mean we should let it actually happen.
Part 6: Punch bug as rallying cry
- I claim that the paradigm of social ownership of the micro consists of something like an elevation and reification of small changes in emotional state, plus a moral imperative to take those small changes seriously in others and to change one’s own behavior in response.
- I claim that this goes wonky in multiple ways, with some of the most notable being that a) the reification doesn’t match reality, b) it creates self-fulfilling prophecies of negative experience that eventually wear people down, c) it leads to cognitive overload and decision paralysis, d) it has the side effect of decreasing connection and communication, e) it’s linked to outcome rather than input and thus you can be mugged, and f) it incentivizes people to suffer (or appear to suffer) in exchange for increased social influence.
I don’t have a clear and comprehensive solution. But I have an inkling of what’s needed, and according to me, it’s punch bug.
(Here I am using punch bug as an archetype, an example, a metaphor, and a flag. I’m not advocating the specific game, but rather using it as an instance of a class and trying to point at the thing that generated it, the type of culture that endorses it, and the characteristics of a person who grew up playing it.)
What happens in the game of punch bug?
- You’re pretty routinely having your sovereignty violated.
- You’re pretty routinely experiencing non-negligible physical pain (I tap very gently these days, but back in primary and secondary school, we … y’know … punched).
- The pain and violation are mostly coming from people you care about—people you trust and who are supposed to have your back.
- You’re heavily constrained in your ability to respond (a key ingredient of serious trauma)—pretty much the whole game is “no punching back,” and people who break that rule can get ostracized hard. You don’t even have the opportunity for retributive justice until there’s another Volkswagen beetle, at which point you’re basically just as likely to get hit again.
(And if you say “I’m not playing,” people will often smirk and reply, “well, you’re not hitting me back, so it sure looks like you’re playing.”)
And yet, despite all of that, literally millions of people still play the game (voluntarily!) and have a grand ol’ time while doing so.
Possible counterargument: Stockholm Syndrome/sour grapes
Possible counterargument: hyperbolic discounting (you initiate the game when it’s beneficial to you, and irrationally underweight the future pain of other people initiating the game when it’s beneficial to them.)
Possible counterargument: common knowledge coordination (only a very small number of weirdos like me actually want to play the game anymore, and most of the visible enthusiasm is fake/social conformity/signaling; a majority of people hate it but since we’re not all telepathic we never notice that there’s critical mass for abandoning it.)
I think the key here is something like hormesis.
Hormesis is an effect whereby the presence of a little bit of toxin or stress is a very good thing, relative to none or a lot. It has a specific and technical meaning in biology, but if we broaden the term and use it as a metaphor, we can see that it shows up in a lot of places. Bones and muscles are subject to a hormetic process—abuse them too much and they degrade, abuse them too little and they atrophy, but abuse them just the right amount and they’ll repair themselves stronger and stronger. The human immune system is hormetic, as well—a major player in the rise of pervasive allergic and autoimmune disorders is the fact that a lot of people grow up too clean these days.
And I suspect that human emotional well-being is similarly dominated by a hormetic effect. The claim here is that punch bug (and similar) provides just enough trauma to stop our trauma-detectors and trauma-compensators from going haywire out of cabin fever.
This is emphatically not the same as saying “punch bug toughens you up,” which is the sort of argument I’ve often heard offered for questionable phenomena like corporal punishment, hazing, schoolyard fights, and rough treatment from siblings or parents. As far as I can tell, toughening up implies a sort of dissociated numbness or loss-of-sensitivity, and I don’t think that punch bug caused me to (for instance) find bursts of physical pain less unpleasant.
It’s more like saying “punch bug calibrates you.” I kind of hate the image below, because some of the things it implies feel false to me, but:
Punch bug (I claim) creates a sort of zone of laissez-faire chillness around a magnitude of event that might otherwise be reified into meaning. It’s not that those events become less noticeable, in the moment. It’s just that they matter less. They don’t receive “event” status in the mind of the person experiencing them. In the fashion of exposure therapy, punch bug teaches you that no great or lasting hurt will come from a couple of punches on the arm, that the small betrayal of a sneak attack from your friend isn’t predictive of any larger, more meaningful betrayals, and that impotence (in the form of being unable to hit back) is often temporary and either way survivable. It gives your trauma-detectors a set-point of ordinariness so that events of magnitude one- or two- or three-out-of-ten don’t trigger narrative catastrophizing and massive amounts of stress, anxiety, or desperate-need-to-act.
(As for the last one, it even teaches patience. That parked bug you passed on the way to school might be there on the way home—be ready.)
There’s a clear and obvious objection, in the form of “you only think that level of violence and harm is good because you’re accustomed to it, and in a more perfect future society where harm is an order of magnitude rarer, you would correctly identify this as awful.”
But here’s the thing: regardless of whether we’ll get to that world eventually and what might or might not be considered good once we’re in it, we’re not there yet.
This is another reason why I find punch bug and similar activities to be an important part of the human experience. The level of sovereignty that the anti-punch-bug crowd is trying to force into being simply isn’t supported by reality yet. You absolutely will have intrusions upon your experience on the level of random punches on the arm. In school, there are bullies and pop quizzes and the random acts of capricious teachers; in adulthood these are replaced by shitty coworkers and horrible bosses and inexplicable twinges in your back, not to mention penalty fees, stubbed toes, car accidents, cheating romantic partners, and cancer.
And yes, the ideal that the anti-punch-bug crowd is striving for is the right ideal; I’d like nothing more than to be able to tell my future child “you will be in control of your body and your destiny once we’ve finished making you learn the basics.” But it’s not true. And given that it’s not true, I’d rather provide them with opportunities to learn the valuable skills of rising above small adversities, dealing with small hurts, and learning to take one’s experiences and one’s emotional responses as object, rather than being subject to them. Punch bug is a sandbox for kids to practice the kind of emotional resilience, intelligence, and maturity that they’ll need, come middle and high school.
(There’s also something in there about the power of context and narrative, like how most of us find action movies enjoyable and threatening social situations unpleasant even though the physiological sensations of each might well be identical. I literally had fun playing punch bug, even when it left me bruised, and I’d be shocked to discover that this was true of less than a quarter of the people who played it with me. In no small part, that’s because I was imposing upon the experience an implicit, positive narrative—of closeness with my friends, of cleverness and perceptiveness in winning the game, of the dramatic rise and fall of tyrants and underdogs.
Sensation doesn’t translate into experience according to consistent laws; it runs through filters, and the punch bug filter—generalized out to a wide range of experiences—is one with a lot of utility. It’s the silver lining filter, the no big deal filter, the let’s-have-fun-at-prom-anyway-even-though-we-fell-in-the-mud-and-our-outfits-are-probably-ruined-forever filter.)
I repeat that it’s not about not noticing small shifts in your experience—I claim that without awareness of those shifts, things like roller coasters and horror movies wouldn’t be entertaining in the first place.
It’s simply that, outside of contexts (such as Circling or Focusing or therapy or certain kinds of meditation) where the whole point is to listen very closely to those small shifts and draw explicit information out of them, most of the time you’re better off noticing them and then just … letting them pass without judgment. As in the Emerson quote, the voyage of the best sailing ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Try to extrapolate out from the motion of a single tack, and your predictions will be very, very wrong (or they’ll force themselves to become true but run you off course in doing so).
There’s one last piece of the puzzle that feels important to me (though it’s less clear than the rest) and that’s the fact that a culture of punch bug is a culture that welcomes, includes, and endorses frequent and casual physical contact.
At some point over the past hundred years, something unstuck the pendulum, and we started to touch each other a lot less, and at the same time we started seeing a lot more psychological isolation, depression, sexual dysfunction, and suicide. I’m not sure where the fault analysis lies—probably partly with homophobia, partly as an overswing in the (correct and overdue) reduction of sexual inequality, and partly as an overswing in the (less obviously correct) reduction of schoolyard violence—but whatever the cause, I claim it’s been costly, and punch bug is exactly the sort of thing that brings us back toward the hardwired, baseline normal for social primates.
Let’s imagine a world where I get all the Infinity Stones and I snap my fingers and this just … happens. We wake up tomorrow and we have strong social norms against people taking responsibility for other people’s micro (or being made to take responsibility, through social and emotional pressure). We also punch each other a good deal more, both literally and metaphorically, and we generally view this as a positive thing.
Obviously I think that world is a better place, but I want to take a moment to validate the costs.
For one, I haven’t touched on gender at all in this piece, and certainly the punch bug example works more fluidly with traditional boyhood roles than with traditional girlhood ones (though in an informal Facebook poll, there were more women in the “pro” punch bug column than in the “anti”). It could be that even if I’m right about this being generally healthy for one wide swath of the population, there’s another swath that’s Just Different, and any real benefits fail to generalize.
For another, I’ve ignored two important pieces of the nature of the micro. The first is that micro can be cumulative, and the second is that the micro can be predictive.
What this means is that, in my imagined culture, people on the more sensitive and susceptible end of things who are taking cumulative damage will have a harder time explaining and getting validation for what’s going wrong for them. They’ll say “I don’t know, I can’t really point at any examples that seem convincing, there’s just this pattern,” and from that point on the conversation will probably be frustrating and unfruitful.
Meanwhile, people stuck in abusive relationships at home or school or work will be more vulnerable to things like gaslighting, especially if the abuser is clever. If the culture rounds down to zero any hurt of magnitude three or less, then a clever abuser can just continually pile on hurts of magnitude one or two or two-point-five, and the victim will have a much harder time garnering attention, sympathy, and critical help.
I think these costs are real. I think that my imagined culture is at risk for a higher incidence of these problems.
But I think it’s worth it overall. I think that even with an increase in risk (or, more accurately, with a decrease in the rate of risk reduction) for the most vulnerable five percent of our population, the net result will be significantly more health and happiness overall, in both the median and mode. Right now, I claim that the pendulum has swung too far toward in liberal bastions like universities and the San Francisco Bay Area, and that it’s threatening to swing too far in the Western world at large. As a result, I think I see the 99 being endangered for the sake of the 1—we’re protecting the most marginalized, but with a palliative that makes the rest of us noticeably sicker.
(There are cruxes in that for me, by the way. If I were to discover that the social ownership paradigm better protects half of the population, and not a fraction smaller than maybe fifteen percent, I’d abandon or moderate my position. Ditto if I were convinced that the current shift is half as harmful as I think, or affects half as many people, or if there were reasons to expect that the broader culture will know to stop at a place short of where the current blue tribe vanguard stands.)
I agree that I haven’t won any arguments here. In fact, I haven’t even really settled the question of burden of proof—I don’t know whether the punch bug side or the anti-punch-bug side should be considered the default, and I don’t know how to decide, either.
In the end, though, it is the median and the mode that I care about, at least when it comes to determining default social policy. If there are people among us who, because of their particular makeup, need a space safe from punch bug, I say we provide it the same way we provide a space free of peanuts for the allergic (rather than by banning peanuts entirely). Similarly, if there are people who want to go above and beyond in changing their own behavior on behalf of others’ micro, I’m willing to give those people the same admiration I give to altruists who donate half of their money to malaria prevention, but I’m not willing to be judged morally inadequate for not doing the same.
The principle I’m running is basically “if everyone used the same set of guiding principles to determine their choices and behavior, would the outcome be good, or bad?” When I look at the world where people adopt social ownership of the micro, I feel a sick, sinking nausea. It’s like Marxian communism or Randian capitalism—it looks good on paper, but the details are lethal.
When I look at the world of punch bug, though, what I see is—
(Author’s note: I decided to publish this as soon as I finished it, prior to getting feedback from friends or colleagues. That means that there’s a significant chance it will be edited/updated over the next week, to incorporate useful feedback or well-argued opposition. If you think you have some of that, please share it with me sooner rather than later!)