tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
[personal profile] tim
Much of the conflict between "social justice warriors" and their antagonists arises from a conflict between mutual trust as a political foundation, and coercion (arising from distrust) as a political tactic. (I previously wrote about this conflict in "The Christians and the Pagans".)

People who are used to operating on coercion assume the worst of others and both expect to be coerced into doing good, and expect that they will have to coerce others in order to get what they want or need. People who are more used to operating on trust assume that others will usually want to help and will act in good faith out of a similar desire for mutual trust.

I want to be clear that when I talk about coercion-based people, I'm not talking about sociopaths or any other category that's constructed based on innate neurological or psychological traits. In fact, people might act coercion-based in one situation, and trust-based in another. For example, a white feminist might act like they're trust-based in a situation that involves gender inequality, but coercion-based when it comes to examining racism. And I'm also not saying people never cross over from one group into another -- I think it can happen in both directions. But to stop relying on coercion requires work, and there are few incentives to do that work. There are, however, a lot of incentives to give up trust in favor of coercion (or at least pretend to) and give up your empathy.

If you assume the worst of other people, of course you won't be able to imagine any way to achieve your goals other than coercion. Assuming the worst isn't a character flaw -- it's taught, and thus, can be unlearned. At the same time, experience isn't an excuse for treating others badly (and people who assume the worst of others will treat others badly, partly because it helps make their assumptions self-fulfilling, removing the need for them to change their assumptions and behavior). We are all obligated to do the work that it takes to live with others while minimizing the harm that we do to them.

Coerced People Assume the Worst

At first blush, trust-based people may find it surprising that so many people automatically assume the worst of others. Assuming the worst is what makes people look at guidelines that are intended for people who want to do right by each other but may not automatically know how, and say, "You can't make me do it." For those of us who take it as a given that it's worthwhile to treat each other fairly and respectfully, sometimes that's surprising to hear.

I think that these differences primarily arise from lived experience. People who have been treated in an authoritarian way, especially as children, tend to see the world as a hostile place and assume that they will have to use force to get their way. People who have been able to trust and be trusted will tend to trust others and be surprised by violations of trust.

In fact, a lot of us have lived experience that would incline us towards the authoritarian view. So, ought it to be so surprising that it's so common to assume the worst of people?

We assume that if we didn't force children to learn, they would just sit around and play video games, or do some other activity that doesn't generate value for capitalism. And so we have compulsory schooling.

We assume that if we didn't force adults to work, under threat of starvation if you don't, then they would just sit around and... play video games, I guess. And so we live under capitalism.

We assume that if we didn't threaten people with incarceration, they wouldn't be good, so we have laws and send people to prison when they break them.

All of these large-scale social systems are based on the assumption that no one wants to learn, that no one wants to help other people, unless they're forced to or threatened with violence if they don't comply.

But isn't that backwards? Don't we all start out curious about the world, wanting to connect with each other, until we get punished for being curious or wanting to connect -- perhaps we don't know how, which is why you might have to teach your small child not to bite people, but needing to be taught how to express your desire to connect with others isn't the same thing as not wanting it to begin with.

So, one reason why people might have a hard time believing that anyone wants to be helpful is that culturally, there are many ways in which we're taught that the only way to get your needs met is to force other people into it, and that the only way in which anyone can or should expect help from you is by forcing you to help.

Tools Based on Trust

If you are a person who wants to treat other people right -- for its own sake, because it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, or some other intrinsic thing -- then mutual trust is a concept that you can at least admit into your thinking. You may have a lower or higher threshold for when to grant people trust, but you can at least imagine situations in which it would make sense to found behavioral guidelines on mutual trust. A code of conduct is an example of one of those guidelines.

Some other examples of tools by and for people who want to connect with each other and recognize that other people have feelings:

  • The principle of trusting victims
  • Guidelines for respectful language (which come down to calling people what they want to be called), the sort that get mischaracterized as "political correctness."
  • The principle of treating other people as experts on their own lived experience
  • If someone says they're offended/upset, take them at their word, and try to do better in the future

The trust-based take it as a given that being welcoming, trusting people, and using the language to describe people that they want used to describe them are good things. We might disagree amongst ourselves about specifics, but we agree on the basic principle of seeing the humanity in others and acting accordingly.

So, you can distinguish between a trust-based person and a coercion-based person by how they react to tools and ideas that presume a baseline level of trust as an ethical foundation:

  • Codes of conduct: "But couldn't someone lie and say someone harassed them? Anyway, how are we supposed to trust the people enforcing the CoC?"
  • Trusting victims: "What if I just went ahead and said you raped me? Doesn't everybody have to believe me then?"
  • Guidelines for respectful language: "I don't like the word 'carrot', I demand that you say 'orange parsnip'? No, you're not going to say that? Then you're disrespecting me."
  • Someone says they're upset: "Some people just go look for reasons to be offended"

Codes of conduct, default belief in victims, and guidelines for respectful language only work if we presume a certain level of mutual trust; the other side of trust is a responsibility not to betray that trust. "But what if I acted in such a way to violate that trust?" doesn't exposes a flaw in these systems, it points to a shortcoming in the person asking the question. In the last case, I think the question really being asked is: "Why would you say something when you're being harmed, rather than just accepting it?" Or perhaps, "I can't believe you would expect better."

When Expecting the Best Brings Out People's Worst

An inability to grasp the concept of wanting to act in good faith in a given situation leads coercion-based people to confuse an antecedent with a consequent. They say, "you can't force me to act in good faith!" when no one is trying to force them to do that. CoCs are for people who already want to act in good faith. This often confuses people who are sufficiently used to acting in good faith that they forget anyone acts in bad faith. It's baffling when you make a polite request -- e.g., "Hey, don't refer to all of us as 'guys', I'm not a guy and it bothers me" -- and the response you get back is "You can't tell me what to do!" It's always baffling to get an answer to a question you didn't ask. What must it be like to not be able to conceive of acting in good faith for its own sake, without being coerced into it?

When coercion-based people show up in your comment threads, they perform anger, but often we can see the confusion peeking out through the gaps in the curtains. Why would somebody want to treat other people right? The obvious explanation is out of the question since they can't imagine it, and instead, they imagine that there is some sort of personal gain to be had from being an "SJW", and proceed accordingly.

For one reason why people might have a hard time believing that anyone wants to be helpful, see "Missing the War". It's important to extend compassion and understanding even to people who are withholding it from others, but at the same time, we can't and shouldn't be everybody's unpaid therapist. Some people don't want to treat others with respect; the rest of us have to deal with them as they are rather than changing them or counseling them (unless we are professional counselors and they come to us voluntarily).

Meanwhile, I think most of us want to assume that others are like ourselves, as a general principle, and so we trust-based people treat coercion-based people as if they're like us: as if they want to be respectful. Because we assume that they, too, take it as an axiom that respect for others is a good thing, we try to convince them that (e.g.) codes of conduct are an effective way to show respect. Whereas even if we could show them how that's true, they still wouldn't care because they don't understand the concept of moving through the world other than as an individual trying to extract what they can from other people while not getting punished.

I think what shocks coercion-based people about CoCs is that they're not like laws; they're not backed up by the power of the state (or any other group) to commit legitimized violence. CoCs are entered into freely and with the consent of the governed. People who don't want to follow a CoC always have the option of starting a different group with a different CoC or no written CoC at all (of course, there's always a code of conduct, it's just a question of whether it's written down.) The idea of rules that are based on mutual consent is surprising to people who are used to coercing and being coerced. To be honest, that's a lot of us, to varying degrees.

Good Faith Cannot Be Assumed

Discussions about codes of conduct can be confusing because codes of conduct are tools for people who want to treat other people right but don't always know how to. (Nobody exists in the world who always knows how to treat other people right, and if you meet someone who claims they do, run away.) It would be tempting to say that people who object to codes of conduct are people who don't want to treat other people right. It might be more accurate to say that the objectors believe that they'll always be treated in a hostile way, and thus pre-emptively respond in kind. So they see all attempts to regulate behavior as coercive, and react to codes of conduct as if they're being coerced.

Maybe we need to decouple the notions of behavioral guidelines for people acting in good faith from consequences for people who can't and won't do so. I'm not invoking magical intent when I say this -- I'm making a distinction based on behavior, not motivations. People who don't give a fuck about acting in good faith usually don't hesitate to let you know; we don't have to guess at their intent.

If we're unable to imagine such a decoupling, maybe it's because we live in a society with laws that often group together education (instructions meant to teach people how to live with each other in the world) with coercion (punishment for those who refuse to live harmoniously.) We need to envision a world based on voluntary cooperation, but we also need to meet people where they are and distinguish guidelines for people who want to show respect and empathy from others from rules for mitigating the harm done by people who lack innate desire to be kind.


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Tim Chevalier

September 2017

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