Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Social Subtleties and Snarky "Superioriatedness"....

A fairly important subject, so I CROSS-POSTED an edited version from Assistant Village Idiot.

Social Subtleties: Three Connected Discussions.

The three posts below go together, separated for easier reading.

Part I: Sophia's Office Window

Sophia has the office next to mine. She is a Christian conservative of slightly different flavor – chocolate chip to my vanilla, perhaps. Her window looks out over the copier, and she has affixed a long list of examples from around the world of what bad things happened to peoples who were not allowed to own guns. It’s been up a few months. I don’t know how many folks have read it.

One of the med students from another unit brought the psychiatrist over to look at it. Neither said a word, the younger just pointed to it and grinned mockingly. How do I know it was mockingly, rather than approvingly? Because our brains are very good at picking up social cues like that. Even the worst of us are pretty good at it. We evolved in groups where such things were important for survival. Tribes enforce their norms via gestures and expressions which are maddeningly difficult to describe. My oft-mentioned A&H tribe is especially good at it. They can pick up the merest changes in tone or eyebrow.

So can I, as I grew up in that tribe.

The psychiatrist likewise grinned in amusement. Some rube had had put up something about gun rights for public display. Here! What a maroon! No words, just the shared chuckle.

It is not merely the point of view, of course, though that in itself can prompt those superior smiles. The placement and tone of the document were also part of their pleasure. Those gun people. They don’t know how they come across. They don’t get that this is ridiculous. We do. We two, and our tribe do. That’s how we know we’re better.

If progressives don't want to be accused of this level of arrogance and rudeness, they should stop doing these things in front of me every few days.

CS Lewis writes about this in The Screwtape Letters. In a comment that stabbed me to the heart when I first read it and stayed ever before me in my long conversion from liberalism to conservatism, the senior demon Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood to encourage some types of humor but not others, in order to deliver the patient out of the hands of The Enemy and safely into Hell, to be food for them.

"... But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it."

Lewis is referring more to spiritual than political flippancy, but the point holds. Watch how often people will laugh at something or someone without bothering to make a reasonable argument or give evidence against it. All the cool kids “just know” that it’s ridiculous. The tactic is an enormously powerful social enforcer. Time and again while I was a progressive, I would hear people make such jokes to me. Reagan. (Hahaha.) NASCAR. (Snicker.) Trickle-down. (Ha!) Born-agains. (Stop, you’re killing me!) I now have the opposite response: when someone speaks as if the joke is obvious (sometimes they go so far as to add an urban legend in, like Dan Quayle and studying Latin), I now conclude that it is merely a social cue, an efficient tribal communication devoid of intellectual content.

Part II: Classical Values

The Tricky Politician's trick:

... He gets to tell everyone present that he agrees with them, but also gets to pose as a person who sees many sides of things – one who has been fair to other points of view and has considered them. So when he kicks them in the balls you know they deserved it. The audience, meanwhile, receives no real challenge to reevaluate their position. They can even pretend that they have reevaluated their position in that instant. They go on as before, thinking themselves wise and the politician evenhanded. Better yet, the politician is on record as having considered an alternative POV. Even his opponents might be impressed that he has at least heard them clearly.

Tricksy politician. False.

One layer deeper, I look at the tactic a soupcon more kindly. The current audience receives the near-indiscernible disagreement in the context of being patted on the back a dozen time. Yet in this age of rancorous debate, the single comment can be taken out of context and sent out into the world: ... A communist can be made to look libertarian, a libertarian communist, and anyone can be made to look stupid or evil.

It's still not honest, but it's more understandable in that context.

Part III: Tone Filters

We don't mind pervasive snarkiness so much, when it isn't aimed at us:

... I was able to perceive the tone, but could filter it out when I thought it was directed at others. Once I knew that the tone was directed to folks like me, the snarkiness was too much. From listening to people live and reading their arguments for years, I suspect I may be on the good side of the bell curve for evenhandedness. I think many people get so used to talking within their own group that they don’t even hear the nastiness directed to others anymore. They believe they or their comrades are being critical, but not unfairly so, and certainly not insulting. A good test is observing whether their own tone fed back to them offends. Conservatives who spend much time in the presence of liberals are puzzled that phrasings and tones of voice clearly calculated to offend pass unnoticed by the speakers.

Screwtape is apposite again:

"... In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep this game up you and Glubose must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother's utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: "I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper." Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken."

I have heard that tone shooting out from the conservative end of the spectrum toward the progressive end at times, but far less often. I have little doubt there are professions or churches or cultures where conservatives are in such predominance that the tone deteriorates unnoticed. When folks believe they are alone with their own they become less cautious, freer with their sneers. I recall standing on the street with a Mormon friend when other friends of his came up. As their comments about non-Mormons intensified, I could feel his discomfort and embarrassment – they had wrongly assumed that I was one of them and revealed themselves more than they wished (they were less nasty than social workers, BTW). It is always interesting to see behind the curtain.

What intrigues me about these tone-filters is that they are apparently automatic.

(Read the unedited version at Assitant Village Idiot)

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