A case study in simulacra levels and the Four Children of the Seder

by AllAmericanBreakfast4 min read14th Sep 20201 comment


Simulacrum LevelsWorld Modeling

This was originally going to be a comment on Zvi's excellent post, The Four Children of the Seder as the Simulacra Levels, but it got too long and I thought it warranted its own post.

My cousin's kid is having a tough time lately. He's stealing trinkets, destroying things around the house, and according to his parents he "lies all the time." His mom will grill him over whether he's lying or not - asking him again and again whether he's brushed his teeth, until he breaks down and admits that he didn't.

It's not clear that she has evidence in cases like this that he was lying. I suspect that the experience of being grilled is so uncomfortable that the kid finds it easier to make a false confession and brush his teeth a second time than to stand up for himself. I also guess that some of his stealing and destroying habits come from acting out on frustration with authority figures. It's a way of practicing deception, provoking reactions, and testing adults. Because he doesn't see a way to gain the trust and respect of adults, he's trying to figure out how to trick them most effectively.

Why are his parents behaving this way? It is because they have become far less concerned with object-level reality - whether or not he's brushed his teeth - than with the question of whether their child is a liar. The kid understands that everything they ask him to do is a test of his honesty. It's a symbol. Brushing his teeth isn't to prevent cavities. It's a trial of his character.

So his parents are speaking to him on the level of simplicity. He may have started wise, but is becoming wicked as his parents draw him deeper and deeper into a world of symbolism.

This highlights one of the paradoxes of the levels. Whether or not the kid lied about brushing his teeth is an object-level truth. And if you asked his parents why they care, they'd tell you "because we don't want him to get cavities."

A relationship that's on a higher simulacrum level is often still connected to level one. The higher levels accumulate, rather than replacing the lower levels. Brushing his teeth is about cavities, but it's also about whether you can trick your parents, and it's also about whether or not your child is a liar.

Our family is concerned about this, and we're operating on level four. We understand that bringing this up with the parents is a delicate issue, because we don't want to imply that they're bad parents. And we primarily struggle with "how to ask" them about the situation. To us, the question of whether or not the kid brushes his teeth is almost irrelevant. We're not trying to get anything out of them or control their behavior.

We're peering into level three, trying to understand the symbolism around everybody's behaviors, and how our word choice, tone of voice, body language, and the context of the discussion might fit into the symbolism of the discussion as interpreted by the parents.

Fortunately, we have slightly more clarity about how to deal with this than the Rabbis seem to, though not much. Our best ideas so far:

  1. Talking with each other about what's going on, and really taking our time before engaging with his parents. Then talking with the parents to start understanding their worldview. Peering from level 4 deeper into level 3.
  2. Suggesting that they agree on family therapy. This way, they'd have a single, credible, shared authority figure - a therapist - rather than a patchwork of advice, books, and their own opinions. We hope that the therapist can help them escape level 3 and get to level 2, so that they can stop brooding on this question of "is our son a good-for-nothing liar" and start asking "how are our words and actions influencing our son's behavior, and how can we influence him in ways that we like better?"
  3. Getting them to focus more on verifying their son's behavior through evidence rather than grilling him, and giving the kid tasks that focus on directly engaging with reality. We have him help cook using sharp knives, we teach him the names of plants in the garden, and direct him to observe nature closely and learn rules that count for something: the patterns on a spider's back, the shape of a weed's roots, the rules of chess. And we try to give him opportunities to "teach" others about what he learns - telling his sister that you can eat nasturtium petals, for example. Rewarding him for his engagement with reality.

In general, being lost in higher simulacra levels seems to involve a breakdown of trust that basic care, forgiveness, and acceptance is available; a fragmentation of the group's wisdom and perspective; and stronger incentives being attached to the higher simulacra levels than the lower levels.

This suggests to me in particular that we have gone deeply astray with our obsession with people's character. The drive to figure out "what kind of a person" somebody is, or "what they think of our character," leads us to experience simple activities as tests of our character. We experience requests, advice, feedback, and just simple factual claims as part of the test, not attempts to steer an object-level outcome. We become highly self-conscious, extremely concerned about how every aspect of our selves might be interpreted.

This goes on and on. Even people who ostensibly want to fight this can get caught up in it themselves. Saying "I'm only tolerant of intolerance" creates the perception that you're constantly engaged in testing the people around you for having a character of intolerance. Nobody will be able to rest easy unless they commit, one way or another, to just not caring what you think about them.

And of course, when this gets done on a massive scale, you get "I'm only intolerant of enforced tolerance." You tolerate the most objectively reprehensible behavior, not because you think it's OK, but in order to show just how far you're willing to go to push back against the other side.

What might be the way forward?

If I'm right, and the levels are layers, then we have to scrape them away. The way that starts is by establishing trust - first within our own side, and only then with the other side. We need to make sure we can credibly show that we've got enough unity amongst ourselves not to turn a reconciliation attempt into an attack, and that we bring wisdom to the table.

With trust established, we try to bring in an agreed-upon authority. This could be shared set of values or concepts, a group of people with the credibility to serve as a reconciliation figure, or a process that creates space for the disputants to figure out what they actually want from life, not from their enemies.

Having a sense of shared authority and process, we look for any opportunity to reward people who are operating on level 1 and displaying a conscious rejection of levels 2-4. Bring facts to the table? Applause. Read that book rather than assuming you understand it from the title? Applause. Criticize the fallacies of your own side? Applause.

Going forward, I will try to bring up the idea with my friends (all American liberals, like me), that a lot of the "other side" might be trying to react to a perceived authoritarianism of the left by ostentatiously embracing what we find repugnant. I want to see if we can form enough agreement around that that it would become imaginable that we could try to interface with the other side and build trust there as well.