Decoupling vs Contextualising Norms

One of the most common difficulties faced in discussions is when the parties involved have different beliefs as to what the scope of the discussion should be. In particular, John Nerst identifies two styles of conversation as follows:

  • Decoupling norms: It is considered eminently reasonable to require your claims to be considered in isolation - free of any context or potential implications. Attempts to raise these issues are often seen as sloppy thinking or attempts to deflect.
  • Contextualising norms: It is considered eminently reasonable to expect certain contextual factors or implications to be addressed. Not addressing these factors is often seen as sloppy or even an intentional evasion.

(ht prontab. He actually uses low decoupling/high decoupling, but I prefer this terminology. Both John Nerst and prontab passed up the opportunity to post on this topic here)

Let's suppose that blue-eyed people commit murders at twice the rate of the rest of the population. With decoupling norms, it would be considered churlish to object to such direct statements of facts. With contextualising norms, this is deserving of criticism as it risks creates a stigma around blue-eyed people. At the very least, you would be expected to have issued a disclaimer to make it clear that you don't think blue-eyed people should be stereotyped as criminals.

John Nerst writes (slightly edited): "To a contextualiser, decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened, while to a decoupler the contextualiser's insistence that this isn’t possible looks like naked bias and an inability to think straight"

For both these norms, it's quite easy to think of circumstances when expectations for the other party to use these norms would normally be considered unreasonable. Weak men are superweapons demonstrates how true statements can be used to destroy a group's credibility and so it may be quite reasonable to refuse to engage in low-decoupling conversation if you suspect this is the other person's strategy. On the other hand, it's possible to use a strategy of painting every action you dislike to be part of someone's agenda (neo-liberal agenda, cultural marxist agenda, far right agenda, ect. take your pick). People definitely have agendas and take actions as a result of this, but the loose use of universal counter-arguments should rightly be frowned up.

I agree with the contextualisers that making certain statements, even if true, can be incredibly naive in highly charged situations that can be easily set off by a spark. On the other hand, it seems that we need at least some spaces for engaging in decoupling-style conversations. Elizier wrote an article on Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilisation. I believe that having access to such spaces is another key.

These complexities mean that there isn't a simple prescriptive solution here. Instead this post merely aimed to describe this phenomenon, as at least if you are aware of this, it may be possible to navigate this.

Further reading:

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Question: is there any reason to use the words "decoupling" rather than "coupling"? It seems to me that "low decoupling" is logically equivalent to "high coupling" and "high decoupling" is logically equivalent to low coupling. So in the spirit of simplification, would it not be better to state the distinction as being between "high coupling" people and "low coupling"?

To me, (1) "coupling" suggests specifically joining in pairs much more strongly than "decoupling" suggests specifically detaching pairs and (2) "coupling" suggests that the default state of the things is disconnection, whereas "decoupling" suggests that the default state is connection.

The usual scenario here is that (1) you have lots of things that all relate to one another, and that (2a) most people find it difficult to disentangle, or disapprove of disentangling, and that (2b) all really truly are connected to one another, so that considering them in isolation is a sometimes useful and effective cognitive trick rather than any sort of default.

For all those reasons I think "decoupling" is a better term than "coupling" here. (I also like the opposition decoupling/contextualizing, as found in some of the earlier things Nernst links to, rather than more-decoupling/less-decoupling. When faced with a pile of interrelated things, sometimes you want to decouple them and sometimes you want to pay special attention to the interrelations. It's not as simple as there being some people who are good at decoupling and some who aren't. Though of course most people are bad at decoupling and bad at contextualizing...)

Actually, I like Decoupling vs. Contextualising more too, especially as they become single words.

Yeah I like those quite a bit more, actually (I actually thinking using them in the conversations on this post would make them easier to follow)

I definitely think Nerst has things the right way round, but I'm having trouble making explcit why. One reason though that I can make explicit is that, well, tangling everything together is the default. Decoupling -- orthogonality, unbundling, separation of concerns, hugging the query -- is rarer, takes work, and is worth pointing out.

Decoupling, orthogonality, unbundling, separation of concerns, relevance, the belief that the genetic fallacy is in fact a fallacy, hugging the query.... :)

Not a new idea, but an important one, and worth writing explicitly about!

Any links to where this has already been discussed?

I mean, it's kind of implicit in lots of the stuff on Less Wrong, isn't it?

Curated for succinctly creating some useful handles for two concepts that have implicitly been coming up a lot. i think this has already been helpful to me when thinking about some confusing/challenging conversations.

I think this article is a considerable step forward, but it could benefit from some examples. I think I have a pretty good idea what this is about (and share the horror of being called out by a low-decoupler for being some kind of ism), but still.

Hmm, well the article has an example, but it is super long and I'm trying to avoid this becoming political. Any suggestions for examples?

The example you use is already CW-enough that high-decouplers may be suspicious or hostile of the point you are trying to make.

Then again, maybe anything elsewould be too far removed from our shared experience that it wouldn't serve as a quick and powerful illustration of your point.

Here are some suggestions made with both of these points in mind:

--The original example Scott uses about a Jew in future Czarist Russia constantly hearing about how powerful Jews are and how evil Israel is.

--Flipping the script a bit, how about an example in which someone goes around saying "86% of rationalists are straight white men" (or something like that, I don't know the actual number).

--Or: "Effective Altruists are usually people who are biased towards trying to solve their problems using math."

Come to think of it, I think including one of those flip-script examples would be helpful in other ways as well.

Agreed with quanticle, but otherwise think this is a very helpful dichotomy to have a handle for.