Epistemic Status: Guesses Based on Personal Experience

Lately I’ve been going through a family of learning experiences in the world of how to get things done cooperatively.  It’s hard for me.  Even very basic things in this area have been stumping me, overwhelming me, leaving me way more tired and drained than I’d expect. My productivity has gone to hell and — worse — I didn’t even notice for a while.  This is hard stuff, and rarely written about by the people for whom it’s hard, so my hope is that processing in public helps someone. I generally think that data-sharing is good and helpful.

Collective Deliberation Isn’t Working For Me

At a conference, I was in a room full of people having a really good discussion. I wanted to get people together to have a follow-up discussion later — nothing elaborate, just a room with whiteboards and snacks and maybe moving towards some action items.

What I did:

  • Passed around a sheet for emails to sign up
  • Sent out an email proposing the parameters of the event
  • Waited for people to propose dates that worked for them.

Radio silence.

Somebody else suggested a poll where people could put down their preferred times and dates.  Out of thirteen people, five signed up.  Nobody volunteered “ok, we’re doing it on this date then,” so I did.  I reserved a conference room at my office and bought a bunch of snacks.

The front door was locked on the weekend and my key card didn’t work even though it was supposed to, so I had to switch locations at the last minute. It wouldn’t have mattered anyhow, because one person showed up on time, and one other person several hours late.

Conclusion: it is harder than I thought to get ten people to show up in a room and talk to each other.

And I probably shouldn’t have expected an event to coalesce naturally from the mailing list.  I have a strong “egalitarian” instinct that if I’m trying to do something with a group and in some sense for the benefit of everyone in the group, then I shouldn’t be too “bossy” in terms of unilaterally declaring what we’re all going to do.  But if I leave it up to the group to discuss, it seems like they generally…don’t.

I’m also on a policy committee for a community organization, and it’s been a whole lot of heartache because I want to change some things about our policies and internal processes, and the process of trying to communicate that has resulted in a lot of hurt feelings, mine and other people’s.

The first thing I did was write up a document explaining why I thought the existing policies were harmful, and share it with the mailing list.  This resulted in DRAMA because people heard it as a personal accusation.  (I never meant to imply that my fellow committee members were bad people, but I felt strongly about the policy changes and my writing tone may have come out angrier than I intended.)

In retrospect, I should never have led with complaints — I should have started by proposing solutions.  My intention had been to raise the issues I cared about while minimizing bossiness — this is an organization for the benefit of a larger community, and I’m only one member of a committee, so I thought it would leave more degrees of freedom open to the group to say “here’s why the existing policies have problems, what do you think we should do?” rather than “here’s how I’d suggest improving the existing policies.”  I thought this was the considerate way to communicate.  But from the committee’s perspective, it must have sounded like “You’re doing it wrong. Here’s a bunch more work you have to do to fix it. You’re welcome!”  They were actually much more receptive once I wrote up a revised set of policies that I’d be happier with.  Once again, being “unbossy” and hoping that collaborative discussion would resolve the issue was a total failure, because people had less bandwidth to engage in discussion than I’d anticipated.

Private Discussions Are A Flawed Solution

I’ve noticed that in a lot of deliberative bodies or organizations, the real decision-making doesn’t happen in groups.  (Meanwhile Madison is grappling with the fact that/ Not every issue can be settled in committee.)  The people who have “real power” meet in private and hash things out off the record.  Nobody really shares their full thoughts on the internet or on an email list.  It’s not necessarily “secrecy”, but it’s secrecy-adjacent.

I know this is how things are frequently done, but it bothers me.  When an issue is officially the jurisdiction of a committee, everyone on the committee is equally entitled to be part of the discussion, and entitled to know what’s going on; having secret side conversations creates a hierarchy between those “in the know” and those who aren’t.  (No-one else was in the room where it happened/ the room where it happened/ the room where it happened.)  Still more, when your project is supposed to be for the sake of, and with the participation of, a broader community, it seems like fairness demands being transparent with that community.

Maybe this is just the geek-kid issue, or what people today tend to call the geek social fallacies.  I’m deeply uncomfortable when I see what looks like an elite subgroup, a group of “cool kids” or “VIPs” or whatever, talking behind closed doors because hoi polloi just wouldn’t understand. I mean, yes, sometimes people wouldn’t understand!  I get it. There do exist people who will be offended by my honest opinion (god knows), or who literally aren’t bright enough or knowledgeable enough to contribute to a discussion.  I understand why it’s easier to talk in private with people who are already more-or-less on the same page.  But still…there’s a pattern that gives me the willies. It’s “elites get to know what’s going on, randos are kept out of the loop,” and even when somebody says that I qualify as an elite, not a rando, it still bothers me, because I’m much more comfortable having rights than being favored.

This is part of what gives me a bad feeling about the discourse around “demon threads” (that is: big, addictive, internet debates) and in praise of “taking things private“, where tensions will be easier to defuse.  There are real costs to acrimonious debate, in time and emotional energy, and I appreciate that people are trying to find ways to reduce those costs.  But I feel nervous about anything that looks like it’s trying to sweep real conflicts under the rug.  It’s like “don’t fight in front of the children” — except that in this case the members of the public are being placed in the role of “the children,” whether or not we want to be.

I occasionally find myself in situations where I feel I’m being asked to take a sort of Straussian stance — if you want to get important things done, you can’t be totally transparent about what you’re doing, because the general public will stop you.  I’m not sure these people are wrong.  But I really hope they are.  I have a bad feeling about maintaining information asymmetries as a general policy.  I have a dangerous temperamental temptation towards concealment — it’s just “minor” stuff like trying to hide my failures, but in the long run, that’s neither ethical nor practical — so I’ve developed a counter-tendency towards transparency, as a sort of partial safeguard.  If I tell people what I’m up to, early and often, I can’t slip down the road of dishonesty.

Therapeutic Language: Another Flawed Solution

Peace is good, all things being equal. Fighting hurts.  And many fights are unnecessary, borne of misunderstanding more than actual disagreement. I’ve seen this a lot firsthand.  It’s much more likely that someone literally doesn’t comprehend your idea than that they oppose it.

And one of the most common types of misunderstanding is when people falsely assume you are damning them as a person.  This is something I learned from Malcolm Ocean, who gave me the first really clear explanation I ever got as to what people are doing when they use NVC or Circling language or other types of very careful and mannered speech to avoid the perception of blame or judgment.  Surely, I asked him, sometimes you do need to judge?  To distinguish between good and bad behavior?  To enforce norms?

After a while, we came up with this analogy:

There’s a difference between saying “You’re fired” and “You’re fired, and also fuck you.”

In the course of life, one absolutely does have to say things like “you’re fired.”  Or “you can’t behave like that in this space”, “this work does not merit publication”, or “I don’t want to go on a date with you.”  In other words, drawing boundaries is necessary for life.  But drawing boundaries doesn’t always have to involve damning someone, as though sending them to Hell, utterly condemning their essential being.  (What Madeleine l’Engle would call X-ing.)  One can fire a person from a job, or reject their manuscript, or turn them down romantically, without saying it is bad that you exist and you should hate yourself.  One can even, I believe, convict someone of a crime, or kill them in self-defense, without damning them, while wishing that they had not done the thing that forced you to draw an extremely severe boundary.

Boundaries are necessary; self-defense is necessary; damning people might not be necessary, and I’m inclined to believe it isn’t.

And yet, people do damn each other, very frequently; and even more frequently, as a result of these bad experiences, they assume they’re being damned when they’re merely being criticized.  “You did a thing with negative consequences” gets read as “your essence is stained, you are a Terrible Person, it’s time to hate yourself.”  So, as an imperfect attempt to forestall these misunderstandings, people have developed these extremely artificial locutions that, yes, make you sound like a therapist, and, yes, aren’t as natural as just speaking in plain language.  But the hope is that they create enough distance to allow people to avoid immediately jumping to the conclusion that you’re accusing them of being Generally Terrible and Worthy of Eternal Hellfire.

Of course, the human mind being devious and wily at figuring out how to make us miserable, it’s possible to be easily set off by therapeutic language itself!  It turns out I have such a sensitivity.  “You’re insinuating that I’m having bad feelings — this means you’re saying that I’m Weak and Can’t Hack It and need Special Treatment — which means you’re calling me Generally Terrible!  Screw you!”   (This isn’t completely irrational; it is the appropriate norm for situations like work or school, where hiding physical and mental pain is expected and where people are penalized for failing to do so.)

Now, of course, I do have bad feelings sometimes, being a human.  And, a lot of the time, the person using therapeutic language is trying to deal productively with that fact of the matter, rather than condemning me for it — they’ve moved on to Step 2, What Do We Do Now, while I’m still on Step 1, Is Sarah Terrible Y/N?

But you really can’t have good conversations while anyone’s still on Step 1.  If you haven’t yet resolved “Do You Think I’m Terrible?” with a resounding “No,” then every other conversation that’s nominally about some topic will actually be about the vital issue of Do You Think I’m Terrible?

And, because the human mind is devious, Step 1 doesn’t stay resolved; you have to keep reaffirming it, because people will forget.  You have to put what seems like a colossal amount of unsubtle effort into saying “I like you and I think you’re good” in order to keep discussions from becoming about “I’m good and not terrible! See, I’ll prove it!”

I have not mastered this art, or even close, but I basically agree with the need for it.

I have totally observed people being blunt and irreverent without hurting others’ feelings and while getting very productive discussions done — but I think what’s going on is not that these people don’t validate each other, but that they validate each other very well through different means than therapeutic language.  Some people can get away with speaking styles that are very “offensive” by conventional standards, but that’s because they also show deep affection and regard for the people they’re talking to.

I think there are people who are more robust than others at independently maintaining a sense that they’re Okay and Good and Liked and Valid (and that’s great!) but I don’t think this in any way disproves the need for validation, any more than the existence of plants proves that organisms don’t need chemical energy.

Nobody (Exactly) Agrees With You

I’ve been struggling a bunch with the fact that people seem to disagree fractally and at every turn.  It’s really, really hard to get exact alignment on worldviews and desires, to the point that I’m beginning to doubt it’s possible.  I see someone who seems to see part of the world the same way I do, and I go “can we talk? can we be buds? can we be twinsies? are we on the same team?” and then I realize “oh, no, outside of this tiny little area, they…really don’t agree with me at all.  Dammit.”

It would be nice to have someone to talk to who was basically the same person as you, right?  Someone you could just melt into,  the way all of humanity melted into a single sea of neon-orange thought-fluid in that anime.

But, in my experience, that just keeps not happening.  Friendship and mutual respect, sure, I’m very fortunate to have lots of that; but merging doesn’t happen.  There’s always me, or the other person, saying “no, not exactly” instead of “yes, and”.

Is it just that I’m unusual?  Surely people who build movements get people to agree with each other?

The thing is, I’m starting to suspect they don’t.  I recently went to TEDWomen, and saw a bunch of talks about activism and organizing, including by such luminaries as Dolores Huerta and Marian Wright Edelman.  And here are some takeaways I got from them:

  • Activists view the main goal as fighting apathy, that is, getting people to participate, literally activating people.  Getting people to show up to vote or show up to a protest or to raise issues in conversations.
  • Everybody in a coalition supports everybody else. It’s very “all for one and one for all.” They explicitly talk about how you shouldn’t allow anyone to frame things as “the environment” vs “women’s issues” vs “labor issues” vs “immigration” — everyone’s encouraged to push for everyone’s agenda together, for every sub-group in the progressive coalition.
  • Activists endorse being moved more by individual stories and art and emotional appeals than by facts and figures.  They don’t just talk about how “emotional appeals work better on the public” but they talk about how emotional appeals and personal connections work on themselves.

If you think of everybody’s beliefs as a forest of trees, where consequences branch out from premises, then “trying to get agreement” is building trees as big as they can get and trying to hash out what’s going on when two people’s trees differ. What seems to be going on in an activist frame is not building out the trees very big at all, only getting agreement on rather basic things like “children shouldn’t live in poverty” and trying to move straight to voting and fundraising and other object-level actions, without really hashing out in much detail “ok, what ways of avoiding child poverty are effective and/or morally acceptable?”  They recognize that getting people to participate at all is difficult (in my shoes, they would have invested a lot more effort in getting people to show up to the event), and they don’t seem to even try to get people to agree in a deep sense, to agree on world-models and general principles and moral foundations.

Just because everyone is shouting the same slogan doesn’t mean they really agree with each other.  They agree on the slogan.  It might mean different things to different people.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth being aware that it isn’t true unity.

The Greek for “with one accord” is ὁμοθυμαδόν, which appears frequently in the New Testament; it means literally “same passion” or “same spirit”, the seat of courage and emotion that lives in the heart.  “Unanimity” is an exact translation into Latin — “one spirit.”  You can have large groups of people who feel the same, who are filled with the same passion.  It is much harder for all those people to have the same belief structure, to stay on the same page on the nitty-gritty details.  Just getting groups of people to “weak unanimity,” namely, active participation, good will, and agreement on ideal goals, is a challenging full-time job by itself — and it doesn’t even touch getting worldview alignment.

The Cost of Complaint

One weird and maybe trivial thing that’s been nagging at me is trying to get a handle on the underlying worldview expressed by the Incredibles movies.  Yeah, it’s pop culture, but there’s clearly an attempt to communicate a moral, and it’s a weird one.

Sure, there’s the inspiring, defiant pro-superhero note of “people shouldn’t be pressured to hide their excellence”, which often gets labeled Randian (but could just as easily be Nietzchean or Harrison Bergeron-esque).

But it gets weird when you look at the villains.  The villains of both movies are genius technologists.  Syndrome, the villain of the first movie, is a bitter, pimpled male nerd, resentful of superheroes’ elevated status, who wants to provide technology to give everyone superpowers.  Evelyn Deaver, the villain of the second movie, is a bitter, urbane, worldly feminist, a technologist who dislikes the way technology has “dumbed down” its users, resentful of the public’s passive reliance on screens and superheroes.  For plot reasons, of course, both supervillains pull dangerous stunts that put the public at risk, and need to be stopped by the superheroes.  But their motivations are actually empowering humanity, weirdly enough.  Syndrome is, effectively, a transhumanist, while Evelyn is an “ethical techie” type reminiscent of the people at the Center for Humane Technology.  Their obsession is using their talents and hard work to make all people more self-reliant and capable of greater things — a mission that would actually sit well with Rand or Nietzsche, and, outside the world of the films, could easily work as a heroic cause.

What’s wrong with the villains, in the world of The Incredibles, is that they’re grouchy.  They’re social critics. They complain.

Notice that, before we know she’s a villain, Evelyn tries to get Mrs. Incredible to commiserate about sexism; the heroine doesn’t take the bait, and points out that Evelyn is also standing in her brother’s shadow.  Before his villainous reveal, Syndrome is a whiny kid who wants to be Mr. Incredible’s sidekick.  And the initial controversy that drove superheroes underground was a suicidal man who sued Mr. Incredible for saving his life.

Also, notice that Brad Bird is taking a very firm stance in favor of optimism and against gloom, in the Incredibles movies and others; his movies overtly defend his creative choice to keep things positive and brightly colored in a world where critical acclaim usually comes in shades of gray. (The antagonist in Ratatouille, not accidentally, is a restaurant critic.)  I think it’s really that simple: Brad Bird likes unity and positivity, and doesn’t like complaining.  Critics like the New Yorker’s Richard Brody are right to see a threat in the movies — their real enemy is criticism.

(If you look at Brad Bird’s actual words, he isn’t any kind of a libertarian or Randian, and says so; he’s a centrist, he’s big on finding common ground, staying positive, focusing on unity, and so on.)

It’s almost impossible to talk about the world intelligently while refraining from any complaint.  Try finding a blog to read that never criticizes society, from any direction.  Where you find interesting and articulate people, you’ll find people who express dissatisfaction with things as they are.  There’s no principled way to say “hey I think everyone’s pretty much right,” because people don’t remotely agree with each other if you ask about any details at all.

And yet, people (like Bird, but also like me, and like many) get heartsick when we’re exposed to too much complaint or disagreement.  Moods are contagious, and criticism is very often depressing, for all we try to tell ourselves that it’s merely an intellectual awareness.  Sometimes I feel like “for god’s sake, World, for once could you give me a social context where literally nobody expresses dislike or disapproval about anything?  Could we have a Happy Zone please?”

But I’m genuinely not sure if that’s possible.  It may be a feature of language or logic itself that it’s hard to talk at all if you restrict yourself firmly to avoiding critical speech.  I certainly would have a hard time sticking strictly to Happy Zone rules.

I don’t have solutions here.  I’m just trying to figure things out.  It ought to be possible, I think, to deliberate and collaborate with people, allowing “the group” to decide, rather than just deciding what want individually and letting people collaborate with me to the extent that it sounds good to them.  I know how to be an individualist; I’m trying to learn how to also do the collective thing, “voice” rather than “exit”.  But I’m just stumped by the fact that people want different things, and think different things, and actual, far-reaching unity doesn’t seem to exist.

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What I have learned as to do as an organizer both private and professional life:

  • Always assume the buck stops with you*, that people you're trying to organize will not effectively volunteer the information you need to make an informed decision. If you want to know what the best date is, one of the most effective ways to find out is to choose a date, then ask everyone individually "does this date fail for you?"
  • To gather useful data rather than making a Dictator's Decision, first go abstract: declare, as Dictator, that this meeting is a brainstorming session. Then tell them exactly how to brainstorm, like "okay in the next 3 minutes we'll write down everything we can about X". Dictate that they must spend this time giving you useful data. Then use it to make decisions. Other methods include creating a poll, sending it out, pinging everyone the next day to please fill it out, then two days after that pinging individually everyone who hasn't yet filled it out. Or having a 1:1 with each person for 5 minutes to discuss.
  • Never ask for people to take initiative unless you are asking a specific person or are prepared to very soon after designate a specific person.

Recent examples: we're having Christmas with 10 people. I told one "you are responsible for acquiring materials for communal cookie decorating. Do you accept or should I pick someone else?" I'm putting some people together for a game this weekend and needed exactly 1-2 more. I emailed a couple asking if they wanted to join. The day after, rather than waiting, I emailed again, specifying one of them, saying "reply yes, no, or maybe-but-we're-not-sure so that if no I can email others". I needed a design for a project at work. It is not my responsibility to produce the design. So I wrote up a design, put a meeting on relevant people's calendars, and said "hey let's discuss the design, here's a proposal", knowing my design was definitely flawed but someone had to produce a seed for others to critique. Two coworkers were supposed to lead a meeting to bring our team up to speed on some work they'd done in the past few months so that we could all participating in planning the followup. One said he had a fire to put out; the other said there are no more free times this week so let's meet next week; I said that sounds awful, pick one of meet anyway, meet tomorrow missing one person, or meet two days from now missing one other person.

All this has a common theme, I think.

  • No one wants to risk imposing, so in the absence of hard constraints, no one makes low-stakes decisions where any decision is far better than no decision, and any reasonable decision is at most a bit worse than any other reasonable decision. Whenever it's super easy to change the decision if it turns out it's actually really bad, like choosing a date and then the main event says they're busy that day, just make a decision. It's pro-social. You're providing a ton of value by allowing everyone else to avoid feeling bad about risking imposition. Far more value than the value lost by not having great coordination first.

*buck stops with you, or with someone else who is actually engaged in making this thing happen. Just never with a mere participant.

I want to signal-boost this harder than just upvoting it, because a couple examples could have been pulled directly from my life.

It should also be noted that I haven't experienced anybody getting upset about somebody taking charge of organizing something after it's been (unsuccessfully) opened to group coordination. I notice that when I'm on the other side of that equation, I'm mostly just grateful that somebody else is doing the work of organizing/coordinating things.

And I probably shouldn’t have expected an event to coalesce naturally from the mailing list. I have a strong “egalitarian” instinct that if I’m trying to do something with a group and in some sense for the benefit of everyone in the group, then I shouldn’t be too “bossy” in terms of unilaterally declaring what we’re all going to do. But if I leave it up to the group to discuss, it seems like they generally…don’t.

This reminds me of a habit that I used to have for a long time, and which I'm still unlearning: when asked for a choice (like "what should we eat" or "which of these meeting places do you prefer"), I frequently replied with some variant of "no preference". And I used to think that this was polite - that I was giving the other person the choice.

But frequently the other person just wants a decision. If they ask me to decide, and I push the decision back to them, I'm not being polite, I'm refusing to cooperate. Someone has to make the decision eventually, but if everyone defers it to someone else, it's not ever going to happen.

This becomes even more obvious in situations with more than two people trying to e.g. decide what to do or where to go together; frequently everyone tries to be polite and not express too strong of an opinion. With the result that it takes a long time to make a decision, with everyone making tentative suggestions and nobody expressing a firm opinion.

As a result, I've been trying to reframe things in my head - to internalize that making decisions is a chore, and being the one to say "okay, let's go with this" if people seem undecided is doing them a favor. It's still frequently unpleasant, since there's that lingering doubt of did someone dislike this decision, are they unhappy with me when they would actually have preferred something else but just didn't speak up...

But it being unpleasant is exactly why freeing others from the burden of doing it, is doing them a favor.

Your mailing list example seems similar - spending time discussing the right time, or even proposing times that they might like, requires paying a cost of time and attention. The correct way to think about it, I believe, is that you'll do people a favor by reducing the amount of effort that they need to spend in order to participate. If you just propose a few times that are good for you, that people can say yes or no to, then that costs them much less and is more likely to get a response. I thought that this article put it pretty well:

Ever wonder why people reply more if you ask them for a meeting at 2pm on Tuesday, than if you offer to talk at whatever happens to be the most convenient time in the next month? The first requires a two-second check of the calendar; the latter implicitly asks them to solve a vexing optimisation problem.

This is an excellent description of the phenomenon. I have found that a lot of these sorts of problems dissolve if I view my contribution to the group as reducing the information load.

I am tempted to declare that the whole of leadership.

Not the whole, though. Activism has at least two dimensions - one of "human capital", the other of "change in the world", so the leader has to balance one against the other.

Ever wonder why people reply more if you ask them for a meeting at 2pm on Tuesday, than if you offer to talk at whatever happens to be the most convenient time in the next month? The first requires a two-second check of the calendar; the latter implicitly asks them to solve a vexing optimisation problem.

My experience is that this also makes people more likely to show up at the agreed time (using this method was suggested to me when I was working with students who were notoriously bad at showing up).

Possibly phrasing it this way creates an artificial significance to the time suggested, I don't know, but it does seem to work. I generally offer as few options as is reasonable given other constraints.

when asked for a choice (like "what should we eat" or "which of these meeting places do you prefer"), I frequently replied with some variant of "no preference".

With some people, I once had a norm that the answer in such situations always consists of two parts: (1) the choice, you have to make one; and (2) a number from 1 to 10 expressing how strongly you prefer this choice.

With the right kind of person, this works quite well. You can have e.g. "option A, strength 2" and "option B, strength 4", then go with option B without feeling guilty, but perhaps acknowledging a small debt towards the person who wanted A. (The debt will probably be erased soon when the next decision goes the other direction, but if it happens to accumulate, you can discuss that explicitly.)

Unrelated, but thank you for finally solidifying why I don't like NVC. When I've complained about it before, people seemed to assume I was having something like your reaction, which just annoyed me further :)

It turns out I find it deeply infantalizing, because it suggests that value judgments and "fuck you" would somehow detract from my ability to hold a reasonable conversation. I grew up in a culture where "fuck you" is actually a fairly important and common part of communication, and removing it results in the sort of language you'd use towards 10 year olds.

An analogy would be trying to build a table, but banning hammers and nails. If you're dealing with 10 year olds, this might be sensible. If you do it to adults, you're restricting their ability to get things done. It's not that I think the NVC Advocate thinks I'm a bad person, it's that they're removing a useful tool. And even if they don't try to push it on me, it still means my co-worker in building this table is going to move super slow because they're not using the right tools.

I grew up in a culture where "fuck you" is actually a fairly important and common part of communication, and removing it results in the sort of language you'd use towards 10 year olds.

This culture sounds interesting.

(I've wondered how much more productive things could be if "Shut up" was a part of language that everyone used and it wasn't rude.)

I don't think taking two words for this is much more productive then the NVC-ish "I'm bored, can we please switch the subject?"

Simply communication based on the need seems to be a lot more productive then the standard solution of thinking about whether something is polite/rude.

Thanks for the NVC example.

A post on the effective altruism forum (reviewing the book "The Art of Gathering") actually has some bearing some on some of this, specifically re authority:

Quote below:

3. Don’t be a Chill Host

  • If you step back then other guests can fill the power vacuum with a different purpose than the one you intended
    • They may bore the guests with an hour long monologue on their favourite niche interests - this is “casual evening oppression”
  • Authority is an ongoing commitment, not just sending out invites and doing introductions - chill can be selfishness disguised as kindness
    • Does “talk to whoever you want” help the shy guest speak? Or should it be turn based?
    • Does open seating help newcomers or would seat placement be better
  • Generous authority uses power to achieve outcomes that are generous for others
  • Protect your guests - from each other, from boredom, from phones
    • The Alamo cinema kicks out viewers for using their phone, if they left enforcement to others it would likely make it a worse experience for the majority for the benefit of a few people who don’t care about the film
    • Audience questions for panel - good moderators are prepared to ask if an audience member can turn a statement into a question or to cut them off for the benefit of the majority
  • Anticipate and intercept peoples tendencies when they’re not considering the betterment of the whole group and experience
  • Equalise your guests - reduce hierarchy and status differences (whether real or perceived)
    • Use name tags with large first names and small/no last names
    • Leave talk about occupations out of conversations
  • Connect your quests - go from lots of host-guest connections to guest-guest connections provides each participant an opportunity for meaningful small group conversations
    • Hints on a card on arrival to find someone with a similar interest
    • Tell people you want them to make new friends
    • Tell people what they have in common
    • Short introductions with name, what they do, what they enjoy
  • Avoid ungenerous authority - bossing people around or tricking people
    • This can be common in institutional gatherings where predictability and structure is preferred, for example getting community leaders together in the White House and then subjecting them to 3 talks in a row rather than allowing them to connect with each other or spend time with the president in small group conversations
  • Avoid putting the host as the star of the event
If you step back then other guests can fill the power vacuum with a different purpose than the one you intended
good moderators are prepared to ask if an audience member can turn a statement into a question or to cut them off for the benefit of the majority

This, so much!

By nature, I am completely "it's unjust to have a master, and more so to be a master", but experience has taught me that if I end up in a role of a boss, I have to play it, no matter how much I dislike it, because usually there is someone in the audience who loves the role and is waiting for the opportunity to grab it.

You try to share the power with the audience equally? Someone from the audience is going to take 80% of that share only for himself, unless you stop him. When you have a talk, it means people came to listen to you, not some overconfident rando from the crowd. (The rando can offer his own talk separately, at a different time or place.)

I feel like I recently was in a similar head space, struggling with trying to be "appropriately" (or even "ideally") cooperative. Something that personally helped me a lot was the idea/mantra of, essentially, I am a more benign entity in the world than I tend to fear.

What I've found over time is just that people are exceptionally caught up in their own narratives/life circumstances -- they are, after all, human beings with their own lives and priorities -- but as part of that, they're accepting that things are sometimes inconvenient for them, sometimes they miss important discussions, etc. I used to get caught up worrying about stepping on anyone's toes, but I ended up, essentially, exhausting their mental resources asking for permission and preferences on every little thing, and they'd be too polite to tell me that.

If you are planning a large scale, sudden, and/or violent change with far-reaching consequences (like, say, the overthrow of your government), then only having discussions in private will be very problematic because people will have little to no recourse for addressing grievances. If you're trying to advance your field of research, then informal discussions on specific issues (especially with context well understood by those parties) is just faster. It's so hard to just get anything into motion that if someone wants to stop your plans later on they'll likely have a ton of opportunities to do so -- if you even get that far! The apathy issue you talked about activists observing is very real, and it's true among collaborators as well -- even ourselves.

The biggest thing I realized as part of this line of thinking, though, was that I was trying to get other people to confirm my beliefs about what would work for me, and that wasn't fair to them or respectful of their time. I would plan speculative discussions or meetings and be sad when people didn't come, but really what I was sad about was that I had to do things on my own and I was scared that I wouldn't be able to handle that. If I think about my life and experiences with full honesty, the strong unintended consequences of my decisions have always been ones that hurt me personally, not anyone else. I was trying to clear everything "pre-flight" just so I wouldn't look dumb.

Our current society is essentially set up so that everyone explores the earliest things on their own, and slowly we build momentum by getting others excited about the progress we've made on an issue alone, and then in a small group, and then in a medium sized group, etc. That maximizes our exploratory surface area while still giving us that critical mass for execution. I wanted to skip ahead in that process to the point where we were all fully in sync right away, but that's just not really feasible because we just have different places where we all want to start. There was an early IETF motto along these lines that I think still holds up here: "We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code." It's not an idyllic system all the time, but it has (generally) worked for many things and gotten us to where we are today.

I am a more benign entity in the world than I tend to fear, and everyone else has more agency and resilience than I give them credit for when I take those fears to heart.

(Sorry, the new spam detection seems to have been overly aggressive and marked this as spam. I undeleted it, and apologize for the inconvenience)

Just spotted this comment is being put at the bottom by the magical sorting algorithm despite its high karma - maybe an artefact of having been marked as spam?

Yep we also noticed that yesterday and it's on the Todo list to fix.

Haha I was kinda scared I'd done or said something very wrong, thanks for the reversal!

Worthwhile topic, and nice articulation of some things I tend to take for granted. Especially the distinction between judging the person and judging a particular decision or behavior. I try hard to understand that many people spend a lot of time/energy on an emotional reaction that "suggestion for improvement" = "horrible irredeemable hatred", but I don't (often) do that myself, so it's hard to remember how big a deal it can be for others.

I gave up long ago on making most people happy, or really changing them much at all. I accept that most coworkers and casual acquaintances are focused differently enough than me that I need to adjust my communication style to get them to even understand what I want to change. But it's not natural to me. I don't get terribly heartsick when I hear complaints and understand the limited-worldview that their pain is causing them. I _do_ get tempted to treat them as non-agents, and try to figure out the game-world actions I can take to get the ending I want. It works disturbingly often, and I suspect I'm the Bad Person for this.

I know this is how things are frequently done, but it bothers me. When an issue is officially the jurisdiction of a committee, everyone on the committee is equally entitled to be part of the discussion, and entitled to know what’s going on; having secret side conversations creates a hierarchy between those “in the know” and those who aren’t.

I disagree quite strongly with this. Being part of a discussion is a tax. It's overhead. It makes perfect sense, in my head, for a committee to split into subcommittees that have responsibility for specialized tasks, but which report back to and are accountable to the primary committee. In fact, I don't see how else one would accomplish any kind of complex task that requires specialized domain knowledge. And for tasks that don't require specialized domain knowledge, having everything presented before the committee usually results in needless bikeshedding, as everyone on the committee has to demonstrate their status and worth by proposing a change or critique, in order to show that they've considered the proposal and are more than a mere rubber stamp.

Even disregarding things like social signalling, group dynamics, and all the other things that geeks categorize as "social drama", making everything that is under the jurisdiction of the committee the responsibility of the entire committee is incredibly inefficient, just from a communications perspective. It requires, in networking terms, a "fully connected mesh", where every node has to be communicating with every other node. It's much more efficient, even from a communication and information theory perspective, for a committee to break into smaller groups, each of which has responsibility for a specific task or specialization. These groups can then report back to the overall committee, and the overall committee can choose to adopt or reject their ideas without having to go through the expensive process of having the entire committee deliberate on every proposal for every subtask.

That all makes sense, but I think Sarah might be pointing to instances where the breaking-into groups (and subsequent pushing of the subgroup's goals into the committee) happens for mysterious and illegible reasons.

Which I still think is often necessary/fine/just-how-humans-are, but is a bit of a different thing.

I don't think this is different at all. It just sounds like nobody took charge in explicitly defining the sub-committees, so instead the socially savvy committee members self-organised to actually get things* done.

*these `things' may or may not align with the purpose of the committee.

far-reaching unity doesn’t seem to exist.

What do you mean by far-reaching unity?

Also, great post. (Here are some of my thoughts that seem related.) There are a number of frameworks I've seen for conflict:

1. Fundamental Value Differences. (Someone is 100% against criticism? What happened to Free Speech?)

Failure: And then people go to war (or flame war) because they have just discovered the world contains evil - people who do not share their values. (Or signal in-group-ness.)

A suggested solution: if you really disagree with someone, try living on separate islands, so you won't fight each other. (Separate communities based around "Happiness (no criticism)" and "Free Speech" which allow people to come and go.)

2. "Language." Sometimes other people use it differently, and so they misunderstand what you say, because if they were saying what you mean, they'd say it differently (or they'd never say something like that). (I actually think this is about "Culture"s - 1) being open to criticism versus 2) viewing it as a an attack 2a) unless it comes with a proposed solution. 3) Proposed solutions are viewed as criticisms of the person who came up with the prior, imperfect solutions/whatever.)

Failure: And then someone proposes that we solve the problem of people miscommunicating because they're using different systems by forcing everyone to move to the speaker's preferred system. This then sets people off because "it's censorship" / being forced to talk in a foreign language means they can't express themselves.

A suggested solution: work on coming up with ways to communicate more effectively with everyone (1 language) or several "intermediate languages". (Come up with a way for Culture A to talk to culture B - an AB language?)

3. Different People come from different backgrounds/have had different experiences, so since they've been in places with different problems/have experienced different problems, and this is why people are focused on different issues/have different focuses. Since the world has more than one problem, people being worried about different problems happens.

3a) Different People may have different problems.

Failure: And somehow people end up fighting over what's most important and no/less work gets done.

4) Common Knowledge Problems. Shakespeare-like Tragedies are the result of miscommunication. It's important to reach a consensus / get everyone on the same page.

Failure: and consensus is reaching by splitting up into highly polarized groups that fight each other to the death. The group that survives will be filled with purpose, and possess the skills and experience necessary to conquer the world...

EDIT: If anyone has other frameworks or comments on such, please comment.

My interpretation of the message in Incredibles would be: "No one like the whiners". (Note: I haven't actually seen the movies, so there may be a nuance I am missing here completely.)

A part of the reason is that in many situations whining is unproductive. For example, there may be a situation where no available choice is perfect, and any solution necessarily contain a trade-off, but some people waste everyone's time by refusing to accept that, and playing high moral ground, without proposing their own solution (which would expose them to criticism). Or people may defend an obviously suboptimal choice by selectively applying nirvana fallacy to all alternatives.

But another part is that we are instinctively wired to win social conflicts. If someone complains too much, it suggests they are too weak, and therefore a useless ally. You want to join someone who is frustrated today, but has a solid chance to prevail tomorrow; not someone who will predictably remain at the bottom. And there are all kinds of biases that can make your "elephant" perceive something as too much whining.

I occasionally find myself in situations where I feel I’m being asked to take a sort of Straussian stance — if you want to get important things done, you can’t be totally transparent about what you’re doing, because the general public will stop you. I’m not sure these people are wrong. But I really hope they are. I have a bad feeling about maintaining information asymmetries as a general policy.

Among rational and mutually friendly agents, hiding information would be bad. But most people are pretty far from being rational, and some people are pretty far from being friendly. Secrecy is a defense against an unknown but statistically real enemy.

If you say something in front of a sufficiently large audience, inevitably some people will disagree for wrong reasons. Some of them are crazy, or just completely misinformed about the topic (in a way that cannot be fixed in short term). Some of them see "disagreeing with you" as a way to get status points at your expense, even if they actually don't truly disagree with you on the object level. Yes, it's true that some people might disagree for the right reasons. But how would you solicit the feedback from the latter, without exposing yourself to the reaction from the former?

Secrecy is a defense against an unknown but statistically real enemy.

What's the actual threat here? "People disagreeing with you" isn't a threat in itself. The possible threats I am thinking of include:

  • being fired or otherwise embargoed for saying politically controversial things (solution: use basic PR filters to avoid pattern matching as an enemy; this is mostly about connotation rather than denotation)
  • death threats, such as those faced by Anita Sarkeesian (solution: don't be that combination of politically controversial and well-known, or just ignore the threats since they're very rarely carried out)
  • having criticism posted online that influences your supporters (solution: possibly respond to this criticism; if it's vacuous and your supporters have decent judgment, this is not hard)

I'm just not seeing risks commensurate with the costs of actively avoiding creating common knowledge about your strategies/beliefs/etc.

Hmm. This just seems really optimistic to me about how reasonable people are, and how easy it is to avoid these classes of issues.

The main threat here is costs to your time, attention and emotional well being, which are some of your most valuable resources.

Use basic PR filters to avoid pattern matching as an enemy; this is mostly about connotation rather than denotation)

Sure. But, this is a skill you now need to learn, that you didn't have to learn if you were just sidestepping the issue, and which you might not be very talented at.

Ignore death threats

Probably correct, but, again, a major emotional skill people don't have. Most people find death threats incredibly stressful.

Respond to criticism that influences your supporters

Assumes you have time to do so. Every instance of criticism you need to address is time that you didn't have to spend before but now you do. This adds up quickly the bigger your stage.

If your supporters have decent judgement"

This is sidestepping several issues:

  • decent judgment is in fact not that common in the first place
  • critics who are not going out of their way to be truth-aligned can be optimizing for all kinds of things that are harder to defend against than attack. Two instances of this are the "if you have to spend time convincing people you're not a child molester you've already lost" phenomenon, and the "if the argument for your position requires more inferential steps than your supporters have the attention to listen to, then you can't actually address it."
  • the relevant class isn't "supporters", it's "potential supporters", and there are many instances you don't have the luxury of everyone in the "potential supporters" category being especially reasonable

It's unfortunate that people don't talk about the benefits of negative publicity more in this context. Attention can be metabolized into money or other resources. Negative attention too, because it will galvanize at least some positive attention, and because it gives you free publicity and sometimes people will straight-up pay for things they think are terrible. Look at what Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump have made out of being hated by so many.

You can't do this if you're depending on the average of public opinion for validation, though.

You can't do this if you're depending on the average of public opinion for validation, though.

I'm curious why you write this line after speaking about Donald Trump who did have to win something like an average of the population to vote for him.

Nassim Taleb writes about the benefit of negative publicity. His notion of anti-fragility is useful for thinking about when negative publicity is beneficial. Conceptually, I think that notion is more useful than asking yourself whether you depend on an average of public opinion.

When you want more of a how-to guide there's Ryan Holiday's Trust Me I'm Lying.

It seems to me like the main interesting thing Trump did was win the primary, and his tactics seemed designed to galvanize strong supporters, not win over the median Republican voter. I think the general election very closely followed party affiliation, which suggests that most voters just aren't that sensitive to the details of who's their party's candidate and vote the party line.

But even under the median voter theorem you only need slightly more than 50% of voters to like you just a little more than the alternatives, and the intensity of opposition doesn't matter much.

Even so, I agree Trump was not a straightforward example. Oops!

There were at the time plenty of people who predicted that even if Trump would win the primary he surely wouldn't win the general selection. The fact that he did seems to be more obvious in hindsight.

The situations I was most imagining (from Sarah's original post, not necessarily from Jessicata's comment) were actually more Dunbar-ish-number-sized – a workplace or local community, that is large enough to have multiple interest groups.

In that context... well, there's still a benefit of negative publicity (I have sometimes written things with intent to be medium-controversial, so as to get more attention to an idea). But it comes embedded with more personal costs than when you're engaging the wider world and "no such thing as bad press" is a bit more fraught a guideline.

I don't think we have a major disagreement about how big the threat is. Mostly I get annoyed when people allude to a vague threat from being transparent instead of being specific about what the threat is, how big it is, and how to plan around it; you are being specific here, which is helpful. I think planning around it is usually worth it, because the benefits from sharing information (strategic and otherwise) outside your clique are very large, unless your clique is itself already a functional secret society, which, let's be real, is generally not what is going on. Advances (scientific, strategic, etc) are generally made by networks of communicating people, not lone individuals, and generally not secret cliques either (see: The Inner Ring).

"People disagreeing with you" isn't a threat in itself.

Depends on why they disagree. For example, some people just love to argue. If you say "X", they are going to say "non-X" even if a minute before they had absolutely no opinion about it. It could be their idea of fun; it could be a status move. Some people have to inject themselves in everything, because it makes them feel important. Suddenly you are stuck talking to people who do not provide the truth-seeking value a honest opponent would.

Even if you ignore death threats, a stalker who follows you everywhere and keeps disagreeing with you publicly, can be a waste of your energy. Crazy people can write an insane amount of content, because they can type without thinking and they have nothing better to do at the moment. Even if they don't convince anyone, they can disrupt a meaningful debate, and make you seem bad by association with them.

I feel kind of lost. Your examples imply a narrowly focused malign attention (in which case I would add "potential backstabbing" to the list :), Viliam seems to be talking about working with groups of people who are more or less neutral to the actual cause, and Sarah seems to be talking about working with people who have at least ostensibly agreed to move in a common direction. Won't there be different threats in all these cases?

OTOH, how about "I will get you fired" promises? Less spooky than death threats, but much more manageable.

Yeah, I think what happened is that Sarah talked about people pushing towards secrecy for vague reasons, Villiam tried giving a more specific reason (people disagreeing with you), and I was like "wait wtf how are any of these responding to serious threats, here's my best attempt at thinking about what could actually go wrong, is this what you're worried about?"

I think there is a lot of irrational paranoia going on with pushes towards secrecy, perhaps a rationalization of a desire to create/maintain an inner ring. Very likely, if the people Sarah was talking to were more transparent, none of the things I listed would happen; some much-less-serious negative consequences might happen, and they would be relatively easy to deal with.

(note: Sarah did mention a concern about the general public stopping you if you were transparent, which implies neutral/negative attention)

I think there is a lot of irrational paranoia going on with pushes towards secrecy

I think the paranoia is basically entirely rational. Several people have listed a variety of threats ranging from (at one extreme) death threats, and much more commonly, mild social disapproval that just makes it harder to accomplish things.

This doesn't mean there aren't benefits to transparency. But I think the threats are generally well understood, and if you want (yourself, or others) to get the benefits of transparency you to need to actually do a lot of social infrastructure work to alleviate those costs.

This is an important and worthwhile project, but even within the rationality community, "mild social disapproval that is demoralizing and makes it harder to accomplish things" is still a problem that needs to be actively addressed in order for transparency benefits to scale.

Right, there are two different kinds of judgment, moral and utilitarian. "You are a bad person for doing X" vs "You are the kind of person who does X, and that's who you are, but I am the kind of person reacts a certain way to people doing X, nothing personal".

This post and some other LW post (I think a zvi "problems with the Bay" post) are the only times I've encountered a story of someone showing up several hours late to something. I really don't want to trivialize the problem of general group coordination, but stories like that (which to me feel like HUGE problems) make me learn towards the belief that there's some basic "how to group" education that is missing.

To anyone who is part of multiple dissimilar social groups, I would be interested in hearing if you've noticed anything like, "Oh, my XYZ group always has coordination problems 1), 2), and 3), but my ABC group has almost none."

Good point. I can't really imagine being several hours late and still showing up, except for events where that is explicitly the norm, like a long party.

Why didn't you Doodle to find a time to meet? Doodle seem to me like ideal technology for the problem and setting one up doesn't seem like an action that anybody who actually wants to meet should find offensive.

doesn't seem like an action that anybody who actually wants to meet should find offensive

You might be right, but whenever I have a thought like this it turns out badly for me.

I think doodle works when you've already failed to coordinate and clearly need to. (i.e. you proposed a time or two and it didn't work).

I do feel a certain sense of exhaustion when someone sends me a doodle, or a youCanBookMe – I have to actually look through my calendar (and since there are some things coming up that aren't on my calendar, I have to search my memory) for possible conflicts. Doodle actually asks everyone to do this too, so it's moderately costly.

Sometimes you need it though, and it's still much better than having to do it without the benefit of the doodle poll to coordinate everyone's answers, for sure.

In one of my social groups 'send out a Doodle' has become a meme indicating that a committee has failed at organising itself/is never going to be productive, and the chairman of the committee (thankfully we always assign this role) has to take action right now and suggest a meeting time and place.

In my personal experience Doodle is useful but also one of those trivial inconveniences (reading an email, clicking a link, checking 10 suggested times against your calendar, waiting for another email telling you a timeslot has been chosen, putting the time into your agenda), which is a downside.

A useless note on far-reaching unity: it exists, in William Blake's poetry. It's amazing how he tacks to starboard and larboard so easily and manages to marshall it all together (I haven't read his long poems, though).

Like, "what immortal hand or eye" & "...dread hand" & "...dread feet" are tangential to a whole he doesn't want to outline (and it includes a furnace, too); "for the Eye Altering alters all" is abrupt as heck (not to mention the uninhabited "dark desart all around" where who knows how many men and women ramble - they must create territory where there was none); "it only once Smiled can be" has that *it* which hews the line off the bedrock, etc.

And despite his projectiles flying haphazardly all around, he keeps it all in check - there's a central idea which is like a queen bee.

The reason why I was thinking about it, is that his poetry is known to be hard to translate (into Russian and Ukrainian, at least), and some things come out in relief when you see how they were broken in translation. There the queen might reign, but there's no unity because fewer things remain to unite; or it is no longer far-reaching.

tl;dr - not all far-reaching unities are built from short-reaching ones.

I find this kind of post very valuable, thank you for writing it so well.

I see someone who seems to see part of the world the same way I do, and I go “can we talk? can we be buds? can we be twinsies? are we on the same team?” and then I realize “oh, no, outside of this tiny little area, they…really don’t agree with me at all. Dammit.”

That rang very close to home, choked me up a little bit. But the good sad, where you put clean socks on and go make the world less terrible.