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Liminal Space 5
Seinfeld's rules, the stink of regressive social decay, questions about progress, and a few brief points on noticing and consciousness
Welcome to Liminal Spaces, a place for me to put my brief and scattered thoughts (and invite you to share yours) between essays.
Thoughts and Recommendations
A few years back, Jerry Seinfeld spoke with Tim Ferriss for about 1.5 hours on his “systems, routines, and methods for success.” The conversation is full of great practical advice for both writing and living. Every now and then, it occurs to me to share it with people. In return, I’m almost always met with people’s appreciation. Most recently, someone told me it was “life-altering,” had “a really profound effect” on them, and helped them to at least temporarily “let go of the past and exist more happily in the present.”
Awesome. That is no small feat, temporary or not. In fact, the equally great aspect about the temporary nature of these things is that, whenever your thoughts do slip out of the present and into the past or future, that only ever needs to be temporary, too. Godspeed!
As far as the writing tips go, Seinfeld has a rule about never sharing something that you’ve written that day with anyone. The idea is that writing something that day makes you feel good for having written something that day (and for having something to improve upon with a fresh head the next day, I would add). To share it with someone would be to allow that person to have a feeling about it that may not match your own, and may in turn “color” your own differently, which may in turn make you feel less good about what you’ve written. The writing brain, Seinfeld says, is like a dumb baby that needs little rewards to go on. One reward is the good feeling you get from writing. So hold onto it. Until the next day, at which point you must shift from the writing mind to the editing mind, from the nurturing creator to the ruthless drill sergeant.
I agree with this rule. But I sometimes break it anyway. Like I’m about to do right now, for example.
Below is a slightly edited comment I left earlier today onBhogal’s newly (re)published piece, “Why Antiracism Failed.” It’s a characteristically thought-provoking and precise read from Bhogal, and I highly recommend it, even if you’ve had enough of this topic, as I know many of us have.
Here’s the bulk of my comment:
As part of my day job working with a progress-focused organization, I read through roughly 70–100 newsletters from a range of media and science/government/humanitarian/etc. orgs a day. So, for over two years now, I've been repeatedly doing so with questions like these ringing constantly between my ears: Is this progress? Is it likely to be a net positive or negative? What are the consequences? Is it the right thing to do? And so on.
It's become more difficult with time, not less. I'm no longer capable of seeing the vast majority of developments as progress or not. I see changes and trade-offs, pros and cons—and which ones outweigh which depend on the individual or group and their values. Still, some things shine or stink more than others, even amid their complexity. And the majority of what I've taken in of antiracism and other forms of common-enemy identity politics just plain reeks.
[Ibram X.] Kendi has said: “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.” And this alone to me is just nonsense. Disparity is the norm. That doesn't eliminate the possibility that there is also discrimination when there is disparity. But no two individuals or groups left to their own devices will have equal outcomes. And that's fine. Because the outcome is not what matters in the end. The opportunity is.
What now feels like a thousand years ago at my job, I found myself getting frustrated with all of the misguided, common-enemy identity politics things I was reading in the news. In no small part because they struck me as things that my progress-focused org would likely be interested in. They fit the progress narrative, but like I said, stunk like regressive social decay to me. So I tried to come up with a list of personal guidelines to keep my own frustrations and biases in check. I haven't needed to look back at those guidelines, but jotting them down and honing them was helpful.
You'll find those below. I'm curious to know if you have any thoughts on them. The first four are the ones highly specific to identity politics, while the remaining four can (and I think should) be applied more broadly to almost everything we read and write and talk about. (Note: I still have mixed feelings about number 4, which I added after considering’ proposal to create a sort of affirmative action for men in HEAL professions and 's response to my question about it. My inner conflict on this one remains.)
Draw larger circles that include rather than smaller ones that exclude
Ask: Does this bring more people together in the same group or divide them into in-groups and out-groups?
Elevate equality of opportunity over equality of outcome
Ask: Does this allow fairer opportunities for more people or discriminate to achieve a more even result?
Remember that disparity does not necessarily equal discrimination
Ask: Is the discrepancy a problem, and if so, is it caused by unjust treatment or something else that may require a different kind of solution?
Be wary, but not dismissive, of so-called “positive discrimination”
Ask: Do the most likely advantages outweigh the most likely disadvantages?
Assess each case individually rather than ideologically
Ask: Am I fairly assessing the arguments' strengths and weaknesses or judging them based on the opinions I already hold?
Extend the principle of charity and be mindful of those who don't
Ask: Am I interpreting opposing views in the best and most rational way possible, and is the other side doing the same?
Strengthen arguments by steel-manning and avoid straw-manning
Ask: Am I building on and engaging with the strongest points of the other side's argument or misrepresenting it to make it weaker and easier to refute?
Keep an open mind with minimal resistance to change
Ask: Am I staying open to new information and allowing it to change my mind?
Would you add or take away or revise anything?
In closing, I'm going to include the piece in my next daily list of progress news and views that I send to my org. But the reality is that they'll not likely want to go there, which is fair enough, since we're kind of the positivity people. But like I hinted at up top, I think facing these more complex and fundamental problems head-on is necessary for progress, and I think we owe it to our audience to delve into the cultural muck sometimes if we aim to make actual social improvements, rather than just feel-good progressive window dressing. I say that with all due respect to my org, by the way. They do good work. These concerns have a way of haunting me nonetheless.
I invite (and encourage) you to share your thoughts on this as well. But please do read Bhogal’s piece first, just so we’re all on the same page. I’m well aware of how these conversations can turn into the equivalent of exchanges between two people who think they’re talking about the same movie, when in reality one person watched Blue Velvet and the other watched Blue Jasmine. Both films have their merits and flaws. But they’re different. And only one of them does this.
While I’m on the topic of progress, here’s another question/consideration that I invite you to share your thoughts about:
Do you believe in cumulative human progress, or are there only ever transitory changes and trade-offs—good and bad and in-between all mixed and mashed together, always advancing and always receding?
Lastly, here’sfrom one of his courses on noticing, this one titled “Look the Wrong Way”:
Creativity starts with attention, always. And often what matters in almost any field [...] is noticing what other people overlooked. That's the first step to crafting an original point of view and breaking from the pack. It's vital that you see more than just what others want you to see.
And here’son binocular rivalry, from his post “The Free Energy of Impermanence”:
What makes binocular rivalry so popular in consciousness research is that it reveals just how constructed our conscious experience is. Binocular rivalry conclusively demonstrates that perception is not based solely on the ‘world’ out there, but based on an interpretation of what might be out there, or should be out there, given what we know. It’s a challenge for all who are not representationalists.
We are, as it were, fumbling around our very own organic virtual reality constructed via a prediction machine known as a brain and a body. It’s a humbling revelation.
And here we’ve reached the end, as well as the beginning.
Onward. Peace and tumult be with you.