Who would lose: a twelfth-century sexist or a twenty-first-century presentist?
The book I’m currently writing is set nearly 900 years ago. This poses certain difficulties. Last night, I missed my bedtime falling down an internet rabbit hole trying to figure out whether a specific woman rode her horse side-saddle, or astride.
If you choose to go back this far into history, you’ll find that it’s clouded by all the time that’s passed since. You’re trying to imagine a woman riding a horse in 1140, but you’re actually picturing virginal twentieth-century dorm-room posters reprinted from Victorian paintings imagining late-medieval scenes.
This is not evidence of what the middle ages were like.
If you begin to research a question like “did women in 1140 ride side-saddle?,” you’ll find a lot of websites with vague, unattributed statements like: “Women weren’t allowed to be independent or wear pants until the twentieth century because they were supposed to be demure and chaste.”
Citation needed! It’s not categorically wrong, but it’s wrong categorically!
This kind of assumption obscures the past. It flattens the past into a single “bad old times.”
And—it makes us lazy. There is a common temptation to think about time as a steady march of progress, like so:
But things can, and often do, get worse. New systems of oppression are created. Life-sustaining creations are destroyed.
Women are allowed to ride horses in the most efficient way, until they are told that instead have to ride in a way that only goes slowly and probably feels not great for the horse. From my digging, it looks like that happened sometime after 1140.
So I’m letting my gal swing up on her palfrey, get her skirt bunched up under her. Letting her feel the breeze on her shins.
It’s Monday. I’m idle and frenetic, overwhelmed and bored. I have a list of things to do and I keep rearranging their order but not doing them.
There is a great deal of drama about when I will eat. Before or after I exercise? Will I exercise before or after my meeting? When, in that series of events, should I do that one task that I’m dreading and which will take all of my mental focus?
(That task is now a problem for tomorrow me.)
Then the maintenance team comes and I take that as an excuse to throw the whole list away.
I spend a lot of the day fussing with emails and gearing myself up to answer one, only to realize that I don’t have the answer and need to reply with a question. That takes me two minutes. Another one goes the same way.
I’m hunched over in my chair procrastinating, feeling worse and worse.
At the end of the day as the light begins to fail I start to do it all, all at once, like always. A flurry of activity. I answer a lot of the emails. I finally get my exercise in. I clean the house. I make dinner.
I’m very grumpy about how I never seem to do anything but I also never fully rest.
The snow is falling outside just like the picture of snow falling. The end of daylight is periwinkle and even the streetlights are gold on the glittering white. I’m stretching my hips, sweating out my petty fury, very much alive, and that is all.
A little while ago, I provided some ideas for how to make friends as an adult. These ideas weren’t pandemic-safe, but I was trying to give you a head start on how to make up for the friends we’re all losing the longer this goes on.
It goes on. And on. I guess we might need some pointers on how to make friends while it goes on. Here are my offerings:
I don’t know.
I literally don’t know.
I think it may be impossible.
I’ve started DMing strangers whose Content I like because I am losing it.
Sometimes they “like” my DM and it’s like omg! I did it! I made a friend! Or I’ll tell Ian about something that someone I don’t know posted, and then I realize that this isn’t real life.
I think you have to get a puppy. It’s the only way. And then at least you have a puppy friend if not a new human friend.
Befriend yourself. Talk out loud to yourself. (Ted talk shower meme). Crack yourself up. Ask yourself what you really, really, really want to eat for dinner, and don’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. Get to know yourself with compassionate curiosity. Wear extremely comfortable clothes. Ask yourself what you most want to do once you can do what you want. Turn your camera off during meetings if you want. You’ve got a friend for life.
There are seagulls who like to stalk and squat along the crown of the building opposite. When I first saw them out of the corner of my eye I thought they were workers busy on the roof. These guys don’t work. They fold down in their feathers in all kinds of weather and stare at each other. Just now one was fluffing himself, scratching under his wings, and as he wiggled and settled a single white feather fell from his underplumage. It spun slowly downward, fluttering in a tight spiral with the point down, past the office windows of people absorbed in what they’re doing at their desks. It hovered for a long time before falling out of sight below the second floor.
And the dull white sky behind him and the cold dull smell from the open window reminds me of home, or my imagined home, where I always feel a few seconds ahead of real time, like life is un-buffered. Where I cannot forget that everything is only happening and will only have ever been happening right now, and even as I say that it is no longer true. It’s unbearable.
Still I love waking up in a thick fog. It cuts down distances between things.
Last night Apartment 12 had a nasty fight with John again. I was pathetic and a little drunk and bored and lonely and so I opened my front door to the hallway, where her voice was as sharp as if she was standing next to me. In my bedroom it’s more of a round echo, which is more annoying than anything, because I can’t hear the words, but my brain can’t disconnect from the fact that a human voice is there. At least in the hallway I could hear everything.
John, foolish John, had made plans to go out with someone. A woman. A woman who, I suppose he swore, meant nothing to him and he would never see again, but he really wanted to go say goodbye to her. #12 couldn’t believe that John, stupid John, didn’t see how shady it was. He wouldn’t even invite his girlfriend? How can she trust him if he won’t even invite her to things like that?
“Well, if that’s what you think about it, John, then it’s fine. It’s fine. If that’s what you think. But I will never forgive you. My heart will never forgive this.”
“NO. THIS IS NOT A FIGHT. WE ARE NOT FIGHTING, JOHN. JOHN! JOHN! JOHN! JOHN! WHAT did you just say to me? What? I can’t hear you. NO, WE ARE NOT FIGHTING.”
That was about the size of it from 9:30 until past 10. She kept oscillating between reminding him of the unforgivable sin he had attempted and was still plotting, and then letting him know it was fine and they weren’t fighting about it.
Then he threw down the gauntlet. He proposed to take a shower.
“You’re going to take a SHOWER? What?”
For the next hour, it went like this: John desperately tried to get off the phone, but heeded #12’s warnings not to hang up on her. He didn’t want to fight. “THIS ISN’T A FIGHT, JOHN,” she yelled.
Then #12 decided she wanted to shower. She wanted to get cute so she could come over and talk it out with John in person. So he was going to shower, and then she was going to shower, and she was going to come up there and talk it out.
But a curious thing happened: despite how adamant #12 was that she was going to get dressed and come out there, she also needed him to tell her that she was indeed coming to see him. Every sentence was either “I’m coming out there,” or “am I coming out there?” And John would not answer the question.
Here, my loyalties forked: I could understand why someone like John, who didn’t seem terribly intelligent, poor man, would just want to get off the phone and do precisely anything that was not continuing this fight. At that point he probably would have rather boil himself in an infinite shower than keep treading water in the manipulative mire of the fight-that-was-not-a-fight (except when, conveniently, #12 told John that she couldn’t believe he would rather fight with her—ah, she admitted the fight—for an hour, rather than just invite her over. It was his choice, and he was being shady.) But I also wondered why John, presumably an adult, couldn’t just grow a pair of something and tell her not to come over. Or tell her to come over. Or just answer the question. For over a half hour they continued the bizarre shower-decision dance.
“Answer the question, John,” I started chanting under my breath in concert with 12. Plus, for obvious reasons, I was very much hoping that she would just shower and go so someone else in some other hallway could listen to the yelling.
Eventually I couldn’t hear what transpired, and next thing I knew 12 was sobbing in great loud wails. And after a few minutes she quieted down, and that was the end of that.
Every time she is loud at night I think it’s the last straw and next time I will go knock, or just pound a fist on the shared wall, or slip a really cutting note under the door. This time, the note would have read: “You guys need to break up. For all our sakes. And shut up.” But I didn’t. Of course. I just texted my own lover, with whom I never fight, with whom I rarely talk.
To sum it all up, when it comes to the conspiracy theorists, I think most of these people are just confused. They’re feeling lost in a world that they perceive is changing very quickly. Their frontal lobes are telling them that things are awry, and they’re looking for a way to make sense of the chaos. They don’t have a handy framework to help them figure it out. These theories, like a butterfly seen in a blot of ink, are much more satisfying than the alternative, which is: it’s a bit of a mess.
Seeing a butterfly rather than a blot gives you a plan.
The problem is, deciding that the blot is really a butterfly—which is to say, using critical thinking only to throw away the apparent truth in favor of a much more Byzantine story—is a failure of discernment. It’s deciding to live in a cartoon world, a TV-drama world, rather than accepting life in a real world.
But hey, it’s Friday, and to conclude this little series, I’d like to let you in on some stuff I’ve figured out. I don’t have conclusive proof of any of it yet, but here are several ideas I’m workshopping of who started the so-called pand*mic:
Facebook: they needed to sell their Portal device, and how better to try to do it than force everyone apart from their families for a while?
Dippin’ Dots: in a triumph of playing the long game, they foresaw that the only way to offload their underused supercold freezers was by forcing science to create a vaccine that needed below-freezing temperatures.
HBO Max: found a way to spring into existence in the perfect circumstances to permanently kill movie theaters. Coincidence? Evidently not.
Fast fashion companies (various): foreseeing their demise due to increasing reports of their social ills and externalities, they now sell cheap masks, no doubt made out of 2021’s line of $5 dresses.
Yoga with Adriene, the so-called Queen of Pandemic Yoga. Listen to this: in January, 2020 she created a 30-day yoga series called “Home,” celebrating doing yoga at home. Come on. She knew. And this year’s offering is called “Breath,” which is pretty rich coming from someone who we can all tell started a pulmonary disease.*
I went to law school. They told, or threatened,, us that we would begin to think like lawyers. So we did.
Sometimes when I get annoyed with people who think wrong (like conspiracy nuts, or people who aren’t conversing with me the way I wish they would) I just wish they would think more like lawyers, which is to say, narrow the focus down to a linear progression: issue, rule, application, conclusion. One issue at a time, if you please! Make sure you’re citing the right rule! Apply that rule to the agreed facts! Great, now here comes your conclusion, like pasta out of an extruder! Hark!
It sure makes things orderly.
Of course, the real world doesn’t work like this, with many consequences, one of which is that it’s very hard for lawyers and non-lawyers to converse without each party becoming very frustrated with the other, and a million lawyer jokes were born. (Ever notice that there aren’t jokes by lawyers about non-lawyers? We’re a saintly bunch).
But why does this dance of convincing more or less work in courts of law, I ask myself? Why can people with opposing interests, with vastly opposite opinions and beliefs, still discuss things in an orderly way and get a conclusion, even if it’s not the one they wanted?
It’s not because lawyers are more decent than the rest of you. It’s because law has scraped away all the hard parts. When you’re talking law, you’re hemming yourself in to the inside of a framework with clear rules. Arcane, but clear! If you deviate from the framework, meaningful punishments can be applied.
Law is the too-easy art of convincing people of something from within the helpful confines of an agreed framework. The framework does the work for you—which is why it’s frame*work*. This is why laws are good.
But how to persuade cross-framework? And how to persuade people when they reject frameworks altogether? That’s where the real work begins.
In the chaos of the real world, people can and do throw the rules and the frameworks out when they no longer suit. We can’t force them to put the guardrails back on. We can only ask them nicely, but that does very little good when people believe the guardrails have failed them.
Or when they believe the guardrails are the doing of a satanic cabal.
Still, I don’t see any way for a society to function without guardrails. Any version of a future in which we can disagree well will need good guardrails. But who will make them, and what will they be?
Hopefully I’ll find out by the time I write my next post.
With me so far? Conspiracy thinking emerges out of a deeply human desire to find patterns and discrepancies. It’s critical thinking that hits a brick wall and skids sideways.
But the problem doesn’t end with actual conspiracy thinking. All of us are confused when it comes to that conspiracy topic du jour, the pandemic. We’re confused by the right amount of cautions to take, and which ones will do us good.
It’s like that George Carlin bit about drivers: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” Anyone taking more precautions than you is paranoid, and anyone taking less is reckless.
Fortunately, I am happy to report that I myself have found the *exact perfect amount of risk to take.*
Anyway, something that’s interested me over the last few weird-ass months is watching people acting like the generals of legend as they fight Covid: they’re fighting the last war.
Some people are responding to the virus as though it’s 9/11 all over again: the remedy, they think, is to stay brave and keep living life, as though this will frighten the virus away. (It will not. The virus will enjoy it.)
Likewise, I read about one woman who was quoted as saying that she fully intends to keep visiting with her extended family, because “if the zombies are at the door, I want us to go down together,” or something to that effect. There might be safety in numbers when it comes to zombies, but again, the virus will love this strategy and it may well harm your family.
It makes me think: are some of us going to ineptly respond to future non-medical emergencies by donning masks and standing six feet apart, when really we ought to duck and cover or something?
It’s like we have a big red EMERGENCY beacon in the brain, and we know we’re supposed to do *something* when it starts blaring, but we’re not entirely sure what, or why, so we just default to our Favorite Emergency Behavior and hope for the best.
Like conspiracy thinking, so much of this incorrect reacting is a failure of wisdom. It’s a failure of discernment.
Getting people to do the right thing is clearly not just a matter of having the right experts say the right things loudly enough (although that wouldn’t hurt!) To my mind, it has a lot more to do with our need for clear frameworks for our thinking. We need people to think straight, dammit. We need bowling-alley bumpers for the national discourse.
So next time, let’s talk about how well that works for us in my field of law.
My last post argued that conspiracy thinking often involves a bit of good old-fashioned critical thinking. It just takes people to a weird place.
But, you might be screaming at me, that’s an incomplete definition of critical thinking. The point is, conspiracies about the pandemic are *wrong*. They involve *bad* thinking.
I agree. What unites these thoughts-gone-awry is a failure of discernment. Many of them make no sense when you think about them for longer than it takes to take them in.
Here’s one: “the global elites created covid as a hoax to get Trump out of office.” But follow that trail a bit: if Trump had been a competent president faced with a fake pandemic, wouldn’t he have handled it competently? Wouldn’t he have played the 3D or 11D chess he’s so famous for and gotten the fake pandemic under control, while also providing financial support to those injured by the hoax-driven lockdowns? Wouldn’t he have outsmarted the fakers?
Okay, that’s an extreme version of the conspiracy. Consider the more mainstream idea that the pandemic is real, but it’s overblown. It has a 95, or 98, or 99.98% survival rate (as we know, 78% of statistics are made up on the spot, so the number seems to change a lot), and 80% of people don’t even have symptoms (ditto). It’s no excuse to deep-six the economy. Now, is that idea alone a conspiracy thought? No. It’s just an opinion based on some (possibly wrong, definitely misleading) statistics.
Here’s where it turns into a conspiracy thought: pair it with some explanation of the gap between what those people perceive as the truth (Covid is not a big deal) and what most governments and health-care workers are saying consistently (Covid is a huge deal). One of the ways to bridge this gap is to conclude that the governments are using this real, but minor, disease as an excuse to seize lots of power, desensitize us to the loss of personal freedom, and maybe even plant chips in us when they give us the vaccine.
That flawed gap-bridging comes from that low-bar kind of critical thinking I mentioned last time. People are seeing something that doesn’t make sense, and they’re using their frontal lobes to attack it. Let’s admit: Covid doesn’t behave like we imagine the Black Death did in the 14th century. It doesn’t annihilate whole towns, like any really-scary movie-worthy pandemic should. Instead, the vast majority of people survive it in the immediate term (with the caveat we don’t know yet what the long-term effects might be). To people who are really desensitized to human suffering, this might seem like small potatoes. “Wake me up when it kills at least 70%,” they yawn. “Fine, some old people are dying. Old people die all the time.”
Let’s pause without tearing that apart: that observation requires an explanation! (There are explanations, but they’re a little complicated).
My point is: conspiracy thinking often starts with a valid critical thought, which is: hey, wait a minute, this isn’t adding up. You say it’s raining but you’re dry.
Just think of how many people are still citing the CDC’s recommendation early in the pandemic that non-health-care workers avoid wearing masks. There’s a very real criticism to be made there: you said one thing, now you are saying another. Which is it? Why should I believe you now? Yes, that is critical thinking.
Something similar is happening now with vaccine messaging. As today’s (January 18, 2021) New York Times Morning Newsletter pointed out, many health experts are banging the drum now that we don’t know for sure yet whether the vaccine will prevent Covid spread. There’s every likelihood it will, but the studies haven’t been able to prove it either way this early. In the face of that uncertainty, many public-health experts are arguing that we will all have to keep distancing and wearing masks for a long time after being vaccinated—partly because they are afraid that if vaccinated people stop doing so, the unvaccinated will as well. This has the predictable outcome of confusing people about the vaccine’s effects, and encouraging people’s frontal lobes to fire up with a “wait a minute.” As the Morning briefing put it: “[T]he best way to persuade people to behave safely usually involves telling them the truth…The current approach also feeds anti-vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theories.”
So let’s admit that governments in the United States have been awful at providing a clear, reasonable, and consistent message. It’s been transparent that they aren’t solely motivated by the best available science. They’re instead trying to split the baby between the science and economic interests, which results in lockdown orders that look like Frankenstein pork barrels. This baby-splitting creates the cognitive dissonance that is the fertile soil for bare-bones “critical thinking,” that “hey, wait a minute” thought that can give rise to all kinds of conspiracy thinking.
All that to say, people in positions of authority bear some responsibility for setting the stage for people’s brains to do what brains like to do, which is to find patterns, and identify discrepancies, and to make patterns out of discrepancies.
But where conspiracy thinking is a failure of critical thinking is that it finds a thought, any thought, that satisfies that cognitive dissonance: ah, the government can’t fool me. I don’t need to change my behavior because they are lying to me.
And then it just stops thinking.
It doesn’t ask: what is more likely? That the experts have gathered more information and the circumstances have evolved quickly during the first global pandemic of a novel virus in 100 years? Or that they’re all lying to me in a semi-coordinated fashion? Is it likelier that institutions are run by flawed humans weighing a tangle of factors, requirements, and interests? Or that they’re run by a unified cabal with a single, unspoken goal?
If a person has decided the latter, they now stop thinking, and start gathering more evidence in increasingly fringe parts of the internet for the orderly (if horrifying) pattern they have now identified.
In other words, it’s a kind of wild stop-and-start thinking that would make Occam’s razor rust. Or something.
We’re living in a fairly dysfunctional time in the oldest democracy in the world during a time of rapid change. That’s less exciting than the conspiracy version, just like Covid is less exciting than the Black Death, but it’s the truth. And no one said the truth would be exciting.
Now: onward to theorizing about conspiracy theories.
I often hear people accuse those who disagree with them of failing to think critically. “If they were able to think critically, as I am” (so the idea goes), “they would have come to the same conclusions as I have.”
Obviously it’s not so simple.
But I see the temptation. Looking at people who believe what I consider to be wild, fanciful, conspiratorial ideas about topics like the pandemic or the election, it’s easy to think that they are merely floating along with the whims of whoever they follow on Facebook. That they have failed to think critically about what they read.
Now, there are many definitions of “critical thinking,” but I (thinking critically) choose to make my own for my purposes here. It’s a low bar: critical thinking, for my purposes here, is the decision not to take a claim at face value—instead, to examine and test it a bit.
Let’s take a very easy one: someone comes in from the outdoors and reports that it’s raining. However, their clothes and hair are dry. Critical thinking, at a very basic level, is the process that allows you to say “hang on just a minute, I think it might not be raining,” despite what they’ve said.
Conspiracy thinking about the pandemic may or may not involve critical thinking of this basic type. I believe a lot of people are genuinely trying to use the God-given critical thinking skills their frontal lobes are hungry for. And there are disparities to use them on: These people hear various governments and experts making various mutually incompatible claims about what is and isn’t safe, what is and isn’t allowed, what the consequences of certain behaviors are. And these statements may not match this person’s experience. They may not know anybody who’s had Covid, or who’s had it bad, or who’s died.
To them, this is a dry person reporting a rainstorm.
Or, they hear different experts and different governments saying conflicting things, and this makes everyone’s critical-thinking alarms go off. After all, if there’s a lack of consensus, someone needs to sort things out.
“Why not me?” And then they charge in and try to sort out something very complicated without proper guardrails, and things go sideways.
This is the very American problem we’re facing right now: our individualist culture champions what it calls “critical thinking,” by which we too often mean discarding expert information in favor of the testimony of our own friends and our own guts. We believe in our ability to understand hard concepts, far more than we believe in our own limitations and others’ expertise. And we believe that it is actually uncritical, sheeplike, to listen to experts.
I want to get deeper into this idea in future posts, but for now I want to leave you with this challenge: if you are tempted to think of so-and-so as a big dumb-o for believing whatever wild idea is floating around the internet today, consider whether they think the same of you. Then consider: if you wanted to engage them in a real debate, how would you convincingly distinguish between your belief in what you read and hear, and what they do?
After all, simply yelling back and forth to read different sources isn’t going so well.