Wednesday, January 4, 2017


I was reading this passage by David Whyte on vulnerability and wondered, do sociopaths experience vulnerability ever?

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

I think the answer must be that they do in fact experience vulnerability, in the sense that this in this life no one or nothing is invulnerable. I think to the extent that they feel it, it must be like so many of their feelings -- dull and contextless and over just as quickly as the experience that produced it is over. There are probably exceptions. I certainly have felt a little... traumatized? I guess is the word I am thinking. Gun shy? After some of the more serious setbacks I have experienced, I have experienced a more pronounced awareness of my vulnerability in the world -- a lack of ability to predict, to control, or to deal with what's happening to me. So yes, definitely a situational awareness style awareness of vulnerability in the sense that we're all mortals. And what about an emotional vulnerability?

Monday, December 19, 2016

What's wrong with stigma?

One (I hope) good thing to come of the current political climate is that it shows the limits of stigma or social shaming in changing people or behavior. I've written before about this, but it's still very hard for me to understand why people do it or what they hope to accomplish with it. I can't help but thing it's just an evolutionary quirk that didn't get programmed in my own wiring because seemingly otherwise decent people will engage in outrageous and cruel behavior as long as their target is someone they perceive as being "bad" (in their opinion). 

From an Atlantic article entitled "How Stigma Sows Seeds of Its Own Defeat":

In “Too Much Stigma, Not Enough Persuasion,” I argued that the coalition that opposes Donald Trump needs to get better at persuading its fellow citizens and winning converts, rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them. With Trump’s victory in mind, I wrote that among the many problems with relying too heavily on stigma rather than persuasion is that it just doesn’t work.

Noah Millman and Matt Yglesias have smart insights on the same subject.

And one of my readers, Maxwell Gottschall, has a useful coda that applies not just to opposing Donald Trump, but to the larger defense of the liberal project, the constitutional order, and republican government.  Sure, he acknowledged, wielding stigma is often ineffective. But even when it does work to achieve ends that liberals favor, like undermining support for racism or authoritarian demagogues, stigma achieves those victories in a relatively weak, dangerously tenuous manner.

As he put it:
Stigmatization of an idea, by design, intends to convert, not persuade, by bypassing reason and going right for our tribal desire to fit in. But I think the rarely noted effect of this conversion happening is that it robs the converted of the tools to persuade others going forward.  In other words, if you haven't been persuaded by the merits of a political idea, how do you persuade others? You can't without resorting to the same sort of stigmatizing argument. 
This, I think, at least partially explains the left's staleness over the past two years, and the cultural center-left elite's utter shock at the inadequacy of its invincible ascendant coalition. Stigmatization doesn't just turn off perfectly good people who aren't racists but supported Trump (as a blasé example). And it doesn't just make you complacent (which it does). I think it actively contributes to ideological rot.
The problem is that if social shaming is really an evolutionary quirk, all the evidence in the world about its inefficacy is not going to stop people from engaging in it.  The problem is not really in getting to see that stigmas can often often be unhelpful or destructive. Every side seems to have stigmas that they think are unwarranted or unhelpful (e.g. stigmas against gay marriage, having children out of wedlock). However, they also have stigmas that they think are absolutely necessary (e.g. stigmas against perceived homophobia, stigmas against having welfare babies). 

I'd personally love to have people stop stigmatizing things. That seems to me the cleanest, fairest, most efficient, and most beneficial solution. But that's like saying we should stop war. Given that's not going to happen, I guess the only thing left for us to do is to hide those parts of us that would be stigmatized or try to change minds? I honestly wouldn't blame anyone for doing the former. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Smartest person in the room

Sorry for the particularly slow posting and comment moderation, I've been out of the country.

I stumbled upon this video, I have forgotten where. It's from personal financial guru Dave Ramsay, but it takes an interesting turn from the personal as the woman seeks what she believes is financial advice and instead he gives her marital advice.

Dave Ramsay says that they're at an impasse not because of the consumer debt that the couple has, but because their world views are colliding. He talks about there being a respect meltdown where "he is the king of everything and your opinion doesn't matter." He says it's debilitating. "How do we get your husband on board, uh, we don't, until he decides he's on board with being your husband." "He's just doing whatever the flip he wants to do and the rest of you just exist around him." "You're trying to work around this elephant that's in the middle of your living room . . .  and you can't work around it."

I feel like this must be the experience of a lot of people who are in a relationship with someone with certain types of mental health issues (including a lot of people with personality disorders) who have difficulty validating or acknowledging the personhood of others. I know in dealing with some lower functioning people with personality disorders, they will insist on absolute autonomy -- the right to do and say what they want, when they want and not to be accountable to other people for their choices. Often there is a double standard because they expect other people to consider them and their preferences in making choices. They can be hyper sensitive to anyone having an expectation of them, that they show up on time or do what they say they're going to do or fix the problems that they've created for other people. They'll whine about how people are trying to manipulate them or control them, trying to micromanage their life.

Unfortunately I think that Dave Ramsay is right -- when someone believes that he or she is the king of everything and the rest of people just exist around him/her, a healthy, functional relationship would be impossible. Trying to help a relationship that is already there is also impossible unless the other person is really willing to start acknowledging the personhood and role of others in his or her life. 
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