Politics as storytelling

Two decades ago, during my biweekly game in Berkeley, the black, white, and Latino players engaged in a series of long, heated debates about O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence. We didn’t necessarily change each other’s opinions about the case, but we gained a far deeper understanding of each other—and our respective group’s experiences—in the process. This surely affected our political perspectives too.

I’ve been mulling this scene. I think the reason I like to discuss politics with people of all perspectives is peeking under the onion layers. Prod someone into talking about something they are passionate about, and they tell stories. They describe how something makes them feel by talking about how it relates to a past event.

Okay, some people are going to be purely factual about a position. That is boring to the human brain. A story engages us. So people eventually fall into telling stories that make their point.

Most people fall near the center of a spectrum on a random issue. And, how they are asked about something can influence how they respond. Ask about abortion and someone is either for or against. Ask about different types and some people who are against turn out to be okay with allowing some types. Tell different stories about a certain type and depending on the details some people can flip their stance depending on the elements it contains.

We do this without really being aware. And I love to notice people not being aware of these inconsistencies.

And these stories reveal far more about them than just the stance. The stories we tell reflect an attempt at shaping how a person wants to be perceived. We instinctually leave out the parts that we don’t want others to know, but others who have experienced the same event know those details. Those omissions also over time get lost as we forget them.

Intellectual humility

Adam Grant pointed to How ‘Intellectual Humility’ Can Make You a Better Person which I found intriguing.

We all have a tendency to overestimate how much we know — which, in turn, means that we often cling stubbornly to our beliefs while tuning out opinions different from our own. We generally believe we’re better or more correct than everyone else, or at least better than most people — a psychological quirk that’s as true for politics and religion as it is for things like fashion and lifestyles. And in a time when it seems like we’re all more convinced than ever of our own rightness, social scientists have begun to look more closely at an antidote: a concept called intellectual humility… which has to do with understanding the limits of one’s knowledge. It’s a state of openness to new ideas, a willingness to be receptive to new sources of evidence, and it comes with significant benefits: People with intellectual humility are both better learners and better able to engage in civil discourse. Google’s VP in charge of hiring, Laszlo Bock, has claimed it as one of the top qualities he looks for in a candidate: Without intellectual humility, he has said, “you are unable to learn.”

I wonder how my wanting to explain things tied in with my Imposter Syndrome derails the above overestimations. There is a thing in the back of my head looking to find fault in myself. So in going to explain something and realizing my weaknesses, my confirmation bias is to think, “Of course, I don’t understand it as well as I ought.”

Let Me Explain; Let Me Sum Up

There is a great quote from The Princess Bride

Westley: Who are you? Are we enemies? Why am I on this wall? Where is Buttercup?
Inigo Montoya: Let me explain.
Inigo Montoya: No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Buttercup is marry Humperdinck in little less than half an hour. So all we have to do is get in, break up the wedding, steal the princess, make our escape… after I kill Count Rugen.

It is what I thought of while reading Mike Caufield’s The Power of Explaining to Others.

I like discussions about things because in talking about it, I have to…

  1. Judge how much the other person knows.
  2. Judge how much I know.
  3. Figure out the best way to provide additional value.

In going through this, I figure out that what I know is usually less than I originally thought. Which makes me more curious, so I will seek more information. Many of my times getting lost down the rabbit hole of the Internet is trying to clean up the holes of my understanding from some recent conversation. There is an obsession to better know things, so I found it interesting that my habit of explaining books, articles, or whatever is on my mind ties to well into countering false information.

The conclusion to Gotcha Jerks Part II

Not long ago, it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling for a very conservative coworker to call me the only liberal he knows that he can discuss things. We disagree, but we respect each other enough to discuss things. I am not hurt by our disagreements. And as much as he tries to act radical, I suspect a lot of it is poker bluff acting.

My motivation in talking with him is in part understanding what I do and do not know. He provides a perspective I normally probably would not see. He uses keywords I can search for to find more about those views. And… He is not seeking to convince me (nor I him) to the “right” side. We just talk to explain what we know to better understand. So, I hope in explaining to me, he is getting the same benefit I am.


TED Talk: Let’s try emotional correctness

Sally Kohn gets an unbelievable amount of hate mail for doing her job: being a liberal pundit on Fox News. Political persuasion begins with emotional correctness: the respect and compassion we show one another.

Our challenge is to find the compassion for others that we want them to have for us. That is emotional correctness.

Given the current climate of anger, this seemed pretty appropriate.

If the video does not load, the try Sally Kohn: Let’s try emotional correctness.

PeopleMap Name Badges

In discussion with coworkers, the idea came up of putting the PeopleMap type on one’s name badge. My contribution was to make it color coded:

  • Red for Leader because people associate red with the Power Tie.
  • Blue for Task because people associate that color with cool, collected, logical.
  • Green for People because (RGB and green is not yet used).
  • Gold star for Free Spirit because, gosh darn it, they are “special.”

GPB Funding Campaigns

Over the past couple weeks Georgia Public Radio ran their fall funding campaign for National Public Radio. (We get to go through this again in the spring.) These funding campaigns are the least I listen to GPB. And they actively discourage me from wanting to donate.

So when the campaigners lament about how so few people donate, my sense of why is these campaigns. They work like a guilt trip:

YOU are a freeloader. So now that you feel bad about yourself, you can feel better by sending us money.

My inclination to that is the opposite. Maybe a large portion of the 90% of people who listen but do not donate feel the same way?

The way I was able to donate was a couple weeks after a funding campaign, I happened to be on the web site and sent my contribution. Now they send me reminders before the funding campaigns. So I send in my contribution before they go on air making me regret having sent them anything.

GPB claims not to have commercials, but they have plenty of sponsorship advertisements. They mean, I think, that commercial radio has constant, overwhelming advertisements. So my discontent is the semantics of the difference between none and few.

Oh, and the gifts for contributing are the same cheap vendor swag items that cost them cents to a few dollars per item to have made. Yet they are valued at $25-50? Lame.

Outside of when these funding campaigns are active, I am really happy that I contributed. So, it is not that I want to be a freeloader. It really is guilt trips cause me to react the wrong way. And I really am not sure how they should address changing the funding campaigns so I would be attracted.

Shortcuts: Labeling

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking)

Homo Sapiens Sapiens cheated evolution in one critical way by creating language. Rather than rely totally on instincts passed along by genes, we pass along an enormous amount of information to our proteges through memes. These may not even be the descendants of our genes. In working together on something, we share enormous amounts of information.

Everything including physical objects, ideas, and behaviors all have a label. Sometimes more than one. A label is a way of identifying something without having to go into the gory details of explaining it every time. (Like I just did.) I can call something an “apple” and anyone who understand this word knows what I mean. Labels bring efficiency to language. Until it does not.

Framing and metaphors are a couple of the tools behind labels. Through them labels acquire properties which then influence how we think. We can be manipulated by these thoughts simply by others choosing one label or the other. A great experiment has test takers write random number at the top. The larger the number, the better the test takers did on the test. How a question is phrased in a poll skews the responses. When we use metaphors also we constrain our thinking. Using the metaphor of a clockwork universe makes us think of mechanical devices and how everything around us are such devices.

Maybe English is a special case. Between Frisian (the ancestral language that make English belong to the Germanic family) and French from the Norman Invasion, English has multiple words for things. Throw in the Melting Pot that is the United States with making up jargon for everything. This language is an absurd mixture of strange meanings. Certain words like “set” have so many definitions one needs to hear or read it in context to understand it.

Then we also have LABELS. LABELS are also labels but have the special nature of how we classify other people. They are how we split people up into groupings to say one is not like another. White vs Black. Extrovert vs Introvert. East Coast vs West Coast. Democrat vs Republican. All are arbitrary. Many are misunderstood. They drift into caricature stereotypes causing hurt. This is where our -Isms arise. Nationalism, racism, or sexism would have no place without powerfully overly broad LABELS. As our conversations become more mature, we need more and more LABELS to express the nuances even while others resist change.

We need labels in order to communicate with each other. We just need to recognize their fallibility. And somehow avoid hurting each other while expressing ourselves.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking)

TED Talk: The Lost Art of Democratic Debate

When I go to a party, I would much rather to find a discussion about something ideological than anything else that tends to happen at them like drinking alcohol, dancing, or losing my hearing. Also, I should do a better job apologizing after the fact when in the heat of the moment I take a contrary side because no one else will. It is all about teasing out of others what is the essential nature of things and people.

If the video above does not work, then try The Lost Art of Democratic Debate

Conditional Thinking

XKCDTech Support Flowchart

My mind made a leap past something blocking it for a while now.

This post, If This, Then That (ifttt): Teaching Conditional Thinking laid the groundwork I needed. The post describes a new simpler version of Yahoo Pipes called ifttt. The idea of both is to take data generated at one or many places and output that data in new interesting ways. An example for how I have used it is creating a single Bbworld feed taking the hashtags in Twitter, a couple dozen blogs, and Flickr tagged photos to produce a single RSS feed to follow. Sooo easier to give out this one than list all the feeds to coworkers or peers at other work places. It then describes this as a useful way to teach conditional thinking.

We have been discussing learning, specifically teaching the skills involved in problem solving: understand the problem, make a guess how to solve, try it, check the efficacy, decide whether solved or keep trying or give up. One idea thrown out was that there was a culture us-vs-them and that our culture made problem solving possible where as another culture did not. Another idea was that in order to problem solve one has to be able to find causes. A third was that someone taught us how to problem solve so someone needs to teach them.

This made me realize problem solving is similar to process flows in that have conditional logic.

  • Case: make a guess how to solve.
  • Exec: try it.
  • Test: check the efficacy.
  • Loop: decide whether solved or keep trying or give up.

The key piece really is someone who writes code reaches a point where letters, numbers, and symbols mean anticipated behavior. They know what it should do to solve the problem. Then when the code does not do it, they use problem-solving to fix it so it will.

So… To solve a problem, I may write code with conditional logic similar to problem-solving with problem solving to make it work. Even when I am writing this blog post, I am thinking about problems with it, how I can improve it, trying different ways to express it, and deciding whether it is okay. Think that seals it: Problem solving is a culture in which we are completely mired. Those trying to participate without thinking this way will have a hard time being relevant. Er… Useful. Er… Helpful.

Weak Ties

Malcolm Gladwell wrote last fall how strong ties like friendships are how high risk opposition works. Weak ties like Facebook cannot sustain them. So it is interesting how stories about the Egyptian revolution mention Facebook and Twitter as tooks. Naturally, Gladwell responded by writing, “Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” Also, he made the point, “How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

Both points are true-ish.

People have brought down governments with stones and swords before the American Revolution. Governments fell before the printing press. Yet we still study how the Americans fought the British both with militias armed with guns and through printed news. Both were astoundingly important to American culture.

Last time I checked, one did not have to pick between who, what, when, where, how, or why. There is not a zero-sum game between how and why. So why being more important than how seems like an odd retort. Maybe Gladwell means people should include the why people joined in protesting? If that is the complaint, then he should have referenced the articles to which he was responding.