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So last night I was reading my friends list, and ran into the video I've posted below on drjon's journal.

Now, this video is about racism, but touches on a really important idea that I think extends way, way beyond conversations about race. On the subject of racism itself, I have little to add beyond what the video already says, so I'll leave that alone.

The video is by a guy who calls himself Jay Smooth. He has a Web site and a YouTube channel, and he's articulate and smart and funny and before you know it I'd been sucked down the Intertubes and had wasted two hours watching all his stuff.

So thanks, drjon, that's two hours I'll never have back.

Anyway, the video is short and is worth watching, and I'll put it here so you can see what I'm talking about before I move on to the point that extends beyond racism and race.

The distinction between "what he did" and "what he is" is important. It's something that trips us up as human beings all the time. It's the thin edge of the wedge that leads to mind-reading behavior, false assumptions, broken expectations, and all manner of other ills that plague us. And it's a really, really easy mistake to make.

Human beings are a storytelling species. We tell ourselves stories all the time, every day, without even being aware of it. These stories help us to try to make sense of the actions of other people. Indeed, we even invent stories that we tell ourselves in order to explain our own behavior, as vividly illustrated in one famous series of studies of people whose corpus callosum had been split.

A quick recap for folks who are not neurology geeks: The corpus callosum is a thick bundle of nerves that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. If this is damaged or cut, as used to be done to treat a certain kind of epilepsy, the hemispheres can't communicate directly with each other. Each hemisphere controls one-half of the body and sees one-half of the visual field, but language usually exists only in one hemisphere, not both; when the corpus callosum is cut, it's almost like you have two different brains in one body, but only one of the two can talk.

Scientists have had a ball studying folks like this; it's great fun. One common experiment involved showing things designed to provoke a reaction to the right hemisphere, which usually lacks language, then asking the person why he was reacting the way he did; the left hemisphere had no clue what the right hemisphere was seeing, but the person would nevertheless offer up all kinds of stories to explain his reaction. An even better experiment involved showing different images to the two hemispheres, such as a snowbank to the right hemisphere and a chicken to the left hemisphere, and then asking the person to point with his left hand at an object relevant to the thing he was seeing. The right hemisphere controls the left hand, so the right hemisphere, which was seeing an image of a snow bank, would point to a snow shovel. The left hemisphere, which was seeing a chicken, had absolutely not the foggiest idea why he was pointing to the shovel, but when he was asked "Why did you point to a shovel?" he'd say "Well, because I see a chicken, and you need to use a shovel to clean up chicken manure."

In other words, he invented a story that was total fabrication to explain his own actions, without even being aware that he was inventing a story.

We all do this, all the time, and unless we guard against it, it can really distort our perceptions of other people. Every time we say "So-and-so did this because so and so is a ___", we're falling into this trap.

The fact is, unless we are mind readers (or unless someone actually explicitly says why he did something), our stories about other people's motivations are just that--stories. We fabricate these stories based on our own projections and our own ideas.

Worse, we're not even fair about it.

In the book How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, Thomas Gilovich talks about the self-serving nature of the stories we tell. Sociologists love this stuff, and (naturally) have done a number of experiments illustrating this, by asking people who've done something why they did it, and then asking people who are watching someone else do the exact same thing why that person did it.

Invariably, people will offer situational explanations for their own behavior--"I did it because of the situation I was in"--but will offer personal explanations for other people's behavior--"He did it because he is a worthless, good-for-nothing bastard who doesn't care about me."

For example, we've all cut someone off in traffic, and we've all seen someone cut us off in traffic. If you ask a person "Why did you just cut that guy off?" the person will probably offer you a situational explanation, like "The sun was in my eyes, and all the glare on the windshield made it impossible for me to see him." But if you ask that exact same person "Why did that driver just cut you off in traffic?" that person will probably say "Because he is a reckless, careless idiot who doesn't give a damn about anyone else on the road."

In other words, to get back to the video, people don't talk about what that other driver did, they talk about what that other driver is.

That's a dangerous road to walk down, talking about what other people are. Projections of the motivations of others can get you in trouble fast.

But we do it all the time. And it's not just with other drivers; we do it in politics, in relationships, everywhere.

"You voted for McCain because you're a religious zealot who wants to see the government overthrown and replaced with a totalitarian militant theocracy." "Oh, yeah? You voted for Obama because you're an anti-capitalist tree-hugger who wants to destroy private enterprise!" This is what happens when we think we can tell what people are by looking only at what they did, and it's an embarrassment.

Now, yes, there are right-wing religious zealots who want to overthrow the American government and replace it with a religious theocracy, and they probably did vote for McCain. And there are anti-capitalist left-wingers who want to destroy free enterprise, and they probably voted Obama. But assuming that you can peek into someone's head and ascertain their motives just from this is kinda silly. Especially when you yourself had much more rational reasons for whatever vote you cast, right?

The sun was in your eyes, but that other guy is a jerk. Same thing.

My sweetie rain_herself and I even talked about this recently. It can be very difficult to separate what a person does from what that person is even when that person is a close friend or a lover, and failing to do so can certainly add to unnecessary pain. "You don't call me because you are indifferent to me" is very different from "you don't call me because you don't like talking on the phone," and the former is much more hurtful than the latter. While it's true that a person's priorities are often reflected in their behavior, and it's also true that a person who doesn't care about you is in fact unlikely to call, there's a long leap from that to "because you didn't call, you don't care." (In fact, the train of thought that goes "A person who doesn't care about me won't call me; you are a person who doesn't call me; ergo, you don't care about me" is a problem in its own right, because it commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Devilishly slippery, this stuff is.)

And it presents itself in other ways, too. "My lover just checked out that hottie who walked into the store. That means my lover is a faithless bastard who doesn't really love me!" The stories we tell sometimes say more about our own internal fears and insecurities than about the person we're telling them about.

So, yeah. It's about what people do, not about what people are. And if you want to change what people do, the best way to do this is to keep the conversation away from what they are.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 13th, 2009 05:00 pm (UTC)
Jay Smooth is my Internet Boyfriend. We're totally going to hook up just as soon as he knows I exist! :D
Mar. 13th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
Jay Smooth's point, unfortunately, is that even when we talk about what someone did, they will turn that into a conversation about what they are -- and what we are. If I say, "Hey, that thing you said is racist," the person I'm talking to is VERY likely to respond, "I'm not a racist! YOU'RE a racist!" We can try to communicate constructively, but unfortunately, a lot of folks aren't prepared to listen to what we're actually saying. Because they're telling chicken poop stories about themselves.

This happens in relationships, too. I say, "I feel hurt when you don't return my calls for days," and my partner replies, "Baby, I love you! Don't be so insecure." Does no good to use I Statements on someone who will immediately translate them into accusations and respond accordingly.

Edited at 2009-03-13 05:40 pm (UTC)
Mar. 13th, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)
There's a step before "what they are" thoughts, and that's where the story telling comes in again; in essence, people make up a story in which a character is assigned a role ("dangerous driving asshole"), that character then performs action X which matches what real person performed; therefore the real person also has that role. Of course, many possible roles could have caused the same action ("careful attentive driver who was blinded by the sun"), but people tend to pick assign the role that justifies their own feelings and opinions.

This shows up in relationship breakups; partner A picks the worst roles possible to explain behaviours of partner B because it helps justify their anger and resentment about the breakup. As someone who's been a middleman (friends with both partners) it's very hard to recognise the person being described, at times! Not being too emotionally involved in the breakup I could easily come up with alternate stories that also fit observed behaviours.
Mar. 15th, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting observation. I like it.
Mar. 13th, 2009 06:59 pm (UTC)
very nice.
Mar. 13th, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC)
Wow, that was a really neat video -- I'm going to repost it, I think.
Mar. 13th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)
Heh, it's George Carlin all over again.

"My shit is stuff, and your stuff is shit". And it's true. We ascribe motives to ourselves that we don't to others.

"I cut that guy off because he wasn't going as fast as I wanted him to go and I judged it safe to take the chance of doing so." That, is what happens to me when I drive.
Mar. 13th, 2009 10:51 pm (UTC)
The fact is, unless we are mind readers (or unless someone actually explicitly says why he did something), our stories about other people's motivations are just that--stories.

That parenthetical bit is assuming the person involved actually knows their own reasons. As often as I don't know my own motivations for things, I imagine that there are plenty of others who likewise don't.
Mar. 15th, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC)
True, dat. Though I'd say you're probably more likely to know your motivations than I am or than anyone else is...
Jan. 10th, 2011 06:25 am (UTC)
Only if it is something a person is consciously doing, are they likely to know their own motivations. Like the example you gave of getting cut off by a driver, people "will offer personal explanations for other people's behavior."

I've known this situation where a person held on to their personal explanation so tightly, that they were unwilling to actually find out what the other person's motivation actually was. This person was blinded in their own reaction to the story they had made up. Unwilling to process the logic portion, which would show that their emotional reaction was overblown.

People can get very defensive of their stories. Using them to justify and reason away things they don't want to see or deal with in themselves. Using the story as teddy bear to protect them from the monster issue, they don't want to deal with, hiding in their own closet.
Mar. 14th, 2009 07:02 am (UTC)
Interesting. The distinction I've been making lately is sorta parallel - There's a generic person who did something viewed as inappropriate or unacceptable. This person is one of two general types; a person who performed an out of character action and recognizes a mistake, or the "kinda guy who just does that".

Without getting into motivation at ALL (because wow, is that an easy trap!) I've been making the distinction between a one-off action (we all make mistakes) or a habitual offender (someone who regularly makes mistakes and either doesn't recognize them as such or doesn't care how others perceive the action.

It came to me lately that it really doesn't matter WHY "the kinda guy who" is that type of person - the real question is, is this behavior I can tolerate in a friend? Can I afford to be involved with the kinda guy who lies a lot? Who always blames others for everything in her life she's dissatisfied with? Do I really need to decide someone is a bad, terrible person to come to the decision I can't emotionally afford them?

It's been... interesting. And it's something I'm still taking a lot of time observing; both my thoughts, and the reactions of others.
Mar. 15th, 2009 10:54 am (UTC)
"The video is by a guy who calls himself Jay Smooth. He has a Web site and a YouTube channel, and he's articulate. . ."

"and he's articulate. . ."


Mar. 15th, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
Oh, c'mon now. I love words; "articulate" is high fucking praise coming from me.

articulate site:tacit.livejournal.com
Results 1 - 10 of about 63 from tacit.livejournal.com for articulate. (0.41 seconds)

Mar. 16th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
"Articulate" is not a compliment to me. I'm goddamn eloquent. :-P
Mar. 16th, 2009 03:41 am (UTC)
I think there are really two senses of "articulate" people are likely to mean. There's the literal sense of being able to form words properly and be reasonably coherent, and then a stronger sense of being able to get across *exactly* what you mean on difficult subjects, like a really good teacher. And then there are just a lot of people who use it when they really mean eloquent.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell when someone means the second form, which really is a compliment, vs. the first, which is pretty much damning with faint praise (probably unconsciously).
Mar. 16th, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC)
Which is why I will tell the next person who calls me "articulate," "Why, yes; I am capable of speaking in clear, distinct syllables. I believe the term you are looking for is eloquent." And that's if I'm feeling polite.
Mar. 16th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
Eloquent isn't really the same thing as the stronger sense of articulate, though.

Articulate is being able to get people to understand what you mean. If you're talking about getting people to understand what you mean when you order a cup of coffee, that's damning with faint praise. If you're talking about getting people to understand intricate details of constitutional law, that's actually saying something significant.

Eloquent is being able to convince people of your position, and to get them to feel what you want them to.

Since people started talking about this with Obama (and Biden, wasn't it), Barack Obama is indeed eloquent, but how articulate he is impresses me a lot more. They do feed off each other, though; his eloquence gets people to pay attention long enough for his articulate-ness (articulation?) to get across more complicated positions than any other politician I can think of.

Granted, I realize "articulate" is pretty much verboten these days, because too many people do use it to sound surprised that a black person can actually talk coherently. I would probably lean more toward something longer, like "a good teacher".
Mar. 16th, 2009 06:20 pm (UTC)
You are simultaneously (and needlessly) fancifying and blurring the meaning of the word. ("Eloquent at ordering a cup of coffee" is also faint praise, indeed.) "Articulate" is the bare minimum you should expect from a normal person. The opposite of that is, quite literally, inarticulate.

A person who is not articulate in the way you describe-- would you say that that person is not articulate? Would you still say that they are articulate?

We don't currently have a single word that means "exceptionally articulate," and if the word "articulate" can accurately describe facility with ordering coffee and "getting people to understand intricate details of constitutional law," the word has such a broad continuum as to be virtually meaningless. Which, not coincidentally, is why I don't believe one can use it to apply to both examples. Distinguishing along the continuum requires an adjective.

As for eloquent, the ability to convince is not an essential part of the definition. You can certainly convince without being eloquent (and I am damn glad the best example is no longer in the White House). Scientific papers routinely describe things in logically bulletproof ways, and convince, but with few exceptions no one is going to call such papers eloquent. Eloquence is having a strong, expressive, and forceful command of language. That's all.

I would have articulated this more eloquently, but I'm saving my eloquence for a post. ;-)
Mar. 16th, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
I personally use the word "articulate" more in the sense that you use the word "eloquent," to describe a person who has the ability to speak in a particularly clear, insightful, compelling, effective, and moving way. So apparently, what I'm hearing from you is that I've been misusing the word for years.

In all honesty, after Id sat down and devoured all the videos on his YouTube channel (I kept clicking on them one right after the other, until I'd looked up and rather a lot of time had gone by), I was discouraged from doing vlogging of my own. Why? Because if I were to do video blogging, I'd want to be able to do so on at least the quality level that he can, and I don't think I'm up to it. I'm not as articulate--sorry, as eloquent--a speaker as he is. He has a knack for communicating ideas with clarity and effectiveness that I don't think I'd be able to match.
Mar. 16th, 2009 11:45 pm (UTC)
So apparently, what I'm hearing from you is that I've been misusing the word for years.

Not so much misusing as using the third or fourth definition of it, which is third or fourth and not first for a reason. I understand you mean no harm by it and have no ill intent in using it, but that does not change the fact that for a lot of black people, hearing them described with that word is like fingernails on a blackboard. That doesn't obligate you to do anything different, but I figured you should at least be aware of it.

Anyway-- don't let Jay Smooth's vlogging skill dissuade you. It's not a competition-- the world is big enough to accomodate his voice and yours, and I believe he has a degree in media stuff. He does have years of experience in front of a microphone, though.

I talk about what I talk about, you talk about what you talk about, and we both vary in the levels of thought we put into individual posts. But I would never blog again if I were to think of my posts as measurable on a tacit Scale of Blogworthiness.
Mar. 20th, 2009 02:47 am (UTC)
By now, you've likely seen Mr. Smooth's latest video, an interview with PBS in which he talks about what he does, why, and how.

He sometimes takes twelve hours to get a video just the way he wants it.

I'm just sayin'.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )