July 4, 2010

But We Can’t Do You Love And Rhetoric Without The Blood

Filed under: analog,interfaces,life,lunacy,mail,parenting,science,vendetta,weird,work — mhoye @ 11:09 pm

Been a while, hasn’t it? Well, I’ve been cogitating; sometimes that takes time. In particular, I might add, when people dump a dozen loosely-related ideas into your brain with no regard whatsoever for how much effort it will take you to sort them all out. If I were in a blame-shifting mood I’d be pointing at Dave, Luke, David and these dinners we periodically have, which should say I go into expecting a good meal and some stimulating conversation and leave feeling like a glutton who’s been tasered in the brain.

“Interesting” doesn’t scale without a fight, is I guess what I’m saying.

So let’s get right to the heavy stuff: let’s say, apropos of nothing, for argument’s sake, that “sin” is a explicit negative valuation of an act without immediate cost. Did I couch that in enough conditionals? Well, you’re the one reading it. Let that be a lesson to you then.

For some reason I’ve been thinking about belief, narrative and cost lately, and the idea of sins and punishment in economic terms. Not necessarily with respect to actual money, but more by borrowing the terminology of economics to frame some ideas. Some actions have costs, you know? And some of those costs aren’t obvious, or aren’t immediately accrued, but they’re nevertheless real. So let’s say, just for the sake of saying so, that social capital and political capital are real, and that to some extent you can treat them, or at least describe the space around them, a lot like regular old capital capital.

This is going to be shorter than I wanted, but I’ve been struggling to get this out of my system for weeks.

We understand this, viscerally, when we’re talking about personal debts. We get that with ideas like “playing fair” or “I cut, you choose”. We largely agree that justice worthy of the name isn’t arbitrary or capricious and that cruel and unusual punishment is bad. But there’s this whole class of acts that certain groups of people are proscribed from doing, not for any obviously consequential reason, but because for no reason anyone alive remembers, that’s a sin. Or a taboo, or proscribed, you just don’t do that.

So I’ve got this notion that the founding conceit of act thus labeled is likewise an economic one, an “externality“: a cost that is otherwise unaccounted for. In this context, a story of divine punishment for a sinful act isn’t going to be a literal occurrence any more than political capital is real capital, but in a sense it’s a price tag regardless – your act has a real cost, and in a full accounting you will be made to bear that cost. You may not accrue that cost yourself, maybe not today, and you might even come out ahead. But if everyone does it, then all this falls apart; it’s a price to avoid the perverse incentives that steer towards a “tragedy of the social commons”, for lack of a better term.

Oddly enough, to some extent a belief in the existence or agency of some final arbiter is irrelevant – it’s sufficient for a moral person to know those cost exists, whether or not they believe they will ultimately bear them. The implication being that sin can exist without religion, which is the kind of conclusion you get to reach when you’re just making up arbitrary sociocultural taxonomies on the fly.

But the cannier among you will be saying right now “who is everyone, and what is this ‘all this’ you speak of”, and my somewhat wishy-washy answer is “that depends”. If everyone-who-goes-to-church just stopped going to church on Sunday would Christianity be worse off? It’s hard to say, but the church-as-institution might. And to be clear I’m not saying that’s good, bad, relevant, indifferent or purple. I’m wondering about the things you’re just Not Allowed To Do, whether they’re proscribed by your religion or your church group or your workplace culture or the dirty looks your cats give you, and the notion that we shouldn’t just take these impositions for granted. What I’m really interested in looking at those situations through this lens and trying, at a minimum, to understand and account for real costs, of time, effort and goodwill. Mine and others’.

Have you seen Merlin Mann’s Time And Attention talk? You really should; it’s a great talk, and there’s a couple of bits in there that have been rattling around in my brain for weeks. There’s a pretty distressing number of great points in there, but there’s three I want to pull out for attention:


“If you don’t manage your time well, you won’t make great stuff. But if you don’t manage your attention well, you won’t make great stuff.”


“If I just grabbed you in the street and asked ‘what’s the most important thing in your life?’, you’d probably say your family or, your church group, or your career. Maybe your kid or your pet or whatever. And the thing is… in some part of your heart that’s absolutely true. But do you have a sense of how well your time and attention tracks to doing good stuff for that thing you say is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going? In fact, is the thing you claim is important really important? Because if a lot of people looked at where their time and attention went, the parts they do have control over, it would look like the most important thing in their life was Facebook.”

And (3):

“Saying you have more than two priorities is like saying you have more than two arms. You still only have two, but now you’re also crazy.”

You should really watch the whole thing. I’ll get back to it shortly.

Somewhat Skeptical

Maya’s learning awfully fast these days in that scary, scattershot way that kids soak up the firehose of information the world points at them every day. And apropos narrative through the terminology of economics? Children’s stories, jeebus, here we go.

We’re very clearly getting close to the point where the stories I tell Maya stop being the random noises that Dad makes before she goes to sleep and start having words and sentences and eventually morals and significance in them, so I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the lessons she’ll hopefully learn from them. They may not be exactly what it says on the box, I’ve noticed; I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how these stories look from the child’s perspective, not least from that of a child being addressed by a parent.

It’s been kind of distressing at times.

Some kids’ books are more amusingly phonetic than instructive, some others are about the equally important learning to count (and even those ones impart some notion of value in what’s described as “good” or not) but a few of I’ve pretty much decided to stop reading to Maya on account of their completely ignoring their ostensible target audience in ways that end up seeming petty, mean, weird, creepy or worse.

Two in particular: “Guess How Much I Love You” (apparently a sentimental favorite in my family) has a moral which looks, from an adult perspective, to be about telling your child how much you care about them, but if you’re in that smaller chair comes across as “Guess How Much Smaller You Are Than I Am” which when you’re trying to plant the seeds of a moral framework is not exactly on-message. The other, “Runaway Bunny” is worse: in-house we refer to it as “Guess How Fast I’ll Fucking Find You”; put yourself in that other, smaller chair and yeah, it turns out when you’re trying to get the hell away from somebody it stops being loving and heartfelt and starts being weird and aggro-stalkerish.

“You should put up with that sort of person”, as a lesson for my daughter, is simply not on. Unfortunately the alternate ending where the big bunny gets a broken nose and a restraining order doesn’t seem to be in print. Alas.

I hope I’m not the only person who thinks this, but historically when I say that I am frequently informed that, yes, I am in fact the only person who thinks that. But people are vulnerable to narrative, especially young people, especially children. Maybe I’m being paranoid and overprotective; an odd thing for somebody who’s let his one-year-old play with his electric screwdriver but skinned knees heal, you know? Some ideas are forever. And while for the most part I think that vulnerability is a feature, not a bug, I still think I should be careful. People tell each other a lot of stuff that’s dumb or false or both just ’cause it’s entertaining or dramatic, sure. But it’s also how we learn, without each of us needing to rediscover it, that fire burns, steel cuts and even if the creepy guy offers you candy you don’t get into the van. And unless you’ve heard the story before, you might not know about (you guessed it) those hidden costs.

And here we are evaluating costs again.

You don’t have to be at any lofty height before this all starts to blur together, and that’s pretty much where I am now. I’m spending a lot of time trying to figure out where my time and effort goes, where it doesn’t go, and making the costs of those tradeoffs as blindingly obvious as I can. I send a lot less email, and I’m cautious about what I do send, because there are these huge opportunity costs and externalities to imposing yourself on other people’s time. I’ve been trying to schedule short, sharp meetings with people, and ask them if they need it to book it with me. And when I go home, I go home; I lock my phone to keep myself from reflexively checking it during dinner, because email and twitter aren’t Maya and Arlene, and mostly look at work stuff until I get back to it the next day.

But mostly I’m trying to make 100% of my attention go, for real, and for real stretches of time, towards the stuff I think is actually important. And a big part of how I’m trying to do that is by doing my best to understand other people’s perspectives, to tell compelling stories about what’s important to me, and to act as though their time and effort and attention are as scarce and valuable as mine.

I’ll let you know how it works out.


  1. I’d have to agree with your general sentiment that children’s books are for the most part a huge pile of steaming dung. Almost exclusively overly sentimental drivel, with questionable morals. The one my wife and I enjoy questioning the most is “I Love You Forever” which seems to push the moral: You can move out of your parents’ house, but your Mom will hunt you down and find you even if it requires her breaking into your house in the middle of the night.

    Every once in a while though, you stumble upon a pure gem in the genre that makes you realize what children’s books should be like. For me, that book is “Who Needs Donuts” which I picked up, quite randomly, from the library last year. After reading it to my daughter a few hundred times, I find that it still resonates, and contains something new on each read.

    If you do end up picking it up, I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

    Comment by Adam — July 6, 2010 @ 10:36 am

  2. I also agree with the creepiness of Guess How Much I Love You. Aside from the disempowerment thesis – and I live in a house where four year olds are not “allowed to win” at checkers – why is there a contest going on between parent and child about love? In the house I live in, I want deep and unmeasurable love to be a fundamental. I prefer Munsch’s Smelly Socks. (The kids also register a strong vote for the Paper Bag Princess and all three of our copies are now well worn.)

    On another note, I direct you to the ethical writings of David Hume – a sarcastic but wise Scotsman in your own vein who is best known for cutting through 2000 years of crap in the study of epistemology. The more time I spend trying to help the rebuilding of war torn societies or reinforcing our own Canadian self-identity with Olympics and honours policy, the more I find myself agreeing with him that the purpose of inherited standards of right and wrong is to make society function without resorting to a contest of might.

    Comment by Darcy — July 22, 2010 @ 10:43 am

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