Lost in the Crowd

I have a definite dose of the cynicisms at the moment.

The whole “post-truth”, “alternative facts” nonsense could very well have something to do with it. In some ways, I feel like this is a predictable result of swinging too far in the post-modernist “truth is relative”, “my interpretation is [just as/more] important than your intentions” school of thought.

The trouble is that reality is nuanced. I’d like to be able to make a blanket statement that this perspective is wrong, but that falls into the same trap of over-simplifying reality to save having to engage in critical thought.

When it comes to the “meaning” behind a piece of art—be it a novel, film, painting, sculpture, or whatever else—or a statement that someone has made (say, a political speech for example), it is important to recognise that different people will have different reactions to it. Everyone brings their own opinions, history, understanding, and perspectives to bear when they take in something. That’s why things like innuendoes or inside jokes work; some people will interpret them differently than others. And (assuming people of generally sound mind), multiple interpretations are valid.

As an example, a few years ago there was some debate about censoring the “n-word” in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—what was considered acceptable parlance has changed, and a modern reader likely brings additional baggage. I don’t have a strong inclination one way or the other (as a relative outsider), but I do think it’s an important discussion to have. Values dissonance can have quite an impact on how one views a story/character. A Shakespearean character who spouts “zounds!” and the like comes across to modern readers as quaint, when for the time that may have been considered offensive language.

Not everything is this open to interpretation, however. You may be able to say anything with statistics, but you cannot change the underlying data. Some things are true, some things are false, and some things are ineffable.

I don’t know any politicians personally, so it would be extremely arrogant of me to make statements about their beliefs or attitudes. Recent experience has shown me that in any large group of people, there can be vast differences in attitude towards an issue, even among those who take the same “side”.

That said, I find the recent actions of certain newly-minted state leaders to be very worrying. They may be done with good intentions towards improving the lives of their citizens, but they seem to be giving entirely the wrong impression in terms of being confrontational, alienating, and divisive; emboldening to bigots both domestic and foreign.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has been posting interesting explanations of the negotiation and persuasion tactics behind certain decisions, and recently pointed out that—by pushing lots of controversial things through in a short space of time—one can undermine strong protests about any of them (as the opponents have too many things to complain about). Like John Key and flags, however, I’m left wondering what else has gone on that’s been overlooked in the rush.

We are in for interesting times. Kia kaha.

Crime and Punishment

I was shown an interesting blog article talking about the Game of Thrones tv series, and the conflicting drives (in the audience) of empathy and vengeance. You can read it here, but in summary it was addressing the way characters do horrible things, so we want them to be punished, but then get penalised brutally, so we feel bad for them.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not a fan of GoT—it’s too … intense … for my tastes1. Given the popularity of revenge-based stories throughout history (as in, they usually inspire catharsis, not ambivalence), I suspect the makers of the show are trying to portray the acts of retribution in such a way as to emphasise their brutality and engender empathy in the audience. It would certainly fit with the theme of “everyone is equally nasty (and those that aren’t tend to get killed off quickly)”.

It does raise an interesting thought, though. When we see another human suffering, we feel sympathy. If we see someone wronged, we feel anger: we want justice. But what do we mean by “justice”? Sure, revenge is viscerally satisfying, but only if we dissociate from the other party (usually either through seeing them as somehow inhuman—monstrously evil and unredeemable—or by otherwise distancing them—they are from a rival clan/group).

Many stories of vengeance also convey the idea of “‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind”. Our desire for punishment can be defused by seeing the humanity of the perpetrator. Some political parties like to focus on “tougher sentences for crime” as though it would help, but evidence suggests it does not: likelihood of punishment (“Will I get caught?”) matters more than severity of punishment in deterring lawbreaking.

This is all focusing on the penalties of wrongdoing, however (whether via an individual avenger, or state sanctions). And while the presence of these can mitigate our sense of injustice, I do wonder if they are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures.

Perhaps the way to make the world a more just place would be to try and ensure there were no benefits to breaking the rules.

But we could go further. It’s also known that people are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to gain a bonus. So maybe the real problem (and the real injustice) is that following the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.


1 I do know enough bits and pieces of history to recognise the reality of the political machinations; it’s been said2 that democracy doesn’t guarantee you the best ruler, but allows you to change them without bloodshed. It’s worth remembering. We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, a new sultan would have his extended family killed off to prevent the possibility of civil war over heirship.

2 I seem to recall a specific quote along these lines, but I cannot remember the wording, or who said it. If anyone does know, please enlighten me!

Might Be?

It’s comforting to think that we live in a fairly egalitarian society, where we have advanced beyond “primitive” concepts like “Might Makes Right“.

But have we?

Allow me to present an example. The other day, I was waiting to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing. Weighing up whether to step out, I (wisely) chose to wait and see if the approaching car was planning to stop for me or not. As they breezed past, and I internally grumbled about right-of-way, the following occurred to me.

According to the road rules, the car should have given way. Were I to step forward with that expectation, they would certainly try to stop in time. If they hit me, they would likely bear the brunt of any legal censure, while I would be told to be more careful.

Assuming I was still around to be told.

Various pieces of legislation exist to empower the “little guy”—the one on the wrong side of any disagreement where “might* makes right” could apply. And this is fair enough: if someone is correct, they shouldn’t need to coerce others to agree; if someone is wrong, they shouldn’t win an argument.

The trouble is that these rules and laws work more as a proclamation. Pragmatically, they have only a limited effect. Thanks to the rules, cars will occasionally stop to let me cross the road. But if they don’t, there’s generally no recourse. In theory I could note number-plates and pursue legal action, but it would likely be a long hard slog with little or no reward. So a driver is free from reprisal unless they actually run someone over. However, even in this case, there’s still an advantage to being the “mighty” one—they get fined, or maybe even sent to jail, some weeks or months after the event. The pedestrian gets injured immediately.

Might still makes right in some situations. But I don’t see any practical way around that, so having rules to say “this is the way things should be” is the next best thing.

And this musing distracted me from getting grumpy about inconsiderate drivers, so there’s that too. 🙂


* “Might” doesn’t necessarily mean physical strength. The concept could apply anywhere that one party is able to intimidate another party into submission, whether that is through strength, size, majority (outnumbering the other party), intelligence (ever see someone beaten down with complex rhetoric?), status (holding greater authority), etc.

The Marginal Myth

I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about how the world works and what one must do in order to succeed. It’s become a source of minor frustration that much of this advice (though likely effective) comes from those whom I would not wish to emulate.

Put simply, the modern world rewards effort, but also ruthlessness. As the saying goes, “Nice guys finish last”.

People are catching on to the fact that the world is not a meritocracy—your circumstances make a huge difference both to what opportunities you receive, and your ability to act on them—but what I’m calling the Marginal Myth seems to be either unrecognised, or actively ignored (as with many other uncomfortable truths).

The Marginal Myth comes from the common practise of examining the “margins” of a situation in order to streamline (e.g. being able to produce goods faster and/or more cheaply).

“But wait!” you say, “That’s not a myth; it works!” And you’d be right. It’s more insidious and subtle than that: the myth is that this approach is always worth taking.

To cite another saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a thumb nail”. So, when times are tough, people get bogged down in trying to work out where they can “economise”; governments speak of “belt-tightening”; a lot of emphasis is placed on “the bottom line”. We trim and squeeze the margins further and further, our blinkered focus not seeing the other drawbacks that don’t directly affect the magic number.

Using the example of a soda-making factory: profit margins are being squeezed by their competitors, so they have to economise. Various tweaks are made to the bottling process, after which they find to their delight that they can save a few cents a bottle. A seemingly trivial amount, but given the volume they produce it has a significant effect. Hands are shaken, new instructions given to workers on the floor, and the bigwigs head out for a celebratory round of golf. But…

  • Maybe there isn’t time to properly clean the machines between batches, leading to build-up of syrupy residue which attracts insects, leading to contamination of the product.
  • Maybe the cheaper supplier of ingredients is farming them unsustainably, creating environmental problems due to deforestation or use of pesticides.
  • Maybe making the plastic bottles slightly thinner leads to increased leaks, causing wasted and unsold product, and frustrating retailers.
  • Maybe no-one’s properly checking the bottles before they get boxed up anymore. Occasionally, one has the wrong label, or the label upside-down, or just skewed/misprinted. No disaster, but customers start having subconscious thought of declining quality and are more likely to try a different brand if it catches their eye.

And so on. Okay, I’m presenting worst-case scenarios here, but the thing about “belt-tightening” is that it almost invariably happens again. Whether because other economic pressures arise, or because some board-member who doesn’t know the factory’s address, let alone having ever visited, gets excited at the improvement and thinks if they do a bit more he can add a couple of feet to his yacht.

Easy changes are made, and everyone’s okay with that. All seems well. Further changes are made. People on the ground are under more pressure than before, but once they get used to it, everything will settle down again, right? When the next change happens, they suddenly realise things didn’t settle down again. Now they aren’t getting a pay rise for this year. Still, not a problem, right*? Next time, more drastic cuts are required. People may accept reduced hours/pay because the alternative is redundancy. Either way, there are (on average) less staff on the factory floor. Compromises get made. Mistakes creep in.

We’re viewing this as a quantitative adjustment—changes made cause numbers to be different—but at some, not necessarily predictable, point in the process, a qualitative shift can happen. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And it’s all driven by competition: the incredible, ephemeral “market” that makes companies and governments march to its drum**. It’s a commons dilemma where too many are placing no value on the long-term good.

There’s a story about a village that decided to hold a great celebration. Everyone in town was asked to contribute a bottle of wine into the vast barrel placed in the square, and that night there would be revels aplenty. But the blacksmith thought to himself, “I don’t want to pay for a bottle of wine, but if I add a bottle of water, there’s so much wine, no-one will notice”, so he did. Many others had similar thoughts, so that evening, when the mayor—with great ceremony—poured the first flagon, only water came out. All went home, chastened, the celebration cancelled.

Maybe we need to hold our glasses up to the light.


* People are less likely to complain at missing out on a bonus (pay rise) than suffering a penalty (pay cut), not realising that it’s effectively a pay cut given the likely increase in the cost of living (due to inflation and suchlike).

** There’s a lot of other issues I have with being driven by “the market”, but that will have to wait for later posts.

1000 Words, part 2

Part 1.

So far in pondering the nuances and consequences of the “Equality vs. Justice” image I’ve been focused on the people and their ability to succeed. The other type of consideration the nature of their goal(s).

What are they trying to see?

Despite the stylised, cartoony nature of the image, the background appears to be an actual photograph (albeit a very fuzzy one) of a baseball game. So, the goal of the three people relates to entertainment*. My intuition is that any measures to improve equality (of opportunity) should be prioritised on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—in other words, essentials before luxuries.

Why is there a fence in their way?

The obstacle in this case is an artificial one; someone has intentionally aimed to restrict their access to their goal (the baseball game). The implication is that these people are outside the stadium, but still want to see the game. The fence has been constructed for financial benefit (you have to buy a ticket to get in). Some people might construe this scenario as a form of piracy (enjoying content without paying for it). Regardless of the specific legal ramifications, I would argue that there’s very little (if any) moral transgression here, for the following reasons:

  • They’re not making money from it
  • Getting tickets may have been impossible, either because they couldn’t afford them, or the game may have sold out
  • There’s still an incentive to buy tickets—more comfortable, closer to the action, better view, etc.

The stadium owners may actually like having (small numbers of) fans able to watch like this, as it keeps them enthused about the “product” (baseball), and encourages thoughts like “one day, I’ll be able to get a front-row seat!”. It costs the owners very little, and helps out the disadvantaged.

What if the goal was negative?

For the sake of argument, maybe instead of fans watching a game, this is spies from a rival team trying to see a closed practice session. This flips the desired outcome on its head—now the issue is do you take away their boxes to prevent them seeing? This will work for the medium-height person, but the tallest and shortest people will be penalised ineffectively and unnecessarily (respectively). Much better to make the fence taller.

(Analogously, locking your door is a sensible move to reduce the risk of being burgled. It won’t stop a determined thief, but will deter an opportunist. And there are those who wouldn’t think of burglary regardless).

Alas, the real world is seldom simple, and raising the fence would negatively affect the poorer fans, which goes against the very idea of improving equity. Few things are clear-cut, black-and-white, with obvious solutions. More often, we need to take the time to weigh up pros and cons, risks and rewards.

(And in case my opinion’s not obvious: better to lock your door when you go out, but don’t worry too much about people watching sport over the fence.)


* One could contrive other, more vital, reasons for them to want to watch the game, but they would be contrived. 😉

1000 Words, part 1

There’s a picture entitled something like “Equality vs. Justice” that’s cropped up a lot on various sites. I haven’t linked it, because I don’t know the original source, but if you google that phrase you’ll likely find plenty of examples of it.

While pictures may be worth a thousand words, I’ll try to describe the gist in fewer: Three figures—one tall, one short, one average height—are trying to see over a fence to watch a game. In the first panel, labelled “Equality”, each has a box to stand on, but the shortest figure still cannot see over the fence. In the second panel, labelled “Justice” (or, in some versions, “Equity”), the shortest figure has two boxes and is now able to see, and the tallest figure has no box but can still see.

Something not conveyed by the “picture worth a thousand words” adage, though, is that there may be details or implications of a picture that are not apparent. For example, imagine a photograph of two men in suits shaking hands at a press conference; it can take on quite a different meaning and impact depending on who they are and why they are shaking hands. If it represents a peace treaty between your country and its neighbour, for example, it will likely provoke stronger emotions than if it represents a merger agreement between two foreign companies.

The equality/justice picture is cartoony and stylised—the importance is not who these people are*, but in their allegorical value. There are still some points to be considered, however.

Why the height differences?

Are they adult (tall), teen (medium), and child (short); or all adults? Essentially, are the differences between them temporary or permanent; a consequence of age, or genetics? If we wait long enough, will this problem resolve itself?

How were the boxes shifted?

Even if everyone agrees that there’s enough to go around, and the problem could be solved by redistribution, the manner of the solution still matters. Taking from the rich and giving to the poor can provoke feelings of resentment on the one hand, and inferiority on the other. There needs to be a conceptual shift as well—recognising that the inequality is not because the “haves” are inherently better or more worthy than the “have-nots”. People’s intrinsic value needs to be acknowledged as distinct from an assessment of their circumstances**.

More to come next time.


* They appear to be male Caucasians, but this is probably an artifact of the norms of the creator rather than any meaningful choice. Varying the group by gender or ethnicity might have raised unfortunate implications.

** If someone is of the opinion that someone’s value is entirely bound up in their circumstance, then they will disagree on this point. However, I don’t believe any rational people will hold that extreme an opinion, as that’s leading toward the unpalatable side of eugenics.