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May 14, 2022

Misreading intentions

Human conflict almost always starts with misreading the other’s intentions. The ability to infer intentions from behavior is a gift that comes to humans with their particular kind of sociality. We evolved to guess what the other person might be thinking. However, as it is often the case, an advanced ability comes with side effects, when it is in overdrive. Humans in general do not tolerate uncertainty very well; even less so in relational context. It is difficult to us to observe another person’s behavior and think: I do not know why she did that. I do not understand how he really feels about me. The temptation is always to create a coherent story. A very curt email means he is dismissing me. An objection means she is angry at me. Critical feedback means they are biased against me. Those kinds of explanations pop into our minds quite naturally. And once the misreading of intentions happens, every new interaction tends to reinforce the initial erroneous hypothesis, because every new interaction is colored by the initial misreading.

Anthropologists specifically train to avoid over-interpreting their subject’s behavior. They learn to assume that within a different cultural lens, the meaning of every behavior may be very different than one the researcher naturally assumes while using his or her own cultural lens. However, when people come together to work at a place like university, they do not act as anthropologists. They overestimate cultural coherence of their group, and routinely overinterpret each other’s actions. In the Academia, people get mad at each other all the time. In my humble estimate, at least 90% of these conflicts are absolutely baseless. Those involved share values and beliefs, but simply misread each other’s intentions. I also cannot help noticing, that such conflicts are more common towards the end of the Spring semester, when people are tired, and are subconsciously looking to attribute their fatigue to someone else. Their relational imagination is fried, and more generous interpretations of other people behavior is more difficult to achieve.

What helps is personal contact at the very onset of a conflict. Go to the other person as soon as possible, and talk about intentions. A face-to-face interaction involves more universal, more culturally-neutral means of communication, such as body language, facial expression, and the tone of voice. Face-to-face contact is a routine relational hygiene. Another good habit is to simply learn to suppress the over-active imagination, and ignore behaviors that may be interpreted as hostile.

It is especially damaging to assume that if you feel that someone’s behavior is offensive, it is therefore offensive. This kind of over-trusting one’s own feelings leads to disastrous consequences for all involved. Our feelings lie to us all the time, in the same way our rational minds may deceive us. To assume that you are incapable of making a mistake is a self-destructing trait. It closes the feedback loop from other people, and claims too much righteousness. People who go in that direction for a long time lose all ability to adjust, to learn, and ultimately, to relate to other people. If you think you always know what other people mean, you cannot work and live among human beings.

May 9, 2022

Parallel universes and the freedom of speech

Sci-Fi is full of stories about parallel universes. The Man in the High Castle is one of the most vivid recent examples. It shows a universe where Nazis won the WWII, and the US has been divided between Germany and Japan. Every being that has imagination can envision an alternative future. The drama created when some people sometimes are able to cross over from one world into another. I have a similar eerie feeling when I watch Russian State TV. It feels like a parallel universe, separated from our own reality. It is a world where noble Russian soldiers are fighting evil Ukrainian Nazis, saving children and elderly people. It has this weird coherence to it; it almost feels real. Even a skeptical mind, being exposed to hundreds of hours of this, will adapt, will accept the reality despite itself. That’s what humans do – they adapt, they accommodate, they find their way in any circumstance. Survival means accepting reality, or what looks like a reality.

If you read QAnon sites, you know the feeling. It feels like strangely coherent whole universe that is like ours and yet not like ours. It is a world where Trump has won the election, and a secretive cabal of shady operatives is running the country towards its ruin. These people disagree whether it is the reptiloids, or the pedophile Clintonites, or the Jews that are behind everything. But those disagreements are within the same whole self-sufficient and parallel universe. It is the universe that is impenetrable to ours, just like ours cannot be accessed from there.

In The Man in the High Castle, Nazis have found a way to penetrate into other universes, to infiltrate and poison them. Similarly, the seemingly autonomous universes have been invading our own. Russian tanks are every bit as real as the US Supreme Court’s majority or Trump presidency.

In recent decades, the magic power to imagine has been enhanced so greatly that large swaths of humanity seem to be unable to control it. Too much imagination is psychosis, where one cannot keep straight where is reality and where is the illusion. The ability to alter video, distort information, and validate falsehoods through peer communities – those tools are too dangerous to be used uncontrollably. The classic standards for freedom of speech did well, when speech meant mostly black print marks on cheap paper. We are dealing with entire vivid, emotional, shared multiplayer universes that are better than reality. I do not know if classic liberal principles such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech can survive such an assault. When Twitter kicked out Trump, they have been criticized from the Left and from the Right, and by libertarians of all shades. But perhaps they were the first to understand the new reality we are living with. Or, to be exact, with multiple realities.

I have no answer, and a part of me protests censorship. Yet, it would be foolish to ignore the new danger of holistic fictionary worlds invading us again and again. At the very least, we need a robust debate on how to regulate tools that potentially can lead to collective psychosis.

May 2, 2022

This war is against the future

My heart goes out to Ukraine, but I worry more about Russia. While Ukrainians undergo tremendous destruction and human suffering, they are fighting for their future. Their future looks bright. The world is already thinking about restoring their cities. Ukrainians have fortified their national identity and affirmed their democratic choice. They may even overcome corruption than plagued their country for decades. Russia is fighting for its past, or for a version of the past that never existed. Their remaining institutions of democracy have been extinguished, free press crushed, and their minds are poisoned by propaganda. The Russian economy will decline. Most strikingly, Russian public space contains no conversation about the future. How do they all think it is going to turn out? How the fighting against the entire world will improve their lives? No one wants to think about it, instead regurgitating clichés about the glorious past and paranoid delusions about a global anti-Russian conspiracy. The country literally obliterated its own future – first in their heads, and then in reality.

Russia has lost the war on February 24, the day it was started. No matter what happens on the battlefield, an aggressor will never stop being called an aggressor. While there are more and less catastrophic and shameful ways of getting out of this predicament, escaping a harsh moral judgement of future generations is not one of them. Those who think that the future is not real do not know what they are talking about. The future is already here. It is the only real beacon that allows us to have a direction. A racist has no future. There is no plausible vision of a world where White people continue to dominate all others and command most benefits. A multiculturalist has a vision of the future, where all races and ethic groups co-exist without losing the ability to choose their identities. One can almost see it; this future makes sense. The racist future can only exist as an antiutopian image, where things did not go well for the world. Similarly, Russian and any other radical nationalists can construct no plausible future. It is just very hard to imagine where one nation is thriving, and everyone else is in decline. It is very hard to imagine the corrupt dictatorship to continue its existence in perpetuity.

Putin and his cronies know that they live on borrowed time. They only vision is of a personal future. Yet personal futures all end up with the same – death. Only collective future has a long-term motivating power. To live without some image of a better world is intolerable. This is why apocalyptic nightmares are so strong. Death of the world somehow compensate for the despair of the futureless world. Russian state TV has been seriously discussing the prospects of a nuclear war. It is because they cannot find themselves in any positive future.