AN AFTERNOON AT THE BEACH
My aunt B. was an inflexible, principled and fearless woman. To exist in accordance with the terms of her moral standard was an exacting challenge (her stern look and sharp words were sure to let me know when I fell short of my duty and promise). And precisely because of this steeliness of temper, she was the sort of individuals about whom you can truthfully state that not having a chance to know and interact with them represents genuine and irreplaceable loss.
She often took my sister and I to the beach when I was a child, and it was on one of these occasion (I believe this happened around 1984) that I had one of the most instructive experiences in my life.
It was a beautiful July afternoon and the narrow urban beach where we went was crowded. The sea was cold and dirty, but I still had a fun time.
As the afternoon turned golden, my aunt told my sister and I that it was time to return, we would still have to take train back to Lisbon, where we lived at the time, and she wanted to be back at daytime still.
We reluctantly picked up our things and started our walk back to the train station, which wasn’t far. On our way there, our aunt bought us some ice cream on a beach hut and we then strolled leisurely and contented.
To get to the train station, we had to go through a sort of an underpass under the road that meanders along the coast from Lisbon to Cascais. And when we got there, as we turned and face the ramp that led to the underpass, we saw a crowd looking down. At the bottom of the ramp, a group of four men were merciless beating another man, kicking and punching him, while dozens of onlookers gazed with that amalgam of fear and fascination that the sight of violence generates in the spirits of those unused to it. Nobody intervened. The guy getting beaten was becoming bloodied, desperately crying for mercy.
Without a second of hesitation, my aunt instructed my sister to hold my hand and wait for her there. She then walked down the ramp, screaming at the men, ordering them to stop, berating them for their cowardness and cruelty. Simultaneously, she looked up at the crowd that watched passively (if it was today I’m sure they would be filming) and asked the men why were they standing there, without doing anything to put an end to such brutality…
The guys that were fighting were taken aback by my aunt’s intervention and one of them, pulling back from the fray, excused himself, saying the guy they were beating was a thief and had stolen his wallet.
Apparently, they were ice-cream vendors, a common fixture of those beaches, constantly peddling ice cream up and down the sand, and the alleged thief, one of the thousands of heroin addicts that festered in the Lisbon metropolitan area in the 80s, had taken the opportunity while the ice cream vendor was having a beer in one of the beach bars to reach out inside his empty ice cream box and steal the bag where he kept the money. He managed to get away, but one way or the other he ended up being spotted and the guy that got robbed and his friends caught up with him on the underpass.
My aunt’s intervention diffused the situation, the junkie returned the money and limped away, scared and dented. The other men sort of apologised to my aunt and went on their way.
The crowd dispersed, but I’ll always remember the surprising looks those men and women gave my aunt as they walked by us. A single old lady in flip flops came and congratulate her. The rest seemed almost upset.
At the time I judged their chilly countenances were due to the fact that my aunt had stopped the afternoon’s entertainment. It took me a few years to understand that their cold expressions were actually due to the embarrassment my aunt had made them feel. By doing what was right and daring to put an end to the situation, my aunt made it clear to the crowd that they had been accomplices of an evil that it was in their power to interrupt, if only they had been braver.
For some reason, as I was listening to one of Scott Adams chats, I remembered this story.
In his inimitable cadence, Scott goes through some ideas that my travels with my aunt had already shaped in me.
Below, I’ll try convey some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years through the filter of Scott’s “framework”, and during the journey it will hopefully become clear why his words made me remember my aunt.
ARE YOU THE PERSON YOU THINK TOU ARE? IT IS PERHAPS TIME TO DECONSTRUCT AND REBUILD
- Something happens (doesn’t really matter what)…
- The arbiters of authority (i.e. those with a public voice – media, politicians, public intellectuals, entertainers) frame the event in question in whatever way they deem appropriate, placing it within certain linguistic, conceptual, historical and psychological boundaries.
- Because you become aware of the events through those agents, you register and perceive whatever happened within that framework.
- The framework prompts you to take a certain side, but unattentively you quickly (too quickly) form a position within the strict confines of dichotomy (there’s usually no more nuance than that) that was established and is inherent to the framework.
- The implication of this intellectual trap is that your opinion is not strictly speaking about the event, but rather about the intellectual and cultural options made available to you by the framework – the framework that someone else set up.
This framework may not necessarily be the most helpful, productive or healthy way to approach the subject. The line they draw in the sand may actually divide groups that should be united.
By enclosing the conversation within the boundaries of this externally concocted framework, relevant and insightful thoughts and visions shall be lost.
Thinking about human affairs is not just forming an opinion. Awareness and adjustment of the frame of reference is an essential a priori task.
THE GEORGE FLOYD AFFAIR
- George Floyd dies while being pinned to the ground by a policeman.
- The media and pundits, all across the political spectrum, immediately frame the discussion as a race issue, highlighting the ethnicity of the victim and the officer, some claiming this was a racially motivated assassination and that it provides solid evidence of toxic and systemic and historical racism within American society.
- You can accept that conclusion or dispute it (that is irrelevant in this context), but your analysis of the event has already been funnelled into a certain topical landscape and your field of thought narrowed.
The discussion will now occur on that specific cultural battleground, obfuscating all other facets of the event that could engender (potentially more positive) alternative outcomes.
- Discussion about the subject occurs and each individual enters the conversation on the side of accepting the event constitutes, or not, evidence of pervasive racism.
Arguments are mobilized, statistics, anecdotal evidence, attitudes, personal stories, etc. But speech necessarily hovers over the issue that constitutes the framework for debate.
- The public, in the meantime, is not discussing the drugs epidemic (Floyd was apparently under the influence of methamphetamines and fentanyl), lack of police leadership (the cop apparently had a string of complaints for this sort of behaviour and was still out on the streets doing police work), inadequate funding for the police department (and therefore inadequate training for those police officers, which can potentially make them overreact to potential threats), citizens passivity (bystanders were filming, but nobody was able to intervene in any meaningful way) and so on and so forth.
WHO CONTROLS THE DISCOURSE? WHY ARE THEY ACTING?
The entity that framed the discussion, establishes the line of division. Systemic racism exists or not?
And what is the intent of the framers of the discussion?
There are a number of reasons we can think of for those that frame public discourse to deliberate and decide on the particular set of assumptions and references they will be using to approach a certain issue or event (scary thoughts about the subject can be found on this Rod Dreher essay).
What are these reasons? Precisely the same that act upon us as we go about our everyday lives when it is our turn to sketch that same type of operational and communicational framework in relation to any given set of circumstances or topics of interest. The public relevance of our efforts is obviously insignificant, but the guiding motivators are the same for us and for cultural and political influencers:
- Belief (ideology, religious, etc.)
- Cultural habit
- Past experiences (potentially distorting)
- Intellectual laziness.
REMOVE YOURSELF FROM THE CONCEPTUAL PRISON
First, and most importantly, you need to feel comfortable with the feeling that you need time to think about the subject
If necessary, withhold judgment before you make any pronouncement. No matter how much you are pressured to do so.
And how should you use the time you’ll invest by having the intelectual humility of not having an opinion from the start?
It is important to make an effort to become aware of the framework that was set up for discussion.
But for that, you need to understand how to identify the frame of reference.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a set of ideas, conditions, or assumptions that determine how something will be approached, perceived, or understood”.
But here’s a tip: it is more useful to understand the concept of framework under the technical umbrella of software design.
A software framework provides the foundation over which developers build their programs. This technical framework includes predefined routines and functions that are used to process and manage input, and interact with hardware, systems and software.
And the goal of using a framework is simple: to streamline the development process, avoiding the necessity of constantly creating from scratch tools that someone else, for their own end, already developed.
The same logic applies to human affairs issues and events being discussed in the public arena. And there lies the danger.
The framework references ideas and conclusions that someone else thought of before, and thus it will save you from the strenuous and time-consuming effort of trying to obtain awareness and reach conclusions about something on your own.
Why waste time if someone else already thought things through for you?
THE POSITION IS NOT THE FRAMEWORK
The statement by a journalist or commentator that the killing of George Floyd is evidence or symptom of systemic racism does not constitute the framework.
The framework here is actually the insistence on approaching the event, right from the start, from the lenses of race, disregarding all other facets of the complex human interactions on display.
You can agree or disagree with statement above (the position), but you are being forced to consider the event using the same lenses of the individual that set the frame of reference.
YOU WANT TO BREAK FREE?
IF SO, ARE YOU READY AND WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE?
It was at this point that I remembered that July afternoon, back in 1984.
Are you willing to risk embarrassing others – and thus suffer the social penalty – by evidencing their shortcomings?
Once you break free, and as soon as you voice your thoughts, there will be a price to pay. Count on it. The crowd will give you the same looks my aunt got that afternoon.
But if you still want to break free, here’s how you go about it…
HOW CAN YOU ESCAPE FROM THE PRISON OF ILUSION?
Make an effort to observe, listen and experience with the “sound off”, as if scanning footage of a natural event.
Only technical and dispassionate observations are welcome, and even those only after your first contact with the “evidence”. Try to absorb the objective facts and understand the mechanics of whatever moving parts are at play.
Make an effort to consider what is missing in the picture and, yes, assume you are missing something.
Even an image or a video, those powerful and misleading mediums, are mere snippets of reality. You cannot assume that you were put in a position to know everything that is relevant from whatever images you were made privy to and that causal relationships can be established on that basis of (think about the events in your life and how little you were aware of as certain dramatic circumstances were unfolding with you at center stage, how much you didn’t know about others, about what was happening in the other room or in other people’s minds).
In a nutshell, consider what you don’t know and its relevance.
Make an effort to distance yourself from your own bias.
Again, review the matter as if you were observing a natural phenomenon. Strip yourself from ego, cultural reference and pre-packaged thoughts. Try to see things for what they are.
Describe to yourself the interactions. Remember Carl L. Becker‘s definition of history, “(…) the memory of things said and done.”
Listen to what is being said and observe what is being done. Ponder what is being kept silenced but can be inferred.
And yes, tap into your intuition.
Invert the situation and the position of the characters, and check your feelings.
Make an effort to establish your own frame of reference.
Once you review the phenomenon, independently from someone else and as removed as possible from your own bias, ask yourself this very simple question:
What is this all about?
Once you’ve answered that question and thus confidently set your own frame of reference, then you can add layers of knowledge (seek answers for relevant questions), cultural information and third-party input (yes, listen to what others have to say), in order to formulate an informed position about the subject.
Once you have your own thoughts about the matter, it is time to open the floodgates…
Confront your framework with the one being presented by authority figures.
You shouldn’t even care about the position being adopted by others. Just assess clearly what is the frame of reference they are considering (and thus imposing).
Scan the strengths, weaknesses, bias of both frames of references: yours and theirs.
Glaring bias from the “public framework”, if in existence, will inevitably stand out.
If your observation did not lead you into the frame of reference that you now discover is being imposed upon the public, the fallacies and bias that mar it will be easily identifiable.
However, please note that these fallacies and prejudices, once you digest the public discussion, can be shown to be present in your own efforts. In which case you have failed and lessons should be learned…
The outlined process is critical for alternatural thinking!
As Pat MacNamara would say:
MAKE IT HABITUAL!