‘About’ Isn’t About You

Imagine you told people:

  1. What looks like the sky above is actually the roof of a cave, and trees hold it up.
  2. The food we eat doesn’t give us nutrition; we get nutrition by rubbing rocks.
  3. The reason we wear clothes isn’t for modesty or protection from weather, but instead to keep cave frogs from jumping on our skin.

Imagine that you offered plausible evidence for these claims. But imagine further that people mostly took your claims as personal accusations, and responded defensively:

“Don’t look at me. I’ve always been a big supporter of trees, I’ve always warned against the dangers of frogs, and I make sure to rub rocks regularly.”

Other than being defensive, however, people showed little interest in these revelations. How would that make you feel?

That is how I feel about typical responses to my saying politics isn’t about policy, medicine isn’t about health, charity isn’t about helping, etc. People usually focus on proving that even if I’m right about others, they are the rare exceptions. They offer specific evidence on their personal behavior to prove that for them politics is about policy, medicine is about health, charity is about helping, etc. But aside from that, they show little interest in what such hypotheses might imply about the world in which they live. (They are, however, often eager to point out that I may have illicit motivations for pointing all this out.)

To which I respond: really, “X is not about Y” is not about you. Yes, your forager ancestors were hyper-sensitive to being singled out by public accusations of norm violations, and in fact much of our reasoning and story abilities may have evolved to help us defend against such accusations, and to make such accusations against others. So yes your instincts naturally push you to react this way.

But I’m talking about ways that we all violate the norms to which we all give lip service. I’m not trying to shame some of us, or even all of us, into trying harder to live up to our professed ideals. I’m focused first and foremost on making sense of our world. If I really believed that the sky might really be the roof of a cave held up by trees, or that we wear clothes to protect against frogs, I wouldn’t focus first on making sure that I was very publicly pro-tree and anti-frog; I’d instead ask what else I must rethink, given such revelations.

Once we better understand the basics of what we are doing in areas like policy, medicine, charity, etc. then we might start to ask if we should be doing more or less of those things, and if invoking norms, and shaming norm violators, will help or hurt on net. But first someone needs to figure out the basics of what we are doing in these areas of life. I implore some of you to join me in this noble quest.

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