Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Special Monkeys or Failed Monkeys?

The thing that disappoints me the most about my own nerdy subculture is a specific form of self-blindness (hypocrisy).

We "special monkeys" get a lot of our sense of status from our abstract cognitive capacities. These very capacities, of course, may also be seen as major social deficits. As David Foster Wallace famously put it:

...the other children's punishment of the SNOOTlet [Wallace's term for a "precocious" speaker of Standard Written English] is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. They're learning about Discourse Communities. Kids learn this stuff not in English or Social Studies but on the playground and at lunch and on the bus. When his peers are giving the SNOOTlet monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there's serious learning going on ... for everyone except the little SNOOT, who in fact is being punished for precisely his failure to learn. What neither he nor his teacher realizes is that the SNOOTlet is deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it's these abilities that are really required for "peer rapport," which is just a fancy Elementary-Ed term for being accepted by the most important Group in the little kid's life. [Bolded emphasis mine. References omitted.]

As nerds, we must realize that we are, at some level, failed human beings - according to the values and standards of the vast majority of humankind.

At our best, our special-monkey cognitive capacities let us see our own species from a more abstract, impersonal perspective than is generally possible for the regular monkeys. Even if this doesn't help us design better systems for monkey living, at least it helps us to have more compassion for the other monkeys (and ourselves).

At our worst, we attempt to flip it around and define our own freakish, mutant nonsocial cognitive capacity as REALLY AND TRULY HUMAN, making the rest of the monkeys out to be less than human. By so defining them, we create a comforting myth of struggle and can justify (and even happily take part in causing) the suffering of the regular monkeys. This is often true even for those of us who define ACTUAL monkeys (and chickens and cows and octopuses and salamanders) as worthy of moral consideration, in the sense that their suffering is bad.

If we special monkeys are to advance the values that our unusual cognitive capacities help us perceive - impersonal values, often opposed to regular human values as revealed by human behavior - then we must get better at seeing our own monkey nature. Specifically, we must learn that the struggle between the special monkeys and the regular monkeys is a dangerous (though evolutionarily beneficial) monkey illusion. And we must become aware that those in the regular monkey "out group," while they may not score as high as us on special monkey tests, are no less worthy of moral consideration than ourselves - in the sense that their suffering matters.


  1. Am I alone in not getting what the point of this is?

  2. @Constant: Definitely not. I'm not sure why children sometimes punishing a certain form of behaviour is taken as proof that said behaviour is inefficient. Or whatever the message is.

  3. I definitely do get it. It's a call for humility and avoiding self-congratulation. I think I'm talking about something similiar on my own blog at the moment:


  4. I once knew a pessimist who believed that everyone was roughly as smart as he was, and therefore, must have reached the exact same conclusions about life, the universe, and everything that he did. Because of this, he believed that everyone else secretly hated life and humanity to the same degree that he did and they were all just lying hypocrites in denial.

    He was not pleasant to be around. So it's probably possible to go too far in the other direction.

  5. Am I alone in not getting what the point of this is?

    Ha ha - I thought there was about an even chance of that. Evidence that I shouldn't try to write while sober!

    doubleourefforts, I don't think the children are "correct" in that the little SNOOTlets "deserve" their social punishment. I don't think any of us do. What DFW is doing is showing us that the social thing that we are bad at is a real domain, a real, valuable skill set, much more valuable than standard grammar and such things, and that we nerds have to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to redefine our social failings as virtues. I'm not actually sure how we'd go about properly valuing social skills versus logic, physics, grammar, etc., once freed from the sour grapes thing.

    Karl, yes, humility is a huge part of it. I've been thinking a lot about Ilya Zhitomirskiy's suicide, and of course I talk all the time about how the threat of social death causes suicide. Precocious children often get access to status boosts early (contests and stuff), and it's like crack to us more than to healthy children because we sorely missed the benefits of regular social belonging. But early high status makes humility hard to attain, and makes the likely social fall all the steeper.

    Crick, absolutely you can go in the other direction. We often assume the worst of ourselves on very flimsy evidence specifically because we know we edit our experiences in self-flattering ways (see "Self-Poisoning of the Mind" by Jon Elster.

  6. Oh yeah. He considered any attempt to dispute his pessimist views confirmation that he was right, because his opponents were trying to justify their insecurities.

    Meanwhile, his attempts to justify his views about the unreality of love, happiness, pleasur-as-more-than-relief-from-pain, and the reality of an evil God were exempt from such criticism, because he clearly wouldn't want to believe the worst about everyone and everything.

    Counterwishful thinking, eh? I've caught myself engaging in it in my more depressive moments(read:most of the time lately). So nice to know there's a term for it. There are so many optimism biases out there that we tend to forget that a few pessimism biases exist.

  7. Values? What a bunch of rubbish. Might makes right, end of discussion.

  8. "we must realize that we are, at some level, failed human beings"

    This is why you are suicidal, Sister Y, and I am not. I am, in no sense whatsoever, a failed human being.

    (And what's up with the "we"?)

  9. Bo Dawg - how could I have forgotten? The moral is the practical . . . the moral is the practical . . .

    Anonymous - the internet crackpot in me wonders why someone who genuinely felt my crackpottery DIDN'T apply to him/her personally would feel the need to so respond to it.

  10. I'm right on the verge of coining some clever aphorism about the phrase "failed human being" but I can't quite manage it.

    Something along the lines of "A failed human being is a sucessful_____"

  11. "A failed human being is a successful _____"


  12. My boyfriend sent me this, which I think is relevant.

    My response: once you realize we are evolution's monsters and there's no god to justify everything, how can you go on breeding more of us suffering monsters?

    You deify humanity and make humanity, in some kind of idealized abstract, the Ultimate End.

  13. Or one can find succor in the comforting myth that there are right, correct, true answers to one's moral concerns.

  14. "I'm not actually sure how we'd go about properly valuing social skills versus logic, physics, grammar, etc., once freed from the sour grapes thing."

    While the ability/willingness/desire to participate in antisocial group-aggression, thereby deflecting it away from oneself, like the children in the example, might be a useful skill to have, I would rank it very low indeed on my list of valuable things in the moral sense. In that regard I consider it a lot better to be the singled-out victim, than one of the offenders, which would be all the more reason against humility and for considering oneself above the stupid masses.
    It might make one a failed utility-optimizer, but it certainly doesn't make one a failed human being according to what I value in human beings.
    Of course it is also possible to have social skills AND not be an asshole at the same time ;-)

  15. Ah, that makes sense. We do probably have very specific sorts of self-deception, and need to be on guard for that. I often catch myself inflating the object value of my "skills," things like bluntness.

  16. This is your one chance. Take the Lord Marshal's offer and bow.

  17. Seriously, do you think anyone is going to get that reference? I mean, I did, because I love that movie and I think it's awesome, but there aren't any other fans of it.

  18. "Values? What a bunch of rubbish. Might makes right, end of discussion. "

    You're an idiot. "Might makes right" is not even a coherent statement.

  19. I've always viewed "might makes right" as one of those positions that you can't really refute, but you don't really need to bother with because barely anybody really believes them in the first place.


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